Director The Survey Initiative
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Diversity and inclusion: why data doesn’t always tell the full story

5th Aug 2019
Director The Survey Initiative
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HR is placing increasing emphasis on monitoring diversity and inclusion but in the race to gather data, many people are missing the point entirely.  

Developing a diverse and inclusive workplace is a vital aspect of people management.

Organisations need to value everyone as an individual to be able to gain the many benefits that derive from employing a diverse workforce.

Increasingly organisations are monitoring and analysing employees based on age, disability, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation, but is this the best way to examine your workforce?    

Diversity and inclusion data

From the moment an employee joins an organisation, data on their background is collected via an equal opportunities form.

All companies should have an awareness of the ethnic, gender and age make-up of their employees by just being a good employer.

In recent years, however, there’s been a clamour to grab as much diversity and inclusion data on employees as possible.

The trend has come from a very positive place, where organisations want to promote diversity and inclusion, however this ‘need’ to obtain as much information as possible on minority groups can be very negative.

Size really does matter

The biggest trouble we encounter with data on diversity and inclusion is the size of the research pool.

For example, if we’re running a staff survey or an employee engagement survey that touches on diversity and inclusion matters for an organisation that has 100 employees, our chance of gaining meaningful data is small.

If we were running similar research for a 20,000-strong workforce, the research on diversity and inclusion would be valid thanks to the sample size.

The issue with running data on small workforces means that if just 2% of employees are LGBTQ, for example, or 8% are from an ethnic minority, this could equate to just two or eight employees. These samples are so small that they will never produce valid results if you’re analysing on this criteria alone.

Thanks to the rise of technology, managers pop onto their laptops and start to assess employee data.

This is ideal for comparing one department to another, but when managers start to drill down the results based on ethnicity or sexual orientation these figures will never have any real value, as there will be so many other factors affecting their working lives.

There should never be an over-reliance on just staff surveys. Sometimes the best way to understand your employees is to talk to them.

Managers are increasingly starting to make sweeping assumptions based on their diversity and inclusion figures.

For example, if a department is scoring high or low for a particular issue, such as productivity, the manager is cross referencing this data with the information they have on this set of employees.

If the department has a high proportion of an ethnic minority some managers are assuming that if there’s something going well, or a problem, the difference is their ethnicity, and looking at their background as the solution or problem.

Of course, there could be many reasons why such a group are performing well, or conversely underperforming, one of the most common reasons for poor performance is a lack of strong leadership, but managers are often generalising on the results, without really understanding the big picture.

The implications for data being misconstrued are significant. At best an ethnic group can appear more hardworking than their contemporaries, but at worst, they might be seen as lazy and disengaged.

It is clear that the best way to analyse data is to look at the workforce as a whole, regardless of their age, gender or sexual orientation etc. and research everyone as equals.

Understanding the data

It’s essential for organisations to get to grips with their employee data and drill down to fully understand the results.

There should never be an over-reliance on just staff surveys. Sometimes the best way to understand your employees is to talk to them.

Small focus groups, especially within departments or across the organisation, looking at certain issues will truly highlight what’s going on and get to the heart of your successes or challenges.

Once an issue has been highlighted, it is much easier to remedy. If the issue or success is never understood then the business will learn nothing and will never be able to move forward in a positive manner.

The rise of diversity and inclusion

All organisations should have a strong awareness about whom they employ and shouldn’t need a survey to discover the make-up of their employees.

Not all organisations currently benefit from a diverse employee background, however, and in these cases diversity and inclusion surveys can be very beneficial.

They clearly illustrate the levels of gender, disability, race, age, religious or sexual orientation balance or imbalance in your workforce.

There must be a cultural shift to welcome, support and nurture employees from minority groups to enable them, and the organisations who employ them, to thrive.

These statistics give corporates a clear indication of where they are heading with their diversity and inclusion strategies.

Clearly some industries still have a vast journey to travel. It was recently reported that the male/female split of employees at train operator, Greater Anglia, is vast with women making up just 22% of employees.

In traditionally male dominated industries employee statistics are essential for monitoring the development of inclusion and opportunity for minority groups.

Research is also vital in monitoring the success of diversity and inclusion strategies.

Positive discrimination

Inclusive organisations are striving to diversify their workforce and working hard to meet targets.

To affect positive change, some organisations are implementing positive discrimination policies, in effect giving a ‘leg-up’ to those from minority groups.

The success of these tactics needs to be evaluated, however, and each action ranked for its success.

For example, a journalist at the Sunday Times recently wrote about her positive discrimination, she described how this had given her an amazing opportunity to launch her career in a very male, middle-class dominated world, but she had found the experience a little ‘unworldly’.

She was removed from her normal life, where she’d grown up in a multicultural school, in an ethically diverse area of London and to suddenly be working in a binary culture was a shock.

Again, statistics can never give the full picture – of course we congratulate corporates who take the necessary steps to create inclusive workforces, but these actions cannot be taken on their own.

There must be a cultural shift to welcome, support and nurture employees from minority groups to enable them, and the organisations who employ them, to thrive.

Diversity and inclusion statistics are now widely publicised by forward-thinking organisations and are often available on their websites.

I would always recommend that job hunters search out these statistics to ensure they’re approaching companies that are the right fit for them.

Aligning yourself with the right corporate, and conversely an employer to the right employee, is essential to creating a healthy and productive working environment.

If you want to work for a progressive company or are looking to attract the freshest and brightest minds, developing a strong diversity and inclusion culture will be a prerequisite.

Interested in this topic? Read How organisational network analytics is transforming diversity and inclusion through data.

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