Diversity Training Might Contribute to ‘Diversity Fatigue’

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Apr 17, 2008

When asked about a variety of diversity training-related shortcomings, senior HR executives point to a lack of tools to reinforce training as the most common flaw they encounter in their organizations. 

A lack of metrics to evaluate training effectiveness is next on the list, with almost a quarter of respondents (24 percent) encountering this limitation. Nearly as many respondents (22 percent) noted that diversity was addressed in training but development and advancement were not.

The study, published in March 2008 by Novations Group, a Boston-based diversity and inclusion consulting firm, included responses from 2,500 senior HR executives.

Respondents said they had observed a lack of clear training objectives, material that was too U.S.-focused or trite, and a failure to deal with concerns of line managers as part of the training. 

Of the options provided, respondents had least to say about the facilitator’s skills or the coverage of the employer’s policies and practices.

“The findings should serve as a warning to both organizations and diversity and inclusion (D&I) program providers,” said Fred Smith, vice president of Novations, in a press release. “It’s the mistakes and shortcomings identified in the study that create ‘diversity fatigue.’ 

“The best diversity training has moved far beyond the one-dimensional, feel-good event and today needs to be held to the same rigorous standards as other corporate training,” added Smith. “Anything less cheats participants, wastes resources and undermines diversity efforts.” 

According to Smith, some of the deficiencies highlighted in the study apply to training programs in general. “Metrics, reinforcement and objectives are always essential and often lacking,” said Smith. “But some issues are particular to diversity training: line manager concerns, focus and the organization’s development practices.” 

Middle managers have to become part of D&I planning, even if they do not participate in the actual training, emphasized Smith. “To minimize flaws the chief diversity officer should build relationships with their middle management teams to gain buy-in and long-term involvement. Managers need to see a connection with strategic initiatives.”

Diversity Fatigue

Diversity practitioners must be mindful of diversity fatigue, R. Roosevelt Thomas, CEO of R. Thomas Consulting & Training in Decatur, Ga., told SHRM conference attendees at its 2007 Workplace Diversity Conference & Exposition.

As Time magazine columnist Po Bronson said in a May 2006 column on diversity fatigue, “It’s clear people are tired of walking on eggshells, afraid to offend those with different beliefs, ideas and lifestyles. It’s grown exhausting, and they want their lives back. The idea of diversity seems to have worn out its welcome. It is now like a house guest who has stayed too long.”

Diversity fatigue is sweeping America, according to Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder and president of New Demographic, an anti-racism training company. She says diversity training contributes to the problem.

In a May 2007 posting on her Race in the Workplace blog, Van Kerckhove said diversity trainers focus on the wrong things, such as celebrating diversity. She said many training programs encourage people—namely whites—to “hide” their biases while using people of color to help teach whites about racial matters.

“There’s an unspoken assumption that only white folks need to learn about race and racism, and that everyone else should share their stories and experiences in order to help their white colleagues achieve anti-racist nirvana,” Van Kerckhove continued. “This approach alienates people of color and makes white people feel angry and resentful.

“Racism is not just a white problem—we live in a racist society, and all of us have absorbed these racist messages, whether we are conscious of them or not,” she added.

A more fundamental problem, in Smith’s view, is diversity programs based on the premise that only employees must change. “Nothing significant will be achieved if the organization itself doesn’t look at its systems, biases and ways of doing things. There’s no return in changing the attitudes or awareness of participants if management also doesn’t make some of the right changes.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is manager of the SHRM Online Diversity Focus Area.


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