A Potential Cure for ‘Diversity Fatigue’

I recently read an article by a Canadian diversity colleague on the topic of what he called “diversity fatigue.” What, you may ask, is diversity fatigue? He described it as “the Herculean effort required by diversity practitioners to keep the momentum going through the toughest economic crisis since the Depression. It is trying to sell and repackage a business case for diversity by showing specific return on investments at a time of limited dollars for any corporate imperative. It is figuring out how to creatively communicate diversity in an extremely time-scarce environment when people struggle to do more with less. It is maintaining the gains with front-line managers (the so-called frozen middle) who ask “when will this diversity thing end? Have we not handled it by now?” It also includes the endless task of breaking down silos between equity-seeking groups who only have interest in their particular dimension of diversity. This is what he called diversity fatigue.

There have been similar sentiments among U.S.-based diversity practitioners as well. I have attended meetings with colleagues here who talked about the lack of accountability and commitment of several layers of management, and others who feel diversity and inclusion has run its course. In addition, diversity practitioners I spoke with talked about their own personal fatigue in trying to “keep it all together” and maintain the focus on diversity as a worthwhile, valuable human and business endeavor.

I participated in a residential session some years back titled “Healing the Heart of Diversity” which was targeted toward seasoned diversity practitioners who needed a safe place to vent and “recharge” to sustain their passion for diversity work. They often said this need sprang from chronically being challenged on the value and need for diversity and inclusion. They felt like they were on a terminal “merry-go-round” where they experienced minor “wins” only to suffer major losses in a relatively short period of time. Just when it seemed their diversity change process was gaining ground, resources were lost, budgets were cut and interest waned. They expressed a sense of being “beaten down” and heard key leaders and managers express their hopes that this diversity thing would just go away. Yet, many of these practitioners continued to press on and fight for D&I’s continuance.

Recently, many D&I practitioners, chief diversity officers (CDOs) and others report that diversity positions have been downgraded and reporting relationships changed from the C-suite to what I call “the D-suite,” as in don’t count on diversity having a high priority in the future of our strategic organizational business objectives or acquiring a budget and resources to sustain it.

A research study by McKinsey & Co. and The Conference Board titled: “False Summit: Why the Human Capital Function has Far to Go” (Research Report R-1501-12-RR) appears to confirm these findings based upon responses from 517 human capital professionals. The respondents represented companies across the globe and included managers and senior executives spanning the human capital spectrum, including diversity and inclusion, compensation and benefits, talent management, leadership development, employee engagement, strategic workforce planning and organizational design. They were asked two questions as part of the study: “1) Current priorities: What do you consider to be the critical human capital priorities for you and your organization right now (last 12 months, coming 12 months – Rank top three), and 2) Future priorities: What do you consider to be the critical human capital priorities for you and your organization in the next 2-3 years – Rank top three). In both cases, diversity was ranked at the bottom of the list (last place and second to last place) receiving 9 percent and 12 percent of the votes respectively. The top priority in both the current and future priority ranking was leadership development and succession management, 63 percent and 65 percent of the votes respectively. Ironically though, these organizations didn’t appear to view diversity and inclusion as integral to the leadership development and succession management process. D&I was rated separately.

The researchers convened 18 focus groups that reported some of the following challenges for human capital (HC) professionals (which includes diversity and inclusion professionals):

A lack of capability. Human capital professionals are still unable to confidently and assertively solve business issues with line leaders and define the subsequent HC implications.

As a result:

• There are few or no strategy-related roles.

• Administrative burdens squeeze out the time HC leaders need to address strategic endeavors.

• HC leaders have low strategic “authority” with executives.

• HC executives have difficulty assessing deep strategic capabilities within the function.

A support function mindset. Human capital staff continues to have a support-function mindset, a low tolerance for risk and a limited sense of strategic “authorship.” These attributes often result in relatively low status among executive peers and no budget for initiatives. Some diversity professionals operate with a mentality of “keep a low diversity ROI measurement profile since they haven’t been asked for proof” … yet. That means they rarely take chances or create robust analytics beyond counting representation or reporting the number of activities conducted each year.

Some of the excuses I have heard for not developing an evidence-based diversity measurement strategy include:

• “That would take too much time.”

• “That would cost too much money.”

• “It wouldn’t be accurate since it’s just an estimate” — but what is a credible marketing forecast? A detailed process-driven estimate.

• “I don’t know how” — this may be closest to the truth since formal preparation for going into the diversity and inclusion field does not include diversity ROI metrics training and analytics as well as business acumen training. Many come into this field from staff functions, not line functions that require business ROI analysis and analytic skills.

• “I might find out that what I’ve been doing doesn’t provide value. I think we do a good job. We have good people in our department.” However, wouldn’t you want to find out the real impact and better align your work before your stakeholders and sponsors do?

Many of the excuses listed are based on myths that get in the way of delivering business-focused diversity solutions. As a result, these actions or “inactions” create excellent conditions for diversity fatigue and allow it to firmly take root in the organizational climate and culture.

An inability to relate the ROI or business impact of their function. The difficulty many human capital professionals experience in talking the business language of ROI prevents them from gaining buy-in for diversity sustainability, no matter how much it is needed. This inability results in:

• A paucity of data-driven analysis or, if it does exist, analysis that is not tied to financial measures or communicated well.

• Too little of the data-based forecasting needed to create “burning platforms” for issues related to diversity and driving business performance outcomes.

There is no one overarching answer to cure diversity fatigue. However, there are some actions that have already been successful for some diversity functions or are likely to be successful. We have specific facts and examples which validate the practice of consistently utilizing evidence-based diversity ROI approaches and provide evidence that they are solid game changers that help demonstrate and confirm diversity’s value and alignment with the business. In previous blogs, I have provided concrete examples of these practices and I will continue to do so.

The diversity function needs many things, but most of all it needs ROI skill development and a willingness to expand its reach; diversity professionals must suspend their own disbelief that what is accomplished in the field of diversity and inclusion is measurable in ROI and financial contribution terms. In essence we must get out of our own way to make and demonstrate progress. Diversity practitioners’ buy-in to master diversity ROI measurement skills is no longer optional. It hasn’t been for a long time. It is required!

Diversity and inclusion must take on the opportunities offered by improved diversity measurement methodologies and technologies, big data, and diversity-aligned strategic processes that create real and lasting change in all functions at all levels of the organization.

Diversity and inclusion functions, in order to beat fatigue and foster diversity engagement throughout the organization, must engage with the organization’s business leaders strategically. They must actively perform a strategic partner role that delivers business value. This means presenting richly detailed, fact-based diversity outcomes and results that matter to the bottom-line. This practice may not totally cure diversity fatigue, but it will take you a lot closer to sustaining the diversity and inclusion function as one which strategically matters to the organization’s success and moves diversity and inclusion up the business priority list.