Eliminating the Diversity See-Say Problem: Lessons from the Clinton Campaign
Publication Date: November 3, 2016

Nasdaq recently spoke with Bernard Coleman III, Chief Diversity and Human Resources Officer of the Clinton campaign. Coleman shared his thoughts on nurturing a culture of diversity in a field typically dominated by white males, finding diverse leadership talent, and “embracing the uncomfortable.”

Coleman is the first chief diversity officer ever hired for a presidential campaign on either side of the aisle. He was tasked with helping create a staff that was reflective of the electorate Secretary Clinton is wooing, and he has done so very successfully: the campaign is staffed with 38.7% people of color and 54.8% women. Equally impressive is the diversity among Secretary Clinton’s senior leadership team, which is currently staffed with 33.2% people of color and 49.2% women. The vast majority of the campaign staff are millennials.

Q: Many companies struggle with improving diversity incrementally, let alone achieving gender parity and racial diversity of over 30% at the senior leadership level. What can corporate America learn from the diversity strategy executed by the Clinton campaign?

A: First, any diversity strategy needs to start at the top. Diversity has been important to the Clinton campaign from day one by virtue of the Secretary’s vision and her commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The Clinton campaign has executed a diversity plan that echoes the Secretary’s values and we make sure it washes over the campaign, and had buy-in from the entire staff—including senior staff, mid-level managers, and our volunteers. We have strategic diversity indicators and standards that ensure we’re accountable for achieving diversity, inclusion, cultural competence and equity.

Unfortunately, many organizations have a see-say problem: their HR departments and websites state one thing about their mission for diversity, but when you really get inside the organization the culture does not reflect what they’ve been saying. Buy-in and true commitment can only come from the top, from leading by example. You can’t change the culture if you’re not authentic in your commitment to changing it. Employees see right through that and it undermines future efforts of the organization to find diverse talent.

Q: Speaking of finding diverse talent, where did you recruit diverse leadership staff for the campaign?

A: Staffing a campaign is different than staffing a corporation, but certain aspects of the process apply to both. For organizations outside of the campaign world, it starts by not limiting the definition of “what does qualified leadership look like?” For example, if you believe your senior leaders always have to come from the same top five Ivy League schools, you’ve severely limited the pool of available talent. Organizations need to get very strategic, almost surgical, in terms of locating networks and resources that are dedicated to finding and attracting diverse talent. Companies need to craft better job descriptions by identifying what success of that role looks like, versus what the person in the role looks like. That exercise alone will change and expand the search parameters.

All of this takes a lot of leg work, and there are no shortcuts.

Q: What are the key components of an effective diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy?

A: Don’t look at diversity and inclusion as a problem. Diversity is an opportunity disguised as a problem. When viewed as an opportunity, the organization tends to proceed strategically and proactively, as opposed to just reacting when the issue is exposed. The diversity of Secretary Clinton’s campaign staff is bearing all kinds of fruit: we are representative of the electorate, so we are able to differentiate ourselves and frame messages that resonate with different constituencies; we understand where voters are coming from on the issues; it prevents myopia and better informs the campaign; and it makes us more innovative in terms of how and where we present our positions to the American people.

Embrace the uncomfortable. Recognize that inclusion and diversity go hand in hand. A lot of organizations focus exclusively on diversity as it relates to hiring, yet they forget inclusion. If people don’t feel valued, heard, and included, they are going to leave. When they DO have their essential needs of being valued and belonging met, they’ll stay and they’ll go above and beyond. So you need to research your target market, do some homework to understand why certain groups are underrepresented, and identify the barriers those folks face to getting in and feeling welcome. And once you bring new hires aboard, you need to be prepared to evaluate as well as break the hiring processes that don’t work and embrace the fresh new ideas coming in with a diverse staff. Organizations simply cannot do the same things the same old way and expect a different outcome just because your staff is more diverse now.

Assign a value to it. The organization needs goals and measurements tied to diversity, so it’s easier to track and not an intangible thing. Staff needs to fully understand there is a real value associated with diversity and inclusion. Incentivize this effort —perhaps it’s providing public acknowledgement to the achievement or tying a bonus structure to meeting the overall staffing and retention goals the company has set for diversity— this helps people resist the urge to shortcut recruiting processes and motivates them to nurture a more diverse and inclusive culture.

Q: What are the elements of an inclusion strategy that take an organization from “say it” to “see it”?

A: The elements of a diversity strategy need to be varied, so employees aren’t just force-fed diversity training, but the company begins living and breathing it organically.

Take an assessment. Literally ask diverse employees “What would make you feel more comfortable here?” At our campaign headquarters, it’s very refreshing to walk around and see so many different faces, representing so many views. We have people wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts, we have LGBT flags hanging from the ceiling. There’s something welcoming for everyone, and it feels like an inclusive environment the minute you step foot in the door.

Have a buddy system. We implemented this within the campaign, which is headquartered in New York. For some staffers who had never lived in New York or worked on a campaign, we realized it could be overwhelming to adjust at the same time they were coming up to speed on a fast-paced work environment. It helped them acclimate to campaign life in the city by having a fellow staffer assigned to show them on a practical level how to navigate this new environment.

Establish employee resource groups. This may seem counterintuitive, as the whole point of inclusion is mixing and mingling, but sometimes people want to take refuge in their respective “tribes.” They feel comfortable seeing other people like them, or at least knowing they have the option of joining these groups, if they need it. ERGs can be of great support for employees who have recently come on board, adjusting to the speed of the campaign, the responsibilities of the role and adapting to the culture. It’s a supportive effort to acclimate as quickly as possible and feel confident while doing so.

Assign formal advocates/mentors. With the campaign, we have developed a program called “Talk to Me” which provides an empathetic ear to staff when something is going on at an interpersonal level that might be causing strife for that person. This is for issues within the individual, versus providing support to acclimate to a new city or neighborhood as the Buddy System does.

Offer a multifaceted curriculum of diversity education. When diversity training becomes mandatory or too top-heavy, it has the tendency to make people do the opposite intent of the training. When we educate children, we adapt teaching methods to their personal learning styles, and the same concept applies to adults. So it’s important to provide diversity education and information in a variety of forums and through multiple channels. As a result, employees feel included, feel supported, empowered and know the organization is living its values.

The future of America.


Bernard Coleman leads Hillary for America's (HFA) Diversity and Human Resources initiatives. Prior to joining HFA, Bernard served as Deputy Chief Diversity Officer and Director of Human Resources at the Democratic National Committee. He also held senior level positions with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Society for Human Resource Management.