DEI Fatigue: Time for some home truths (image with person sleeping on desk)

‘DEI fatigue’: it’s time for some home truths

Diti Bhasin, MBA, Principal & Chief Strategy Officer

It’s not hard to spot the signs.

Your most vocal team members who championed diversity, equity, and inclusion from the moment they started at your company have gone mysteriously silent. Your managers have to repeatedly remind their teams to attend your inclusion training seminars, and those who do show up are barely attentive, sneaking looks at their emails as the presentation drones on. And perhaps the most glaring sign: all the new hires who helped you hit your DEI representation targets last year have now left the company – and so it’s back to square one.

If this sounds familiar, I hate to break it to you, but your organization is going through ‘DEI fatigue’, that sinking feeling that the diversity, equity, and inclusion journey you embarked on so enthusiastically a year or two ago is just not working out. Right now, for you, DEI feels like a boulder you’re pushing uphill every three quarters of a financial year, only to have it roll down again in the fourth.

This is not a new scenario for me or the team at Flexability. It’s often at this point in an organization’s DEI journey that we’re brought in as a kind of Hail Mary pass. Yes, it’s great to acknowledge when you need help, but it’s just as important to understand what got you here, to begin with.

So, here are some home truths about DEI fatigue that leaders who are serious about organizational change must confront.

What causes DEI fatigue?

Powerless committees

DEI fatigue typically sets in when an organization’s efforts around diversity are made the responsibility of a committee that is given neither the power nor the resources to effect any real change. The committee members probably volunteered enthusiastically enough for a chance to help lead change … until they realized that this was going to be a ton of extra, unpaid, and, often unrecognized work.

The fix: DEI work is complex and time-consuming. If you’re not willing to bring an unbiased third party on board, then consider a full-time, paid leadership role in your organization to move this goal forward. Too often, employees of color are expected to take this on, when in fact it’s not their responsibility.

No accountability

If the DEI committee, despite all the challenges, manages to get the work done, too often the reports it produces are dutifully filed and tabled, but the recommendations are hardly ever acted on. Failing to act on these recommendations sends a signal to your team that this effort isn’t being taken seriously. It hardens the positions of those who were resistant to change in the first place and silences those who were working toward it.

The fix: Set targets around DEI and share accountability at all levels in your organization.

Unhelpful targets

A common pitfall we see is organizations making DEI only about representation quotas. Added to this is recruiting diverse talent in junior positions while your company leadership is anything but. Either way, while it’s important to recruit diverse talent, getting people in the door doesn’t solve your problems. The ultimate indicator of how you’re faring with DEI is retention.

The fix: If your diverse talent is leaving quickly, then it’s likely that they’re experiencing bias (conscious or not) while working in your organization. One way to get to the heart of the problem is to have 360-degree performance reviews that allow team members to rate their managers, rather than just having managers rate subordinates. Create avenues for employees to speak about their concerns – and, of course, when they do speak, listen.

Clumsy, overreaching solutions

There is no quick-fix, one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to DEI. And a mistake that many organizations make is trying to move too quickly and too broadly. Think well-meaning, but ultimately meaningless, cultural celebrations or series upon series of training seminars. The result: you spend considerable amounts of money on events and get little in the way of value.

The fix: Start small. Think about the demographic you’d like to target for the biggest impact. We often choose to focus on middle managers. They are the ones who tend to have the greatest impact on employee experience. Creating activities for middle managers can often be more meaningful than organization-wide training.

Another idea is to begin by making things like holidays more inclusive. Too many workplaces still only provide time off for Anglo-Saxon holidays such as Christmas. Instead, consider giving all employees a set number of days they can take when they choose to observe the celebrations that are important to them.

But what if we’re too far gone?

If you find yourself in the unenviable position of already having made all of the above mistakes, you’re probably wondering if the situation is salvageable.

The best thing to do if you’re at a point where it seems both management and team members no longer have any enthusiasm for DEI is to, for a while at least, stop making big gestures.

Instead, focus on the changes that the leadership team can achieve on its own without getting the buy-in of the whole organization – for instance, changing policies that aren’t inclusive, or breaking down structural inequities (gender or racial pay gaps, for instance).

Most importantly, stop trying to fix it yourself. Get an independent, unbiased third party on board.

Team members who have lost faith in your organization’s commitment to change are unlikely to feel safe enough to speak plainly to you about what they think is going on. They are more likely to engage with a team of professionals who can confront issues of bias or toxic culture seriously and sensitively.

And it’s worth doing.

Because here’s the biggest truth about DEI fatigue that organizations need to confront: DEI is not going away.

Teams that are diverse and inclusive are already proving to have a competitive advantage. Consumers are showing with their wallets that they want to support brands that embrace equity, inclusion and diversity and related issues.

More than that: tolerance for toxicity is wearing thin. Employees all over the country are walking out of toxic workplaces. If you think getting DEI right is expensive, the cost of losing top talent is much higher.