Diversity Fatigue: How Ineffective Training Hurts Workplace Inclusiveness

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The term “diversity fatigue” may be unknown to most people, but it is a growing area of concern for the American workplace and the culture at large. The concept — which contends that some forms of diversity messaging and training can have a negative impact on workplace inclusion — has garnered the attention of The Economist, The New Yorker, Harvard Business Review, and Time magazine in recent years, as this “fatigue” can have serious ramifications for employers and underrepresented job candidates and employees.

Frank Dobbin
Frank Dobbin

“In a way, the worst thing you can do is to make [diversity] training mandatory and to make it focused on the law rather than, for example, the business case for inclusion in the workplace and the need to be welcoming to different cultures,” says Frank Dobbin, PhD, a Harvard University sociology professor who has conducted large-scale research on the effects of workplace diversity training. Though Dobbin says he doesn’t use the term diversity fatigue himself, his work has been mentioned in numerous articles explaining the concept. 

In a 2016 study that tracked the hiring and promotion practices of 830 companies over the course of 30 years, Dobbin and research partner Alexandra Kalev, a sociology professor at Tel Aviv University, discovered definitive repercussions for employers who required managerial-level employees, who are predominantly white and male, to attend diversity trainings. “What appears to happen is that managers who are forced to go to training … tend to rebel and actually hire and promote fewer women and minorities,” he says. 

The research seems to indicate that mandatory training fails because people are resistant to the idea of being controlled or told what to do and think, he says. Conversely, at companies where diversity training is optional, the majority of managers and employees choose to attend on their own. “We see that voluntary training has … a statistically significant positive effect for some historically underrepresented groups,” says Dobbin. 

Similarly, trainings that focus on the law and legal costs of workplace diversity — such as the settlement costs of discrimination lawsuits — result in less diverse hiring and promotion than other kinds. Instead of focusing on the possible risk and punishment for breaking the law, it is better to present information about the benefits of inclusion, such as achieving a diverse workforce that is more representative of one’s customer base and society as a whole, Dobbin says. 

Tessa Dover, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Portland State University, and two of her colleagues, were inspired by Dobbins’ study to conduct their own research on how organizational messages around diversity and inclusion affect potential job applicants.  

Dover and her research partners created simulated job interview experiences where white male candidates were given recruitment materials from a fake tech firm. Half of the participants were given information that included messages about the firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, while the other half received materials that made no mention of diversity. They then participated in a videotaped standardized interview, during which Dover’s team monitored their cardiovascular stress levels and later had independent reviewers watch and rate the interviews. Those candidates who had read diversity messages experienced more cardiovascular stress and worse interview performances.

“What we think is going on here is that essentially [participants] read any sort of diversity message as exclusionary of their group,” says Dover. “They see these messages as putting them at a disadvantage and as implying that an employer is looking only for candidates from underrepresented groups and they don’t fit that category.” 

Both groups of participants, however, reported feeling equally positive about joining the simulated company. “A lot of participants said they really liked the diversity messages they were seeing but did report higher levels of concerns about discrimination and how they would be treated in the organization,” she says. 

She cautions that research showing the negative effects of some initiatives does not mean that organizations should stop diversity efforts altogether. “If companies really want to take diversity and inclusion seriously, then they should be willing to do surveys, look at data, and perhaps get bad news about how they’re doing so they can figure out ways to make changes,” she says. For colleges and universities, this process entails administering periodic campus climate surveys.

Raël Nelson James, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at The Bridgespan Group — a global nonprofit dedicated to ending poverty and protecting human and civil rights — has worked in diversity consulting for fifteen years. She says understanding how certain messages and trainings can lead to diversity fatigue are necessary for creating strategies that do not garner negative reactions. “A lot of my points of view have been informed by research I’ve read about some of the chilling effects surrounding mandatory diversity trainings,” says James. “I am very won over by that research and think there are ways to create diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in organizations that have a pull versus push strategy.” 

As the first director of diversity with The Bridgespan Group, she says she is currently helping the organization create opportunities for employees to opt in to conversations around race, gender, and intersectional issues in diversity. She attributes the growing focus on diversity fatigue to the fact that diversity work is a growing field in a society that is increasingly multicultural. “I think it’s on a lot more people’s minds because they have exposure to it,” she says, giving the example of widespread discussion over the lack of diversity in the large technology companies. 

An organization’s ability to develop initiatives that will help promote an inclusive company culture and diverse workforce requires a willingness to understand and be open about the negative ramifications of misguided diversity efforts, she says.

Mariah Bohanon is Associate Editor for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our May 2018 issue.