DEI execs are burning out amid the billion-dollar push to diversify corporate America: 'It's hard to be both the advocate and the abused'

  • In the wake of George Floyd’s death, companies pledged new diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.
  • Much of the work required to push toward these goals falls to DEI executives themselves.
  • Without a change, executives say, their burnout could lead expensive diversity plans to fall short.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Doris Quintanilla is drained.

For over four years, she’s worked on corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion as the CEO and cofounder of The Melanin Collective — but never in a climate like today’s.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, her inbox has been flooded with requests from corporate and nonprofit leaders. They want change, and they want it fast. But at the same time, she felt many were not respecting her.

Over the past few months, she said, business leaders have yelled at her, sent her demeaning emails, and even questioned the existence of racism in corporate spaces, despite her expertise and her lived experience as a disabled Latina.

Doris Quintanilla, the executive director and cofounder of The Melanin Collective.Doris Quintanilla/The Melanin Collective

In-house DEI leaders are facing fatigue, too.

“There’s more work, but few resources,” said one head of diversity and inclusion at a Fortune 500 tech company, who spoke under the condition of anonymity for fear of career backlash.

When it comes to green-lighting DEI programs at the company, the source said, executives are all for it. But there’s little consideration of financially supporting the extra work that goes into making those goals come to life.

In-house diversity leaders and DEI consultants have similar but different challenges. They’re both tasked with creating change, but consultants face the added burden of not having the support of a team — or being part of the team — within the company they’re tasked with changing.

In 2020, hires of diversity leaders in the S&P 500 spiked to as many as a dozen monthly — almost triple the rate of the previous 16 months, showed research from the executive recruiter Russell Reynolds Associates. Yet it’s also a field that faces uniquely personal, emotional pressures for the people who work in it, and structural barriers often prevent transformative work from getting done.

Insider spoke with eight DEI executives and consultants, many of whom report feeling under-resourced and under-supported by their leadership teams. A terrible irony came to light: Corporate America is betting big on DEI professionals to address inequities — to the tune of $35 billion. But they’re at risk of burning out long before equity is reached.

‘You are literally the person who has to take it all in’

Randall Tucker, the head of diversity and inclusion at Mastercard.Mastercard

George Floyd died almost a year ago, but many DEI professionals still haven’t had much time to grieve or process the emotions and trauma they’ve experienced. Instead — to execute their companies’ various initiatives, pledges, and donations — they’ve had to get to work.

Randall Tucker — the head of diversity and inclusion at Mastercard, a $310 billion financial-services company that employs nearly 20,000 people — knows this all too well.

“I’m tired,” said Tucker, who’s been in the role for three years. “I think if any diversity and inclusion leader isn’t tired, they haven’t been doing their job, quite honestly.”

On top of helping to oversee a rollout of new initiatives within the company to increase diversity and inclusion, he’s had to struggle with his grief and anxiety in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. He said when he saw one of Floyd’s brothers, Philonise, talk about how much he misses his brother, he cried.

“I’ve been so worried about how we move the company forward. How do we move our employees and their well-being forward and give them the space to grieve?” Tucker said. “You are literally the person who has to take it all in and can’t really have the space to process your own feelings. It’s all business. It’s all work.”

And there’s much work to be done. Mastercard’s most recent diversity data from 2019 showed that 69% of its executives were white.

To prevent burnout, Tucker exercises twice a day. In the morning, he goes for a heart-pumping ride on his SoulCycle bike. At night, he hits the treadmill. Tucker also takes advantage of Mastercard’s vacation and personal-day policies when he needs a break.

Sacha Thompson, the founder and CEO of The Equity Equation, a DEI consultancy, is booked through July and is hiring another consultant to help manage the workload. She said she feels a mix of excitement and frustration. An emerging trend: Company leaders are genuinely interested in championing diversity, but they don’t understand that all areas of their business may need overhaul.

“I am actually seeing companies wanting to do the right thing, which is very different than a year or two years ago,” Thompson said. “The frustration is that leaders still are not looking at this as a business imperative. They’re looking at it as a ‘nice to have.'”

When work gets difficult, Thompson lights a tropical-scented candle and listens to guided meditations. “If I’m prepped ahead of time that a call might be difficult — where people feel they’re being forced to have uncomfortable conversations related to diversity — I’ll take a few minutes to center myself,” she said.

Conversations around DEI can be hard to navigate. Some leaders may get defensive, push back, and question a DEI professional’s lived experience when faced with constructive criticism. Other executives may share their stories of racism, which can be triggering.

“I don’t think a lot of these companies or organizations are understanding the impact,” Thompson said, “when those that are being asked to lead these efforts are part of that marginalized community as well.”

The need to keep a professional face means that people who work in DEI have to do a lot of emotional labor — regulating their feelings, reactions, and expressions — especially in tense situations. And a body of academic research has shown that lots of emotional labor may lead to decreased productivity, increased stress, and a greater chance of burnout.

When corporate executives fail to support their DEI colleagues, not only do DEI leaders have to engage in high emotional labor but they also experience a loss in motivation, said Janet Ahn, the chief behavioral science officer at Mind Gym, a psychology-based leadership consultancy.

“People really work hard and are intrinsically motivated to work when they feel they have purpose in their jobs,” Ahn said. “When that purpose gets blocked by an executive team, your purpose has been obliterated. That’s where you’re going to get people to slowly detach. It creates a leaky pipeline.”

Workforce experts said that the position of diversity and inclusion leader has a particularly high level of turnover, The Wall Street Journal reported. At Apple, for example, there have been at least three people, in recent years, who have vacated the role of chief diversity leader after less than three years in the job. The tech firm did not respond to a request for comment.

‘It’s hard to be both the advocate and the abused’

DEI consultants spoke about another obstacle: not being respected by the companies that hire them.

Some executives said they would implement Quintanilla’s recommendations, which are based on employee feedback, such as leadership-development programs for all managers, but refused once they saw the amount of change she recommended.

“They’re asking us to do this work. And then there’s a whole panic attack when the findings of our analysis come back,” she said. “That’s why you hired us. We’re here to help, so you shouldn’t be afraid of the findings.”

Thompson expressed similar feelings. Some executives are open to doing town halls and listening circles, but don’t want to implement systemic change based on the feedback and consulting recommendations.

Sacha Thompson, the founder and CEO of The Equity Equation, said she feels excited companies are taking more interest in diversity work, but said some don’t realize the amount of work that goes into creating change.Sacha Thompson

“It’s demoralizing,” Thompson said. “There’s a lack of psychological safety.”

Psychologists define psychological safety as the ability to show up in a space exactly as you are, without leaving parts of your identity at the door to fit into a culture or workplace. It’s the ability to express your opinions and ideas without fear, to speak and exist freely.

So a DEI professional who feels there is psychological safety can freely share direct feedback from nonwhite employees on how a workplace’s culture needs to change. If there isn’t psychological safety, they may have to tread lightly, cushion feedback with compliments, and adjust their tone to make sure leaders don’t get offended by feedback. All that self-monitoring creates additional mental and emotional work.

A lack of psychological safety can have extreme mental-health consequences, said Farah Harris, a licensed psychotherapist in Illinois. For Black, brown, and Asian DEI experts, there’s an extra layer of exhaustion when leaders dismiss their work. Working remotely, often alone, during a pandemic makes the work even more difficult.

“It’s hard to be both the advocate and the abused,” Harris said. “Not having psychological safety can result in feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, even depression.”

‘This moment in time is exhilarating’

Lesley Slaton Brown, the chief diversity officer at HP, said her company’s financial and emotional support has made all the difference.HP

While in-house DEI experts expressed feelings of fatigue, they felt more supported at work than consultants.

Lesley Slaton Brown, the chief diversity officer at HP for over five years, felt a mix of anger and depression after watching the video of Floyd’s death. But HP’s commitments to her work over the past months have galvanized her.

She said she’s been given significantly more in terms of a working budget and a larger staff reporting to her, but declined to disclose the specific increases. She also mentioned having regular check-ins with her boss, who encourages her to take mental-health days, especially amid the pressures of working remotely during a pandemic.

HP’s most recent diversity data from 2019 showed that 68% of employees were white. The company does not publicly share diversity data segmented by rank. But HP’s goal is to “double the number of Black and African American executives by 2025,” the company’s website said.

Carlos Cubia, the global chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, agreed, saying that his company’s support has prevented him from feeling burned out.

“While the work can definitely be exhausting, this moment in time is exhilarating and exciting because we’re being heard,” he said.

The retail pharmacy giant, for example, now ties executive compensation to diversity goals, something Cubia championed. The company’s most recent diversity data from 2019 showed that 70% of managers were white.

For now, Cubia said he’s pushing burnout aside, recognizing that events in the past 12 months have created a rare opportunity to make lasting change.

“Now is not the time for burnout,” he said. “For years, we were making incremental gains down the field while the goal post kept moving. But now we’re in the red zone, and now is the time to score.”

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