October is Black History Month in the United Kingdom. Many employers are celebrating this by championing new and innovative diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives alongside praising the accomplishments of people of Black heritage in their workforce, as well as Black leaders in society more broadly.

Beneath all of this fanfare, there seem to be two equally disillusioned camps. Both suffering from different forms of diversity fatigue, a term coined in the 1990s to explain disillusionment with diversity efforts and outcomes.

The first is comprised of the HR and other departments tasked with building a more equitable and inclusive workforce. DEI initiatives may capture the imagination of the C-suite and harness the ambition and enthusiasm of new graduates and entrants to the workplace. However, to the jaded eyes of middle management with limited time and resources, DEI initiatives may look like nothing more than extra work. The wall of inertia which DEI workers sometimes encounter with certain middle managers can leave both parties isolated, frustrated and exhausted in their efforts to create an diverse workplace. Classic signs of diversity fatigue.

The second camp is made up of two groups. The first is a group best described as unenlightened, they have no interest in being convinced of the merits of DEI.  This group cling to the notion of a colour blind meritocracy in today’s organisations in which anyone with the right amount of skill and determination will succeed, whatever the hue of their skin. The second is a group of the unconscious (who profess to be, and may well be, anti-racist) who are overwhelmed at the scale of the DEI industry and its efforts to tackle a problem which they think has largely been solved by progressive recruitment and retention efforts and diversity cheerleaders across the corporate spectrum. Both groups feel isolated, frustrated and exhausted at DEI efforts. Classic signs of diversity fatigue.

What is the solution to this? How do we re-energise groups that have ceased to regard DEI as a platform to attract and retain the diverse talent necessary for successful and sustainable businesses?

1 Know your audience (and widen it too): The starting point, as many are already aware, is to understand that the tools of engagement need to differ depending on the audience. For too many, including Black employees, just the term “diversity training” is enough to give rise to a collective groan. More innovative ways are urgently needed to engage with audiences that may already feel stifled at the volume of information being provided to them which they either already know or is insufficient to properly articulate the problem.

Diversity conferences and seminars can at times feel like they are predominately populated by people of colour; preaching to a choir of the converted. It is well understood that reaching beyond this demographic is crucial to resolving the diversity deficit in so many organisations.

2 Beware tokenism: For many companies, it is easy to shine a bright spotlight on a handful of individuals of Black heritage at the top of their organisations who are potent symbols of “success”. These gilded few legitimately sound the diversity horn loudly through the portals of social media on behalf of their employers. The effect is two-fold. It highlights accomplishment and drives inspiration. It also potentially reinforces the myth of colour blind meritocracies. Without an accompanying backstory on the challenges and trials of rising through the ranks as a person of colour, it potentially empowers diversity refuseniks and those with an unconscious bias to argue that this elite achieved success without the need for today’s burgeoning DEI industry. This view fundamentally ignores the additional hurdles black employees have to overcome to reach the same level as counterparts of other ethnicities.

Just 1 per cent of all partners at major UK law firms are black. This number is pitifully small.  And arguably, would be smaller still without the efforts of today’s DEI champions.

In practice, behind every successful Black leader, there are men and women of many different ethnicities acting as sponsors. It is these individuals we need to hear much more from, how they select talent, how they advocate for employees, how they balance the interests of all stakeholders with their Black workforce. Their voices on these issues are critical to the success of the next generation of Black leaders.

3 Privilege: To state that one is tired of diversity is ultimately to speak from a place of privilege. For those who cannot get access to, or equitable treatment in, corporate organisations, DEI initiatives are a powerful tool in breaking the barriers to meaningful success.

Exhaustion with the daily diet of diversity and inclusion served up on LinkedIn and other social media platforms is not limited to straight, white males. Black men and women also suffer from diversity fatigue. Black employees are not monolithic, we need to recognise the “diversity within the diversity”. The experiences of a foreign, Black African privately educated in the UK differ remarkably from those of a newly arrived Afro-Caribbean or a Black British employee from a socially disadvantaged background.

In addressing diversity fatigue, we must return to first principles. The established links between diverse teams and profitability. This powerful and credible argument for DEI draws a wider audience than those whose objectives stop at the boundaries of inclusivity and socio-economic opportunities for the black community. It picks up the sceptics, the weary and the overwhelmed.

No one is suggesting for a moment that DEI is just about the bottom line. The workforce today needs to reflect the customers and communities that it serves; Black talent is a critical part of this narrative. That said, DEI initiatives must go beyond mentorship programmes, HR policies and training sessions. To re-energise the disheartened, we also need to build new, innovative models of engagement and education.

The theme for this year’s UK Black History Month is action not words. Diversity fatigue is real; but a popular quote on fatigue reads “when tired rest, don’t quit”.

Musonda Kapotwe is a partner at Mayer Brown

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