Diversity Fatigue: What It Is and Why It Matters

by Valorie Waldon, B.A., SPHR, SHRM-SCP Director, Human Resource Services

Bulletin,  Diversity and Equity,  Hiring,  HR Expertise and Support,  Organizational Development

Diversity fatigue. The term was originally coined in the 1990s to describe the stress associated with management’s attempts to diversify the workforce through recruiting and retention efforts. Over recent years, it’s taken on an expanded meaning, to include people just feeling tired of talking about diversity, or the lack thereof.

Diversity fatigue shows up in a variety of ways. It can trigger distress in those that are committed to the work but see inadequate results. It can cause irritation for those that see diversity work as being merely for the sake of political correctness. For those that see it as a strategy used by organizations solely to enhance and further their brand, it can cause frustration.

Regardless of how it shows up, there are several reasons cited as contributing to diversity fatigue.  According to Audrey Gallien, Senior Director in Catalyst’s Learning & Advisory Services, fatigue sets in when companies don’t build the skillsets an organization needs to understand the intrinsic benefit of increasing diversity. Diversity is often communicated as a target number or percentage rather than by building a connection between humanity, empathy, and vulnerability. A focus on hiring more diverse employees can make it a numbers issue, rather than a human, or even a bottom-line business issue. In fact, according to Mercer, diversity fatigue occurs when organizations do a lot of diversity talk but don’t walk the walk.

For over a decade, companies have made an effort to show their commitment to diversity, and more recently, inclusion in how they recruit, manage, and develop employees. Many organizations have introduced positions dedicated to their diversity efforts, often with the title of Chief Diversity Officer. In fact, the business case for diversity remains strong for many executive teams. According to a 2019 McKinsey report, the most diverse companies are now even more likely to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.  They also found that the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. While the likelihood of outperformance for companies with more than 30% of executives being women is high, the likelihood of outperformance is even higher for diversity in ethnicity than gender.

The World Economic Forum reports that a Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation than companies with lower diversity. Given these types of numbers, we are seeing that the desire for diversity in leadership is gaining momentum. With such compelling reasons to pursue diversity, how do we end up with fatigue? Companies are investing billions of dollars in diversity programs, and yet many of us heave a deep sigh at the mention of another diversity initiative. These deep sighs can be heard not just from majority employees, but also from those employees in underrepresented groups. What have we been doing wrong?


Often, diversity initiatives focus on top-down activities designed to control management behaviors. The three most popular diversity interventions tend to be mandatory diversity training, hiring tests, and grievance systems to allow employees to contest manager actions.  These guardrails can feel comfortable and familiar, articulating behaviors into a compilation of dos and don’ts that are easy to explain.  But, according to research done by the Harvard Business Review, the following three diversity interventions can make organizations less diverse, not more, because of manager resistance.

Diversity Training

The most sought after intervention of the three is mandatory diversity training. The positive effects of mandatory diversity training don’t often last longer than a day or two and can create a backlash. Following mandatory diversity training in companies in the Harvard Business Review study, the representation among African American women changed by – 9.2%, among Asian men -4.5% and Asian women -5.4%. Much of the decline is attributed to negative messaging in some diversity training. The threat of lawsuits and punishment don’t provide adequate incentive to change behavior over the long term. Also, mandatory diversity training has produced no significant improvement in the representation of women or people of color in management positions. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, five years after instituting mandatory training, companies saw decreases in the share of black women and Asian-American men and women in those roles.

Voluntary training with appropriate messaging, on the other hand, leads to better results. Five years after this type of training, organizations saw increases as high as 9% to 13% in the percentage of black, Hispanic, and Asian American men and women in management roles. Diversity training needs to have a positive foundation, based upon the presumption that participants want to be respectful, inclusive, and kind regardless of people’s racial or cultural background. This approach yields better results than the traditional approach of shaming and blaming participants from the dominant culture.

In addition, when voluntary diversity training is targeted at providing participants with skills and moving beyond awareness, long term positive results are more likely. Helping participants hone their communication skills and their ability to effectively involve difference are key components of training that addresses the concerns of real managers. Often, managers and employees struggle with how to have discussions that build relationships rather than cause alienation. How to be brave, supportive, and curious while being true to one’s self. The best training will help individuals learn those skills. Life will provide the opportunity to practice them. According to Catalyst, Flip the Script: Create Connections, Not Conflict, in Tough Conversations (November 28, 2018), words are powerful, and it is easy to shut down dialogue, even when that is not our intention. Based on their research, they provide guidance on using words that invite different perspectives so that people may feel heard in a simple to read infographic.

Beyond Diversity Training to Employee Experience

Diversity training done well can have a tangible benefit, as we’ve seen. And, for organizations to fully enjoy the fullest benefit of diversity, we must move beyond diversity training and employ a broader, more comprehensive approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Once we are successful at attracting a highly diverse group of employees, then what?  Our diversity efforts will have a greater chance of having a positive impact if we address the employee experience with intention. Employees who do not feel that they belong and are valued will respond in one of two ways. They will leave the organization for other opportunities, taking their skills and talents with them, or they will show up and leave the best of their talents at home. According to the Catalyst report “The Day-to-Day Experiences of Workplace Inclusion and Exclusion,” employee exclusion is costly to organizations with some of the consequences being compromised job satisfaction, lower sense of well-being, reduced work effort, and greater intention to leave.

When I think of the concepts of inclusion and exclusion in the workplace, it takes me back to the days of middle and high school. There was always the popular or “in” group, and everyone knew who they were. They seemed to have all of the advantages, and they walked the halls with a real sense of confidence like they owned the place. Hollywood tends to portray this group as the cool kids, the quarterback and the head cheerleader were among them. Then, there was always the “out” group made up of the least popular kids. This group of kids always seemed to find each other and band together. Hollywood has pegged this group as the brainy kids, as in the cohort on The Big Bang Theory. Each of these groups has created a sense of belonging and value among their own. Finally, there were always those kids that didn’t belong in either group. They wandered the halls feeling invisible, hungry to be recognized and welcomed into either group. When we grow into adulthood and enter the world of work, the assumption is often made that these experiences end. But they don’t.

 Diversity and Inclusion – Defeat Fatigue

According to a McKinsey & Company report – Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, there are five clear actions organizations can take to win through diversity and inclusion. Interestingly, this type of cultural change starts at the top, not with HR.

Place accountability for diversity & inclusion efforts with leadership and equip them for it. Define as an organization a vision of inclusion and create a visible system of rewards for managers that demonstrate inclusive behaviors. Help leaders develop their ability to be inclusive and to focus on things like building team cohesion. Leaders should commit to educating themselves on diversity, inclusion, equity, and bias, just as they would any other aspect of their work responsibility.

Bring down barriers to equity and equality through evenhandedness and transparency.  Equality is creating a level playing field, particularly concerning promotions, pay, and the criteria behind them. Equity means having systems in place that ensure that employees get what they need to thrive, whether it is access, resources, or information. Utilize analytic tools to check and verify that processes are without bias.

Make sure you have diverse talent. This includes thinking about diversity in broader terms than just gender and ethnicity. Diversity, at its core, is simply difference. It includes the traditional race and gender and also includes diversity of experience, culture, religion, political beliefs, religious beliefs, socio-economic status, and thought. Any and all of those things that make each individual unique. Cast a broad net in your recruiting efforts. Look for ways to bring diverse talent into a variety of roles, including technical and management positions.

Tackle microaggressions head on and refuse to tolerate bullying or harassing behavior. Microaggressions are those daily verbal or behavioral indignities that communicate derogatory or negative prejudicial insults toward another. They can be intentional or unintentional, and they are a big deal, although often overlooked as harmless. It is important to help managers understand what they are and how to address them, in the moment. They can even sound like a compliment, although when I was growing up, they were called back-handed compliments. For example, “Wow, you don’t sound black!!” was one I heard a lot. The American Psychological Association says, regarding racial microaggressions, “Some racism is so subtle that neither victim nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is going on – which may be especially toxic for people of color.”

Foster a sense of belonging through unequivocal support for multivariate diversity. It is important to create an environment where all employees can bring their whole selves to work. When employees feel undervalued, discounted, or excluded, expressions like “everybody counts” may backfire. Make sure that there is not a disconnect between what leaders say and the way that they behave. If everyone’s input is needed, pay attention to which voices are being heard and validated and which voices you do not hear. I remember sitting in meetings and speaking up with an idea, which no one heard. Five minutes later, a colleague would make the same suggestion, and the room would practically erupt in applause. That occurs in the workplace every day for many overlooked, excluded employees.

Diversity fatigue is real, and we can overcome it!  Creating an inclusive and diverse workplace can be a significant cultural change for an organization. Be sure to encompass the humanity of the change, not just the processes, policies, and numbers. Help managers develop the skills necessary to provide support to their employees by demonstrating regard for their skills, talents, differences, and their voice and by addressing anything that works against efforts to build a cohesive team. This can include programs, processes, systems, and individual behaviors. As organizations make significant progress in intentionally creating an environment for diversity to thrive, they will be able to leverage that talent and see greater organizational success.

About the author
Valorie Waldon, B.A., SPHR, SHRM-SCP Director, Human Resource Services

Valorie Waldon has been a consultant with Employers Council since 2007, most recently within the Integrated Human Capital Services department, and is now Director of the department. In her role she consults, advises and trains on issues such as HR metrics and analytics, performance management, recruitment and selection, and employee relations. Prior to coming to the Council, Valorie had over 20 years of human resource management experience in both the public and private sectors. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder and holds SPHR and SHRM-SCP certifications.