According to Atlassian’s 2018 State of Diversity report, employees were 50% less likely to participate in diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives than they were the previous year. “Diversity fatigue,” or exhaustion from discussions around diversity and inclusion, is a very real issue at many companies. At Peoplism (we’re a D&I+ consulting firm), we see many organizations where employee and executive interest around D&I is starting to fizzle out.
People feel discouraged and disillusioned that progress is possible, so they give up trying to make any. And when companies and employees give up, quite predictably, progress stalls. That’s why “diversity fatigue” is a real threat, and why you should be taking steps to prevent it at your company. The following tips can help.
1. Set realistic expectations around D&I work
Issues related to diversity and inclusion are infinitely complex and there is no silver bullet that will solve them overnight (or even over many nights). At their heart, they deal with inequities in race, gender, etc. that have been baked into the fabric of our culture. This means that progress is going to be hard-fought over a long period of time, require significant resources, and, in some cases, require taking two steps forward to take one step back. The better you can communicate the long-term nature of this work, the less disillusioned people will feel when your diversity and inclusion issues are not magically solved after one or two years of effort. Of course, while you’re on that uphill climb, it’s completely possible to have small wins and necessary to celebrate them along the way.
2. Set small-win goals that are clearly defined, discrete, and measurable
If small-win goalposts are unclear, progress can’t be seen. An often overlooked area where companies can set small tangible goals is around inclusion and belonging. You can clearly articulate and measure goals around inclusion and belonging in two ways.
First, you can focus on efforts, for example: “host 6 lunch and learns where employees talk about an identity that is important to them” or “put all managers through a workshop series about running more inclusive teams.” At the end of the year, you either took those actions or you didn’t.
Another way to articulate and measure goals around inclusion and belonging is by adding inclusion and belonging questions into your yearly or quarterly engagement survey. Then, set goals around percentage agreement to inclusion statements overall (e.g. percent of underrepresented employees who agree to the statement “I feel like I belong at Company X”). Alternatively, you can set goals around reducing the gaps between different demographics who agree to certain questions (e.g. reduce the 10% gap that exists in agreement to the statement “I feel included on my team” between men, women, and underrepresented genders.)
3. Communicate your efforts to the entire company regularly
Many employees are kept in the dark about their company’s D&I efforts. Employees hear an executive declare diversity and inclusion is a priority, then hear little else, and as a result, (understandably) get cynical. It’s important to keep your employees up to date about what you’re actually doing to increase diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging. We recommend to all of our clients that they announce overarching details about their efforts quarterly in full company meetings. We suggest articulating how each effort is helping to meet a larger company goal around D&I, details of how that effort was advanced in the past quarter, and the outcome of the effort. We also recommend that, at least yearly, someone gives a report to the entire company about progress made toward overarching D&I goals, and announce new goals for the coming year.
4. Empower individuals to take action
While there’s no magic bullet, it’s important for employees to be empowered with small tips and tools for ways they can help build a more inclusive workplace. Having an idea of specific things they can do, and creating space for them to generate and act on some of their own solutions helps to fight the sense that D&I work is “all talk” and “no action.” Some examples of concrete tools include:
5. Don’t dodge the elephant in the room: address “isms” and systems of oppression head-on
Biases and stereotypes are a major contributor to the lack of diversity and inclusion currently plaguing most industries. No company is going to be able to fully achieve its diversity and inclusion goals without leaders (and all employees, really) doing the hard work of challenging their own biases. While an unconscious bias training can be a good starting point, becoming aware that bias exists is not the same as becoming less biased. Companies that are serious about moving the needle should engage in conversations that undermine systemic biases and stereotypes, help participants identify and challenge their own personal biases, and understand how bias plays out at your company specifically.
D&I+ work can be draining. But keeping motivation around this work high is our only shot at making real progress. Setting clear expectations and goals, reporting regularly on progress, giving employees small wins, and addressing these issues at their core is our best bet for preventing "diversity fatigue" from becoming full-blown diversity burnout.
How to empower diverse teams