Overcoming diversity fatigue

Companies pour a huge amount of effort into D&I, but those efforts are often not customised or communicated well enough

Thanks to changing social norms as well as national regulations, it is now routine for corporate leaders to profess their commitment to D&I, and back it up with such actions as hiring chief diversity officers, disclosing firm-level data, setting up employee resource groups and launching special mentoring programmes. Promisingly, in a Russell Reynolds Associates’ Diversity and Inclusion Pulse survey of more than 1,800 executives worldwide, nearly 80% of executives across all sectors agree that D&I will improve the performance of their organisation.

However, when it comes to specific results, such as creating diverse teams and inclusive environments, the numbers drop precipitously. Just 40% of employees see their leaders setting and communicating D&I goals, suggesting that lofty goals are not translating into actions. And fewer than four in ten (37%) believe their organisation is effective at actually retaining diverse talent, meaning the majority of firms fail to effectively follow through on programmes.

These gaps resonate with a similar finding from a recent BCG study. While 98% of companies have diversity programmes in place, only 25% of employees representing diverse groups feel that they have personally benefited from them.

When good intentions and hard work don’t produce results both leaders and employees begin to feel diversity fatigue. This is a term that can have many meanings. But at its core it is about losing hope that the status quo can change. Leaders become tired of promoting ideas that gain no traction, and employees become tired of hearing more promises that are destined to fail. As a result D&I is often viewed as a public relations exercise rather than a meaningful attempt to transform an organisation.

To overcome diversity fatigue – or avoid it in the first place – leaders need to work smarter, not harder on their D&I initiatives. Here are three ways they can begin to do that:

Diagnose the specific D&I challenges the company is facing rather than relying on a standard set of programmes or initiatives

Nearly all D&I efforts sound great on paper, yet not all will address the issues at hand. If the problem is a fundamentally misogynist culture, simply offering on-site childcare options will not be effective. Similarly if D&I efforts primarily focus on recruiting diverse employees, but few stay with the company long term, then the investment, while a step in the right direction, may be misplaced.

Far too much effort is spent on the wrong solutions or even in addressing perceived challenges without taking the time to uncover where the real problems lie. This is frustrating for all concerned. Effective D&I strategies start with understanding the unique pain points within an organisation, defining the groups of people who most need to be served and making investments based on this data. An open and honest dialogue with a broad and diverse range of stakeholders is critical to success.

Encouragement from the top is crucial, but organisations also need to ensure functional and business unit leaders are reinforcing the importance of D&I in daily operations

Many CEOs have stepped up to show their support for D&I – an essential and irreplaceable part of making it an organisational priority. However, if the next tier of leaders across functions and business units is not actively promoting D&I in the daily operations of the company, few employees are likely to feel the effect of the organisation’s D&I investments. Leaders can be visibly inclusive in their approach by simply being open to different ideas and seeing the value in a range of perspectives.

One way to ensure support for D&I cascades throughout the organisation is to track both employee demographic and sentiment data carefully, and ultimately tie managerial rewards to it.

Make D&I relevant to everyone in the organisation, not just diverse groups

One common failing of D&I initiatives is that they focus exclusively on diverse groups and fail to engage those who may not consider themselves diverse. As a result, a significant portion of the organisation may not know how to support D&I, or even how deeply others are affected by a broken culture. For example, men are about twice as likely as women to feel there are no barriers to their organisation’s D&I strategy, according to our Diversity and Inclusion Pulse survey.

Training courses that teach people how to surface and embrace differences may be a first step to building firm-wide traction for D&I. Longer term, initiatives that offer employees tangible and specific ways to support those who are different from them – LGBTQ ally programmes for example – can help bridge the divides and discomfort that may exist.

Promoting diverse and inclusive environments requires a robust commitment to change management. By approaching it thoughtfully and strategically rather than reacting out of fear or social pressure, leaders can ensure their D&I efforts will be effective and worthwhile over the long term.

Veena Marr is a member of the technology sector at Russell Reynolds Associates