Is There a Cure for ‘Diversity Fatigue’?

In a recent article in The Economist, columnist Adrian Wooldridge contends that employees are beginning to suffer from “diversity fatigue.” In brief, he argues, this is because “proponents of diversity often fail to acknowledge that there can be a trade-off: to get the benefits [of diversity], employers must be prepared for, and deal with, some problems.”

Those “problems” are that trust and cultural sensitivity don’t come easily among dissimilar groups. Building them, he argues, requires efforts on the part of employers that employees will inevitably find painful: mandatory training, menacing recruiting quotas, a requirement for unfaltering political correctness, and so on. Fighting the fatigue, per Wooldridge, requires that organizations be transparent about how painful diversity is to achieve.

With all the public discourse around diversity over the past year, it would be easy to assume that “diversity fatigue” is a new phenomenon. In fact, the term was coined in the late 1990s. As newsrooms worked to address their (still) startling lack of diversity, it emerged as a way to describe the specific form of mental exhaustion brought about by paying constant attention to cultivating a diverse workforce. It’s been a recurring theme in corporate diversity conversations ever since.

So, why is diversity still wearing us out, 20 years on and with relatively little progress?

It’s true that cultural change is a prerequisite for driving productivity and innovation gains from a diverse workforce, and that this change takes time and effort to effect. But Wooldridge is wrong to argue that employees should inevitably associate the work of diversity and inclusion with exhaustion. Employees’ ennui, and organizations’ lack of progress, are too often attributable to their approach to the subject.

First, organizations fail to give employees agency in contributing to the creation of a diverse workforce. Recruiting quotas are foisted upon managers by HR. Employees are warned against causing offense at all costs. Diversity feels foreboding. The organizations that are making the most progress in diversity instead give their employees information and encourage them to set their own goals. They do this by, for example, showing business leaders the diversity of relevant talent pools in their industry and then allowing them to decide on their own how to incorporate that knowledge into their recruiting strategy, or by making “inclusion” a competency on employees’ performance reviews but allowing them to choose how they’ll demonstrate it based on their interests.

Second, organizations tend to make diversity an effort in addition to instead of a part of employees’ broader goals. Employees must attend a diversity training. They are asked to participate in a “diversity day.” Diversity feels like a separate task. While training and discrete initiatives are important, they can’t be the only vehicle by which organizations introduce diversity to employees. If they are, employees will never make the link between diversity and their own or their organizations’ performance. Organizations do better when they embed diversity and inclusion more subtly into employees’ day-to-day work by, for example, encouraging leaders to demonstrate and advocate for inclusiveness as a competency required for advancement.

Diversity will always require work, but it needn’t be joyless.