DEI leaders are burning out from diversity fatigue: Here's how to survive

DEI leaders are experiencing high turnover due to insufficient investment and lack of support

DEI leaders are burning out from diversity fatigue: Here's how to survive

Diversity fatigue is on the rise.

HR leaders are increasingly exhausted and frustrated with their lack of progress in fostering diverse, inclusive and equitable (DEI) workplaces, says Ivori Johnson, a DEI expert who has previously worked at Google, Twitter and DuPont.

“Many DEI leaders feel tired and discouraged as they need more from CEOs, executives and managers,” Johnson, director of DEI and belonging at HR technology firm ChartHop, told HRD.  “Until we can address the systemic issues that exist within an organization, we won't be able to see true progress.”

DEI isn’t even considered one of HR’s top five priorities in 2023, according to McLean & Company's 2023 HR Trends Report. Its sixth-place ranking, which is down a level from last year (and down two levels from 2021), indicates that organizations are “failing to maintain momentum on their DEI work.”

The top barrier to progress is not enough time for dedicated DEI work (59%), followed by insufficient resources and funding (43%), inability to create a unified strategy (38%), lack of data (34%) and lack of leadership support (29%), according to the report.

“Diversity fatigue is real for lots of people,” says Dawn Frazier-Bohnert, executive vice president and global DEI officer at Liberty Mutual. “I would be fibbing if I didn’t admit to experiencing it. This work is long and hard and there’s no end. While we all want to be moving faster, other folks in the company may be asking, ‘Are we still doing diversity?’”

DEI departments’ high attrition rate

“Diversity fatigue” was coined 30 years ago to describe the stress associated with management’s attempts to diversify the workforce through recruiting and retention efforts, according to national trade association Employers Council.

It has ramped backed up in the HR discourse, in part, due to DEI departments becoming a game of musical chairs. For instance, the number of “Head of Diversity” positions hired globally skyrocketed 107% between 2015 and 2020, peaking in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, according to LinkedIn data. (“Director of Diversity” and “Chief Diversity Officer” roles grew 75% and 68%, respectively.)

However, there’s now a high turnover rate for those same DEI leaders.

Roughly 60% of diversity officers at S&P 500 companies left their positions between 2018 and 2021, according to a study by executive search and consulting firm Russell Reynolds. Furthermore, the study found that the average tenure of a chief diversity officer has decreased from three years to now less than two years. And many of those positions are being left unfilled, as listings for DEI roles were down 19% in 2022, according to findings from Textio.

“In 2020, we began to see many organizations creating DEI roles with the hopes of leaning into the effort, but we haven’t seen much progress across the industry,” Johnson says. “Many DEI professionals are now leaving organizations to search for more commitment.”

New DEI leaders thrown into pressure cooker

Frazier-Bohnert empathizes with the DEI leaders who were thrust into a pressure cooker post-Floyd and expected to transform an entire organization within only a couple years. Liberty Mutual had a head start over many companies, creating its DEI department in 2013 with Frazier-Bohnert’s arrival at the insurance giant.

“We’re in a different place than some of the companies who weren’t able to think through a process and the steps required,” Frazier-Bohnert told HRD. “They were jumping to things that took us years to get to. I’m not surprised that some of those companies who hired a diversity practitioner for the first time and set lofty goals are now thinking nothing has changed. That’s what happens when you’re not able to be thoughtful because you’re reacting versus being strategic.”

Frazier-Bohnert is leveraging the upcoming 10-year anniversary as an opportunity for her colleagues to reflect on how far they’ve come and refill their tanks for their next initiatives.

“We have to recognize that DEI is a process,” Frazier-Bohnert says. “We have to build small milestones along the way so we can feel we’re making progress and to remind ourselves there are some things out of our control that do impact our progress.”

More than a quarter (28%) of companies say their investment in DEI has stayed the same over the past year, and 18% have actually decreased their investment, according to Lever’s 2022 DEI Through the Recruiting Lifecycle Report. Perhaps that’s why only half of employees think their organization truly cares about DEI, while 39% think their organization views it as just a checkbox.

C-suite support is crucial for DEI initiatives

“We know that diverse talent directly affects business results, so, for some, the bottom line may be the motivation needed to evolve the workplace and talent roster,” says Linda Johnson, CHRO at Food Lion, a grocery chain serving the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

“But as a whole, DEI isn’t just a trend – it’s a genuine effort to improve the workplace.”

Food Lion has been invested in DEI for more than 30 years, sourcing from diverse suppliers and supporting organizations focused on economic development, job creation, racial equity and social justice. Last year, the company added its 10th business resource group (BRG) – devoted to caregivers – and grew all of its BRGs (aka ERGs) by 47% after Johnson made the decision to develop webinars to better engage remote and retail employees.

“At Food Lion, I have full support to make any necessary changes, although we’ve been continuously improving our DEI efforts for decades,” Johnson told HRD. “Companies that are committed to doing the work will do it. Those not committed will be left behind and struggle on the employee front because people can see when a company is genuine or not.”

HR leaders and DEI practitioners are calling upon the C-suite to step up and finally act on their grandiose pledges from 2020. Although more than half (58%) of DEI leaders say that their leadership team is actively involved in endorsing DEI decisions, only 13% of them believe that their leadership is proactively demonstrating support, according to a survey by compliance training provider Traliant.

“It’s important to have allies and sponsors at more junior levels of the organization, so if you do need to change the heart and mind of a C-suite leader, you have that support and credibility,” Megan Hogan, chief diversity officer at Goldman Sachs, which has recently doubled down on DEI, told HRD. “I wouldn’t say all hope is lost if the CEO isn’t initially on board because I’ve worked at companies where they were able to make sure that people within the business could influence the strategic vision of the CEO.”

Cures for diversity fatigue

Angela Cody, DEI director at petroleum provider Pilot Company, says when progress is lacking, she shifts her thinking by asking, “What am I going to do today to make tomorrow just a little better for someone else?” This one question leads her to strategic, thoughtful and sustainable steps that move the needle in small, yet significant ways.

Cody encourages those experiencing diversity fatigue to be intentional, set goals, “mix it up” and lead with purpose. “At Pilot, we celebrate the milestones and achievements towards our goals as often as we can, which fuels our team members during the hard days,” Cody told HRD.

“Don’t forget to mix up your content and delivery methods to keep things fresh and exciting. Write down your purpose or mantra in a place where you'll see it every day, whether that's a sticky note on your mirror or in your office. Vision creates momentum and that momentum wards off feelings of discouragement and frustration, keeping diversity fatigue at bay.”

Implementing a similar strategy to the sticky note, Frazier-Bohnert gave Liberty Mutual employees a red glasses pin to encourage them to see their actions through the lens of DEI. “It’s a fun way to prompt people,” Frazier-Bohnert says. “It’s not a gimmick – it’s a way to keep DEI in our frontal lobe.”

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