Are you suffering from diversity fatigue?

It is time to move from a superficial observation of differences in gender, race, sexual orientation and age to focus on deeper differences that make every person unique.

The concept of diversity emerged from a 1987 Hudson Institute study, Workforce 2000, which forecast several dramatic changes to the North American workforce that would be predominantly caused by the exodus of the baby boomers. It contained the often-misquoted prediction that by the turn of the millennium 80% of the net entrants to the workforce would not be white, able-bodied men. When early diversity proponents quoted this, they often left out the word “net,” leaving the statement to imply that white men were somehow an endangered species. Either way, the report was accurate in predicting that the workforce of the new millennium would be more diverse — and an industry was born.

Two decades after the birth of the diversity concept, a US human resources magazine ran a fascinating series of essays entitled “The Pioneers of Diversity.” The series profiled “individuals who blazed the trail into workforce equality long before companies saw the value of workplace diversity.” I was honoured to be part of this distinguished group of 30 and to comment on the state of diversity at that time. We were asked to write an essay on where diversity came from, where it was at the time and where it needed to go. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that most of us believed that we had reached a standstill with diversity and that it needed to evolve, if not transform. One individual suggested that if diversity did not evolve it would be in jeopardy of becoming irrelevant to the future business agenda and go the way of the dodo. So, almost a decade later, I wonder if many organizations are facing diversity fatigue.

It has several symptoms but diversity fatigue can be summarized as the effort required to keep diversity on the leadership agenda in the face of competing priorities. It is dealing with questions such as, do we still need to talk about these types of things? or have we not handled it by now?

If diversity was perceived as stale-dated a decade ago, it certainly is in need of a transformation today. It is time to move the discussion from a superficial observation of differences in gender, race, sexual orientation and age to focus on deeper differences that make every person unique. While typical demographic dimensions of diversity can inform who a person is, they certainly cannot define that person. For example, my 30-year-old son resists being stereotyped as a typical millennial who is not likely to exhibit the same level of corporate loyalty found in his grandfather’s generation. He finds the generalization incredibly simplistic and deeply insulting. It’s not much better than the belief that because he is a young black man he must be prone to violence.

In his book The Reinventors — How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change, author Jason Jennings refers to a 2010 IBM study that found that more than 95% of global corporate leaders thought their current business models would be irrelevant in less than five years. As evidence that the world is changing faster than any of us could imagine, the study pointed to changes in technology, former Third World nations becoming manufacturing centres, and customers used to instant gratification getting exactly what they want when they want it for a price they are willing to pay. In such an environment every business model needs a serious reinvention. The area of diversity is now in that position.

We are at a critical juncture in the long quest to create more diverse, equitable and inclusive work environments for all. We need to make some tough decisions on which road to take from here. If your diversity program seems to have hit a wall, examine it for diversity fatigue. If it is to remain relevant to today’s business agenda, you may need to look for ways to reinvent, rebrand or re-create it.