Perseverance: The Unwritten Requirement

By Georgianna Meléndez, Chief Diversity Officer, University of Massachusetts Boston

The role of a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) has many unwritten requirements in the job description and one of the most important requirements is perseverance.

In preparing to take on my first role as CDO, my mentor gave me some advice that, as it turns out, was dead on. Specifically, that if it was important to me to have people like me, this might not be the job for me. I bristled a little because who doesn’t want to be liked by their colleagues?  The reality is that change ruffles feathers even when change is invited. If you are rolling out new policies, practices, and standards, even with training in place, some people will be unhappy. While I have been treated well by most of my colleagues, some have also yelled at me, sworn at me, attacked my reputation, have attempted to undermine my work and so on. It’s important to remember it’s not personal. Your work/role is on the side of justice and equity. In order to be effective in that role and maintain your sanity in the face of backlash or retaliation, you MUST have the support and backing of leadership. It has been critical for me.

For example, if you are rolling out a policy and your colleagues seek a waiver from being required to follow it, you’ll want to be sure first, to have a policy that details circumstances under which a waiver would be considered. If the rationale for the request is important enough for a waiver to be granted then it’s important enough to include it as part of the written policy accessible to everyone. When you refuse to grant a waiver, there will be circumstances under which your colleagues will go above your head in search of their desired outcome. This is where backing and support from leadership can shine. Be prepared for the possibility of vocal and visible disgruntlement. Yes, we are in a professional environment, and yes, most of your colleagues will be professional in their responses. At times some colleagues behave in surprising ways.

Dealing with this kind of behavior, holding your head up high, and staying the course in striving to achieve the goals is where perseverance comes in. Utopia is where a CDO is not needed and where all proposed strategies are embraced by the impacted community. Ah, utopia…just because you have grit and can stay the course does not mean you don’t’ have feelings about it.

More often than not, the CDO’s themselves are members of the federally defined protected classes under Title VII. Their identity may also have an impact on their experience as the enforcer/implementer of rules. They are not exempt from the microaggressions, of bias, or other similar experiences in the workplace. These identities have been attacked by even colleagues who share those identities. If you are doing your job correctly, you are looking to make sure the environment is free from discrimination/harassment and that opportunities are fairly accessible. This inclusion is for everyone, not just members of a protected class.

Staying focused on a mission, having a support network, having coping strategies, and remembering it’s not personal all help you persevere. It may not be in the job description, but you cannot do the job without it.