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Taking a Data-Based Approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

WorldatWork has designated October as “Workplace Equity Month.” To shine the spotlight on issues of pay equity, diversity and inclusion, and social justice, Workspan Daily will be publishing various articles throughout the month on related topics. Visit our Workplace Equity page for more content on this critical area of total rewards.

After months of violence, protests and social unrest, racial equity is a top concern in many organizations. In one recent study by Mercer, 81% of United States organizations said they are focused on improving diversity and inclusion. Yet, only 38% said their companies regularly analyze their employee survey data to determine if racial or ethnic-based attitudinal differences exist. And only 23% routinely review performance ratings to prevent against adverse impact. 

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To ensure workplaces are fair and equitable for everyone, leaders need to take a data-based approach to evaluating their company’s culture and people practices. Otherwise, they run the risk of missing problems and perpetuating biases. Based on experience, there are four critical research questions to explore. 

1. What do your employees think about their workplace experiences?

No matter how equitable and inclusive policies and values are on paper, employees’ day-to-day experiences are what define and reveal culture. Many organizations use engagement pulses to evaluate the health of their workplace. Based on our research, this approach can cause blind spots. We have found that people of color are just as engaged as their white peers, despite the fact that they experience higher levels of workplace discrimination and favoritism. Focusing narrowly on employee motivation and commitment often masks deeper organizational problems.

To evaluate the health of an organization’s culture, a specific set of diagnostic items that ask about organizational justice, interpersonal relationships, leadership support, and inclusion and belonging are used. Then intersectionality-based techniques and demographic benchmarks are used to conduct a fine-grain analysis of attitudes and determine if any internal and external gaps exist. Asking the right questions and conducting the right analyses allows for a better understanding of the extent to which employees are having a fair, inclusive, and positive experience at work.

2. How diverse are the networks in your organization?

Every organization has an invisible infrastructure — a web of interpersonal relationships — that influences the way work gets done, decisions are made and information is shared. Researchers have found that these networks can impact important people decisions, like who gets promoted and who doesn’t, and that women and people of color often struggle to establish relationships that are as broad and influential as their white male peers do. Considering the impact that informal networks can have on the culture and composition of an organization, it is important to determine if any structural holes exist.

One of the best ways to understand how people work together is to conduct an organizational network analysis. This research method uses various data sources, including email metadata, to reveal who talks to who in an organization. If demographic-based gaps exist, various interventions like mentoring and cross-training can be used to establish new relationship patterns and increase contact between people from different backgrounds.   

3. Are your leaders and managers making fair people decisions?

Extensive research shows that racial, ethnic, and gender biases are often subtle and insidious, capable of causing even the most fair-minded of leaders and managers to make bad judgments and faulty assumptions. Left unchecked, these biases can lead to unfair decisions that disadvantage Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). There are numerous data-based ways to counter these biases and prevent against adverse impact. By exploring HRIS data using various workforce analytics techniques, organizations can evaluate the extent to which they are making human capital decisions in an equitable way.

Three analyses are particularly helpful. First, a process called internal labor market analysis can evaluate hiring, promotion, and retention patterns within the organization.

Second, pay equity analysis can be conducted to evaluate the organization’s pay practices and identify any demographic-based gaps.

Third, linkage analysis can be used to explore critical empirical relationships related to diversity, fairness, inclusion, and performance. For example, is there a particular leadership style that is most conducive to engaging and retaining women or minorities? By linking together HRIS and attitudinal data, these kinds of research questions can be explored, and results can be used to inform leadership development programs and practices.  

4. Do you know what your employees are concerned about?

In a recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association, 60% of U.S. adults said that police violence against minorities is a significant source of personal stress. By not asking employees about their reactions to recent events, leaders may be ignoring their questions and concerns. Listening to employees about their experiences inside and outside of work is an effective way to provide support, put issues on the table, and build a stronger sense of community. One good way to have these discussions — particularly if employees are working remotely — is via digital focus groups.

New technology platforms allow organizations to conduct online focus groups with as many as 1,000 people at once and the anonymous format provides employees with an opportunity to share their thoughts and observations in as much detail as they want. As a result, participants often feel safe, heard, and valued.

From a research perspective, by asking employees a combination of closed and open-ended items, and then using advanced techniques like natural language processing and computational grounded theory, complex topics like racial equity can be explored in a comprehensive and sensitive way. 

For decades, many organizations have made a concerted effort to promote diversity and inclusion for both ethical and financial reasons. At this point, the research is clear: When teams and organizations are more diverse, they perform better financially, attract and retain top talent and generate more creative and innovative ideas.

But at the core of this summer’s protests is a painful message: Despite decades of effort, racism is still a pervasive societal problem, both in the U.S. and around the world. The best way to ensure an organization is not part of the problem is to conduct a careful review of its culture and people practices.

By committing to a regular discipline of reviewing data, exploring critical questions, and rectifying problems, leaders can help build a better organization and create a more just world.

About the Author

Patrick Hyland, PhD is the director of research & development at Mercer Sirota.


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