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When to hire an external, organizational coach for your company's diversity and inclusion needs

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

There is more to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) than trainers, consultants, HR, and DEI staff. Each individual plays a role in addressing an organization’s DEI needs. Similar to baseball, many people with different roles are required for each to be successful, not just the most well-known, such as a baseball player. Similarly, when it comes to accomplishing an organization’s DEI goals, many people play a role.

How are the roles of coaches, trainers, consultants, HR, in-house DEI staff, and lawyers different from each other when dealing with DEI issues within organizations?

What do trainers do?

Trainers convey their knowledge to students about a specific subject that they can repeat across different lectures and to different audiences. Corporate DEI trainers typically teach on a topic required by law or introduce a concept abstractly. Trainings typically address the what, not the how. They explain the law or define terms, but they do not typically address specifically what the organization is facing or how to overcome challenges specific to that particular organization.

What do consultants do?

Similar to trainers, consultants are subject-matter experts that convey knowledge about the subject (e.g., harassment) from the consultant to the client with little to no input from clients. Based on their knowledge or knowledge they collect, consultants write reports (such as about industry best practices), tell the company what to do, or complete work that a company client outsources to them. For example, consultants can calculate the pay gaps at a client organization, write a report about how competitors deal with pay gaps, or tell clients what they should do to fix the pay gap, typically in a generic manner that may not consider factors unique to the client.

What do in-house staff (HR, lawyers, and DEI staff) do?

HR (human resources) staff also play a role. HR encompasses many aspects of organizational policy, such as pay, benefits, onboarding, and so forth. HR often only deals with DEI issues regarding company’s employees, not DEI for the company’s products and services, its contractors, or DEI of products it uses to hire individuals (such as bias in recruitment or applicant tracking software that uses artificial intelligence or AI). While people have the misconception that HR is responsible for all issues related to inclusion or discrimination related to the organization, HR employees of some organizations do not deal with inclusion issues at all or may deal with situations reactively rather than proactively. HR typically is reactive rather than proactive.

When HR (or DEI staff) deal with DEI issues, their focus might be more about administrative issues rather than on setting and achieving DEI goals for the organization. For example, HR or DEI staff might create a dashboard of staff demographics, turnover rates, and similar statistics. Alternatively, HR or DEI staff might fill out forms to the government for legal compliance purposes. Similar to consultants, DEI or DEI staff do not vet or have the final say every company communication, decision, or action. One cannot assume that HR or company leaders have thought through why they do what they do when it comes to inclusion. For discrimination complaints, HR might represent management, investigate complaints internally, or act as a witness at a termination. When such discrimination complaints are filed externally with a court or an administrative body, employment lawyers take over to defend the company against discrimination cases. However, company lawyers can be equally siloed in their thinking, expertise, and organizational structure as are HR and DEI staff.

What do coaches do?

What role can a coach play in DEI then? A coach (especially an external coach) is a third-party neutral who can facilitate insight to help an organization reach its DEI goals. A professional coach (especially a team, executive, or organizational coach) can reach across silos, solicit client input, and empower an organization to figure out exactly what inclusion goals it wants to set and how to reach those goals. While coaches can share information they know, the primary function of coaches is not to mentor or advise clients about a particular subject matter. Rather, coaches are process experts who guide clients through the coaching process. They facilitate thought, listening, planning, and accountability. Coaches also share insights to help clients become aware of their blind spots. The organizational client makes the decisions, creates the solution, and does the work or outsources some of it to consultants to implement the solution. Unlike a consultant, after a coach leaves, the client should know what they want to do. For example, through coaching, the organization may realize that the organization wants to focus its inclusion efforts on the most common reasons for discrimination complaints, such as disability discrimination, rather than actions that do not directly relate to accomplishing their goals (such as throwing diversity celebrations or generic, box-checking trainings). Coaches can help company leaders think through why they do what they do.

Alternatively, if consultants have already given a company a plan, that plan might be a cookie-cutter plan that the consultants give to all of their clients. The client might need help to figure out how to tailor that plan to their specific organization and then actually implement that plan. After consultants leave, the client company might also need to know how to actually do the work they outsourced. In addition, some things cannot be outsourced to consulting companies, such as taking over all decisions, communication, and actions that could result in discrimination complaints.

External coaches are not limited by corporate structure, politics, or blind spots. While some in-house HR or DEI staff may facilitate discussions or coach employees regarding DEI, they may have split loyalties that will make it harder for in-house staff to both facilitate and coach while also completing the other parts of their jobs. Having in-house HR staff facilitate conversations would be similar to a violinist who tries to both conduct an orchestra and play in the orchestra at the same time.

Example to show the difference between a coach, consultant, HR or DEI staff, and attorneys

To help differentiate between the roles of coach, consultant, HR or DEI staff, and attorneys, one can look to synchronized swimming as an analogy. In a one-session training, a trainer can define what swimming is, explain swimming competition rules, teach students about diving, or the history of sports. The consultant swims on your behalf in a competition, tells you to swim in the ocean every day for 2 hours, or gives you a report about the best practices of what Olympic swimmers did to win. The HR or DEI-staff equivalent for swimming tracks the demographics of who people swim or responds to you when someone injures you while swimming. The lawyer defends the swimming pool facility when a swimmer tries to sue the swimming pool facility or tells the facility whether its specific actions are illegal. The professional coach (as opposed to a sports coach) could help you figure out how to swim so that you can actually do it on your own, what type of swimming style you want to do, or how to rearrange your schedule to make time to swim daily or 2 hours a day. A team or organizational coach will empower you figure out how to swim cohesively with your synchronized swimming team.


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