Executive Brief

  • Some industries struggle to weave a sense of belonging and inclusion into the company culture.
  • Research shows diversity programs that focus on legalese and compliance won’t inspire employees to change.
  • Human resources departments often see diversity as a recruitment problem only.

  • The diversity training sign-up goes around and people sigh at their desks. Events are sparsely attended and low in energy. The chief executive makes an appearance at the first training of the season, but then never mentions the word “diversity” again for the rest of the year.

    These are symptoms of something researchers refer to as “diversity fatigue,” a phenomenon affecting workplaces around the country. Even as diversity and inclusion programs have made progress within individual organizations, some industries still struggle to weave a sense of belonging and inclusion into the company culture.

    “So much of the diversity work is focused on awareness-building, and we’ve kind of been in that awareness-building phase for 30 years in some places,” says Rod Githens, associate professor of leadership and organization development at the University of the Pacific. “You hear all these depressing stats over and over, and there’s this perception that nothing is changing.”

    Part of the problem, Githens says, comes from a lack of transparency. Employees may see their organization “talking the talk,” so to speak, by organizing diversity events and increasing awareness of its importance. But until leaders are “walking the walk” and making systemic changes, employees may not feel inspired to do the same.

    “A lot of folks get the email that they have to go to diversity training and they roll their eyes because they’re busy, and it’s not connected to anything else in the organization, except for an email once or twice a year from the president or CEO saying diversity is a value,” Githens says. “And unfortunately, that’s what we see more often than not.”

    When a company pays lip service to diversity but the message doesn’t sink into the culture, the day-to-day experiences of individual employees may not change, says Dnika Travis, vice president of research at Catalyst.

    “Perhaps an employee of color or a woman or [someone] from a specific religion, they’re hearing the word ‘diversity’ and they’re feeling, ‘Whatever program or announcement or new sign in the hallway I see, it’s not going to make a difference. I still have to go in a meeting and deal with this team,’” Travis says.

    Symptoms of fatigue

    Some human resources departments see diversity as primarily a recruitment problem, says Carolyn Broderick, a human resources analyst and member of the Society of Human Resources Professionals’ Special Expertise Panel on diversity and inclusion.

    “We tend to have great technique around recruitment,” she says. But retaining employees is much more of a challenge if a company’s culture isn’t truly inclusive, she added.

    Part of the mission of diversity programs, she says, is to help employees feel connected to the company culture and connected to the larger mission of inclusion and belonging.

    Research shows that trainings which focus on legalese and compliance won’t inspire employees to change. If they paint attendees as the “bad guys,” they can even backfire.

    “It has to be ‘What can we do to reinvigorate this? To move this forward?’ Not ‘We’re not seeing the results and now you’re going to get punished,’” Broderick says.

    The negative tone can even create a feeling of resistance among employees, Broderick says.

    In some workplaces, minority employees are the ones tasked with much of the “diversity work,” meaning they’re expected to educate white colleagues and drive the change. But that doesn’t help to foster an inclusive culture. Instead, it lets leaders off the hook.

    “A white male may feel ‘This isn’t about me, so it’s not worth me going’ — that’s a form of fatigue,” Travis says. “And an employee of color would say, ‘I see a mixed message on the wall. I’m tired of us talking about diversity and not really living it on the day-to-day.’ Fatigue for a business line leader can be ‘how does this really connect to my goals I have to deliver?’ So it can mean different things. The more granular we get in this work, it may feel like it takes more time, but it’s important.”

    Fueling momentum from the top

    C-suite buy-in can do a lot to alleviate this sense of malaise, Broderick says.

    “In companies where [diversity initiatives] work, you have executive sponsors attending meetings, they get to know people and they really make it a priority, not just showing up at one event and doing a kick-off speech and then disappearing,” she says.

    When company leaders demonstrate they’re dedicated to improving diversity and fostering a culture of belonging, they’re communicating to their employees that this is a priority for the company.

    Simply hiring a head of diversity and inclusion won’t do that, Githens says. He recommends companies give their diversity and inclusion leaders some serious sway in company politics, rather than simply making these positions into figureheads or PR roles.

    “Actually giving the person authority [sends] the message that this person or this function is going to have influence over the changes we’re going to bring, rather than just being in an advisory role,’” he says.

    Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add more context on how diversity training affects company culture and the experiences of individual employees. The headline has also been updated.