Recognizing and Overcoming DE&I Fatigue

An diverse group of coworkers smile walking down hall

During ADP's Inclusion Summit 2022 virtual conference, Anita Ricketts, Head of Strategic Partnerships for DiversityInc, and Peter Trevor Wilson, a diversity pioneer and the founder of the Human Equity framework, discussed DE&I fatigue and strategies for overcoming it in the workplace. Here's a look at what DE&I fatigue is and how it occurs as well as what organizations are missing about DE&I and how leaders can make and measure true progress going forward.

Significant headway has been made in the DE&I space over the last several years, but there is still more work to be done. Although many employers made progress in expanding their diversity, equity and inclusion focus, efforts have stalled at some organizations due to DE&I fatigue.

ADP's virtual conference on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, Inclusion Summit 2022, included a session on addressing and overcoming DE&I fatigue. During the event, Anita Ricketts, Head of Strategic Partnerships for DiversityInc, and Peter Trevor Wilson, a diversity pioneer and the founder of the Human Equity framework, discussed this challenge and strategies for overcoming it in the workplace.

They covered what DE&I fatigue is and how it occurs, what organizations are missing about diversity and inclusion, and how leaders can make — and measure — meaningful progress going forward.

What is DE&I fatigue?

Before recapping the session, it's valuable to pause for this historical perspective from ADP's Chief Diversity and Talent Officer Bob Lockett, "Throughout history, we've seen the same pattern over and over. There's a catastrophic event, followed by a commitment to do better. There's some progress, but then complacency sets in. There are numerous examples such as the Civil War, the murder of Emmitt Till, Brown vs the Board of Education, the DE&I initiatives from the 1990s and the 2000s, and the murder of George Floyd. The question is how to sustain progress with DE&I efforts."

Here are some of the key details shared during the session.

For the past several years, DE&I efforts and initiatives have dominated headlines alongside a growing movement for social justice. The business case for DE&I has been established, and DE&I programs have become a regular consideration of HR departments. But despite all this attention and effort, many efforts fail, and some organizations and leaders have trouble maintaining momentum as well as motivation.

"Fatigue really comes when organizations have this kind of erroneous idea that DE&I is a project with an endpoint," Ricketts explains. "The organizations that really succeed in DE&I understand this. It's really an organizational and business need that has a cultural impact."

Tracking the wrong metrics can also lead to DE&I fatigue by failing to accurately represent progress. "I also think that organizations are not measuring the right things, and that can also really contribute to the fatigue — looking for signs of progress that aren't actually progress," notes Ricketts. "Things like how much money did we give? But without linking to outcomes."

Wilson added that focusing solely on representation is another common misstep. "The key part is that people think this is really just about representation, which is a relatively small part of the measurement conversation," he says.

Offering this perspective on outcomes beyond just representation, Lockett adds, "One way to sustain progress is to think about the DE&I ecosystem and tie it to economics. It starts when people from underrepresented groups get great jobs. Once that happens, there is an increased demand for products and services in the community where they live (such as child care, transportation, etc.). To meet those needs, entrepreneurs create businesses or existing companies step in to capture the market. And companies that provide business-to-business services also meet the needs of those new businesses, which means that their businesses may expand. And then guess what? They hire more people and the cycle repeats itself. This creates economic empowerment and expansion, which is good for diverse communities and the overall economy."

Why do some DE&I programs fail?

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is failing to benchmark their DE&I goals. "Sometimes organizations get lulled into this [idea that] we're improving year over year, but they're only looking at themselves," says Ricketts. "They don't know if they actually have a competitive position in the marketplace. And I think that's where benchmarking to understand your competitive position becomes key."

Another key misstep identified during the discussion lies in the absence of accountability for leadership. "Most organizations are not measuring leadership in this area," Wilson notes. "So how are you going to really hold people accountable?"

"One of the biggest opportunities that organizations [are missing] that leads to this fatigue and failure is really not adequately addressing that leadership and lack of accountability," Ricketts adds.

How can organizations do better?

Patience and perseverance are key to continued DE&I progress. Organizations need to reframe DE&I as a strategy rather than a project, program or tactical endeavor. At the same time, leaders must embody and facilitate the cultural shifts that foster DE&I inherently.

"When we talk about things like strategies that organizations can use to embrace equity and inclusion in the workplace, [they need to] make it easier for employees to perform at their best," Ricketts says.

Here are three strategies for embracing DE&I efforts that Ricketts and Wilson discussed:

1. Address microaggressions

Zeroing in on the real-life experience of employees can help organizations spot opportunities for improvement. "What I'm seeing now is more organizations looking at microaggression policies and procedures, starting the conversations about microaggressions," notes Wilson. "Because as you know, unlike macroaggressions — where we know for sure this requires a complaint and an investigation and somebody winding up in real trouble — microaggressions are not like that. That doesn't mean that it's not bothering you and impacting your engagement. And it's all of us. It's everybody in the workforce. It's not just leaders. It's all of us."

2. Contextualize analytics

Revisiting the topic of metrics, it's important to look at data in context and investigate disparities that could reveal deeper insights. "The qualitative matters," Wilson explains. "Representation and retention [in the] organization — that matters. [But] don't give it a higher rating [than] measuring employee engagement. From a group level, if the employee engagement of boomers is twice as high as the engagement of millennials, you really want to take a look at that."

3. Include ethics and integrity

It's crucial to adopt methods of measuring ethics and integrity in leadership and throughout the organization. Wilson describes how his firm added ethics and integrity to the list of behaviors that leaders need to have to create equitable inclusive work environments. "It's important for leaders to have a self-assessment on this as well as a 360 assessment," Wilson points out.

Energizing the future of DE&I

Creating lasting, meaningful change takes time. You wouldn't spend six months exercising and then expect to be fit for the rest of your life. Continued effort and attention are required.

When it comes to the cultural changes that support DE&I, a similar principle applies. In order to make real progress, we need to understand that DE&I efforts do not have an endpoint and that we must consistently work on all the challenges — big and small — that stand in our way.

Learn more

A recording of this session and more programming from the Inclusion Summit 2022 are available on demand anytime.