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Why HR Consultants Have Started to Worry About “Diversity Fatigue”


Why HR Consultants Have Started to Worry About "Diversity Fatigue"

Oftentimes, HR departments face an uphill battle in driving home the message of inclusion and its importance. A radio station host in a major U.S. city even made jokes on the air about attending “diversity training” when he was really out on the golf course or on vacation.

In a Feb. 13 column in The Economist newspaper, the author quotes late President Ronald Reagan who once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

A close second, the writer continues, are 12 words: “I’m from human resources, and I’m here to organize a diversity workshop.” It may be, the author writes, that some HR consultants have started to worry about “diversity fatigue.”

To offer encouragement, The Economist lists powerful reasons in favor of diversity, which is simply a fact about the modern world. The number of women in the workforce, mass immigration, regulations protecting the LGBT community, transgender people in the military and other rulings have transformed Western societies.

“Companies that ignore this may starve themselves of talents, as well as be out of touch with their customers,” writes The Economist. In addition, there is evidence to support the idea that people with different ideas and different perspectives can boost creativity and innovation.

So, why is there talk of diversity fatigue? The Economist cites David Livermore’s new book, “Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation through Diversity.” Livermore writes that he has been surprised by how many companies complain about lack of return for their investment in diversity.

One reason for diversity fatigue, he writes, is that workers may feel forced to attend seminars or be afraid of raising points of view that depart from the company’s “correct line” on diversity-related issues. Livermore contends that proponents of diversity don’t acknowledge there can be delays and trade-offs.

“Diversity does not produce better results automatically, through a sort of multicultural magic,” he says. “It does so only if it is managed well.”

He says the biggest challenge is establishing trust, because employees need to trust each other if they are to produce their best work. He recommends the following advice for managers of diverse teams:

  • Work hard at establishing bonds of trust.
  • Set many short-term goals so that the team can see the benefits of working together.
  • Recognize the diversity on your team by establishing norms for work processes. For example, Westerners may want to get started immediately on problem-solving, but those from Asian cultures may want to take a slower approach.
  • If quieter members in the group won’t speak up, give them other ways to contribute to the team’s effort.

Another challenge for companies, Livermore says, is to presume that everyone comes from the same background. For example, a Western company might tell its employees to act like an owner. In some cultures, however, that might mean playing golf all day.  

In addition, companies can’t approach diversity as if it were a checkbox by appointing the right number of people with the right biological characteristics. What if they all come from the same background? Is that diverse?

The Economist’s article makes two solid recommendations for HR departments and consultants:

  • Promote a culture that is as diverse as possible, but patient as well. “Companies will find it hard to make a success of diversity if they refuse to recognize that it brings challenges as well as opportunities.”
  • Confront any challenges by addressing reasonable questions that are raised about diversity policies.

The bottom line: diversity is just the starting point. Inclusion is a business imperative. Be inclusive!

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