A data-driven approach to DEI supports real diversity

Improve diversity and inclusion with an in-depth approach to making people of color, women and other marginalized groups feel good about where they work. Learn how data can help.

Many business and HR leaders want to hire diverse individuals and make them feel included and treated fairly. Figuring out whether those efforts are working is another matter.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are considerably more complicated than checking boxes and searching gender and racial fields in employee data. That's why using a data-driven approach to DEI initiative decisions is key.

Data-driven approach to diversity

Whether an organization terms their efforts DEI or diversity and inclusion (D&I), creating meaningful change as it relates to underrepresented and marginalized groups is a highly nuanced endeavor. Performative measures are likely to spark ill feelings or even outrage. So, how do business and HR leaders know if their initiatives are successful?

"Many organizations remain unsure about how to measure and act on their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives," said Rachel Lawrence, senior principal, advisory in the Gartner HR practice.

Even before the events of 2020 underscored the importance of DEI, most organizations prioritized diversity and inclusion, according to Gartner's research, she said. Yet, fewer than half of HR leaders were confident in their organizations' ability to create accountability measures for DEI outcomes.

In other words, the question, "how do I use data to drive diversity efforts?" is a tricky one for leaders to answer.

"There is no magic-bullet technology or program to address D&I," said Laura Becker, research manager of employee experience, worldwide services group at IDC, a global market intelligence firm located in Needham, Mass.

Even so, technology can lend considerable assistance to the effort, particularly at scale, which is important, given the sheer size and geographic disbursement common to many of today's workforces.

"Data -- for example, from the [human capital management] platform -- can be used throughout the employee lifecycle to ensure equal opportunities in terms of promotion rates, retention rates and engagement rates among others," Becker said.

While data analysis is no diversity and inclusion magic bullet, it can be part of a winning strategy in measuring the elements essential to success, Becker said.

That sentiment is shared by other industry analysts.

Tapping into data allows an organization to uncover deeper cultural discrepancies that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Theia SmithDirector of the D&I consulting practice, PwC

"Tapping into data allows an organization to uncover deeper cultural discrepancies that might otherwise go unnoticed," said Theia Smith, director of the D&I consulting practice in PwC, an accounting firm located in London.

Understanding diversity problems

Even while gender diversity and racial diversity are lagging, more people are calling for addressing ageism, ableism and more. The focus on diversity keeps expanding, and it's important to first examine demographics and employee sentiment before leaders can understand what needs improvement.

The fundamental measures in detecting diversity gaps include workforce and leadership representation with comparative ratios by race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, veteran status, presence of disability, LGBTQ+ identity, age group, management level and geographical location, if such is applicable, said Nell Haslett-Brousse, director of diversity, equity & inclusion at Point B, a consultancy located in Boston. These are fairly simple and direct data queries.

Other measures that may be helpful, but may also require more sophisticated or manual data analysis, Haslett-Brousse said, include:

  • completion of relevant training, such as anti-harassment and unconscious bias;
  • employee sentiment, including feelings of inclusion or equity at the company; and
  • promotions and average tenure.

Spotting critical turnover points

The process of using analytics to drive diversity efforts requires taking a hard look at the right data.

HR and recruiting systems hold important data to examine, Haslett-Brousse said. Here's a scenario and a line of investigation leaders might take:

  • The data shows X% of employees are Black.

Is that number high or low compared to the population and peers?

  • If it's low, is that because they're less represented in who's coming in or more represented in who's leaving?
  • If the former, are they less represented in who is applying or who is being made an offer?
  • If Black applicants are disproportionately low, then from where are recruiters sourcing candidates?
  • If Black hires are disproportionately low, then at what point during the interview process do they seem to drop off?

"This type of questioning should just continue until leaders understand what the data is telling," Haslett-Brousse said.

Role of diversity, equity and inclusion

Each component of a diversity effort relates to other components.

For example, where there is a problem with organizational diversity, then there is most likely a problem with equity and inclusion, too, Lawrence said.

Is the organization providing a fair and equitable workplace where there are truly equal opportunities for promotions? Examining the data can shed some light on overlooked biases and uncover actions to correct the issues and provide equal access to opportunity.

For example, an underrepresentation of women in leadership roles is a common red flag that points to underlying issues, she said. The organization likely has one or a combination of issues such as unfair promotion standards or women shying away from applying for senior-level roles because there are no female role models or mentors.

"Having a cohesive DEI strategy and measuring the different components is essential to moving the DEI needle," Lawrence said.

Here are her high-level recommendations for examining each component:

Diversity. Data should show smaller, meaningful slices that provide insight on the specific targets the organization has set -- for example, the number of women in leadership, rather than women in the organization overall.

Equity. Initiatives to improve equity should target improvement across the major stages of the employee lifecycle. HR professionals can begin with representation data and find areas where the organization is not meeting targets or where improvement opportunities exist. Then they can work backward to evaluate the processes influencing that outcome.

Inclusion. Qualitative perception data from employees is critical to evaluate inclusion. HR can use company engagement or climate surveys to gather data within individual business units. To get accurate and honest results, ensuring confidentiality and employee anonymity is critical. Once HR aggregates results, business unit leaders can use results for their specific unit to guide appropriate strategies.

Diversity metrics and tools

The DEI software market is heating up and, while technology can't replace strategy, it can help.

A recent IDC survey found that C-level executives wanted to see a diversity and inclusion index metric added to the HR function this year, Becker sai. Companies are using both people analytics and experiential analytics to inform diversity initiatives. HR can gather operational data from human capital management systems throughout the employee lifecycle and use it to assess whether the organization is providing equal opportunities to individuals and potentially underserved communities in terms of promotion rates, retention rates and engagement rates, among others.

In addition, leaders might look to new tools.

Two examples worth investigating are VIBE from Workday and data capabilities from a Medallia and Visier partnership, Becker said.

Workday's new VIBE (value, inclusion, belonging, equity) product has three components for viewing the intersectionality of multiple dimensions of employees. It also has over 60 identity fields with gender codes, ethnicity, veteran status and LGBT as examples.

"Using these highly specific identities, employers can break down at a micro-level to examine trends and patterns," Becker said.

VIBE from Workday. The VIBE Index powered by Workday's Prism Analytics creates an overall score using breadth and depth combined with intersectionality. The Index score shows equity and parity across the workforce and offers five outcomes, including hiring, promotion, leadership, belonging and attrition. For example, a manager can quickly see how many female Asians vs. male Asians vs. female whites vs. male whites are hired and promoted and where the gaps are.

Medallia-Visier diversity data examination tools. Another example is the recently announced partnership between customer experience vendor Medallia and people analytics vendor Visier.

"Specifically for D&I, Visier can analyze Medallia's experiential data at the cohort level -- for example, are all Asian-American females feeling the same way? Are they getting the same opportunities as Asian-American males? Are all employees who were hired at the same time affected in the same way?" Becker said.

In addition, Visier is developing persona-based analysis that targets in-depth employee behavior insights, Becker said.

Addressing bias is both a sprint and a marathon

While developing diverse talent pipelines, adjusting goals to address underserved populations and tackling other initiatives are inherently long-term efforts, prioritizing diversity is important today -- as is using data where possible to refine and adapt.

"D&I is about more than just big corporate statements," said Harry Osle, global HR advisory practice leader at The Hackett Group, an IT service management company located in Miami. "It's about actions, and these actions start with an understanding of current issues, which, in turn, are driven by data."

About the author
Pam Baker is the author of eight books, including Data Divination: Big Data Strategies, and hundreds of technology articles published in leading online and print publications.

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