Developing a DEI listening strategy: Four critical areas to assess 

Article originally published in Brink News on January 28, 2021.

Over the past year, racial equity has become a top concern in many organizations. Based on our latest poll of business leaders, 75% of US firms have increased their focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in recent months. But fewer than half (46%) say they see signs of improvement.

Building a culture of inclusion isn’t easy. If you want to ensure your workplace is fair and equitable for everyone, feedback is critical. Taking a ready-fire-aim approach to DEI — launching reactively into corporate-wide training or initiatives without getting input from your workforce — probably won’t work. Instead, you should start by listening to your employees and developing a deep understanding of their experiences at work.

Many organizations use engagement surveys or pulses to get a read on the overall health of their work environment. Based on our research, this is not an effective way to evaluate your culture when it comes to DEI. In a comprehensive analysis of over one million employees working in more than 100 organizations, we found that engagement levels for Black employees, indigenous employees and people of color (BIPOC) were just as high as engagement levels for white employees. But we also found that BIPOC employees experienced significantly higher levels of workplace discrimination and favoritism than white employees. The takeaway is that by focusing narrowly on engagement — relying solely on this metric to evaluate employee experiences — you could be overlooking inequities in your organization.

So what’s the best way to evaluate your culture from a DEI perspective? Our research reveals four critical areas to assess:

  1. Relationships.
    Relationships have a profound impact on the employee experience. We’ve found that when employees feel a sense of belonging at work, their motivation and commitment levels soar. When they experience exclusion, isolation or indifference, stress levels increase, performance declines and health problems can emerge. Do your employees have good working relationships with their colleagues and managers? Do they experience a deep sense of community at work? If you want to ensure your workplace is inclusive, assessing the quality of relationships and the level of social capital in your organization is a critical place to start.
  2. Rewards.
    Work is a social exchange. Employers provide extrinsic rewards (e.g., pay, benefits, bonuses) and intrinsic rewards (e.g., meaningful work, learning opportunities) in exchange for employees’ effort, dedication and performance. Various studies, including our own, show that when employees feel this exchange is fair, they work hard and stay long. But when the deal is not perceived to be fair, employees withdraw — either psychologically (by caring less), physically (by investing less effort) or literally (by quitting). If you want to evaluate how equitable your work environment is, it’s essential to understand how your employees feel about their rewards. Do they think they’re receiving a fair deal? Do they feel they can grow and develop? Do they understand how reward decisions are made? By first gathering feedback on these kinds of questions and then conducting internal and external benchmarking, you can determine whether any gaps exist that need to be addressed.
  3. Workplace practices.
    All workplaces are shaped by norms — shared assumptions, expectations and patterns of behavior. These norms can foster either connection and community or division and inequity. Because norms have such a powerful impact on the work environment, it’s crucial to understand what patterns of behavior your employees regularly observe and experience. Do they witness discrimination? Do they see signs of racism or sexism? Do they hear inappropriate jokes or experience micro-aggressions? These types of questions provide insight into the daily lives of your employees. Results can be used to identify discriminatory behavior and target either systemic or local problems.
  4. Strategic commitment.
    Without commitment from the top, meaningful culture change rarely happens. When diversity programs fail, it’s often because organizations implement piecemeal solutions and stopgap measures rather than coherent strategies and system-wide interventions. Do your employees believe your senior leaders are committed to DEI? Do they support your DEI strategy? Do they think it’s being deployed effectively? By asking these kinds of questions, you can evaluate the extent to which your workforce understands your DEI strategy and believes it’s making a meaningful difference.

When we help clients evaluate their DEI cultures, we use a set of diagnostic items to assess these four critical areas. We then conduct a series of quantitative and qualitative analyses to identify cultural strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. We start with a normative analysis to see how organizational results compare with demographic-based benchmarks. Then we conduct a fine-grain intersectional analysis to search for identity-based employee cohorts that may be having unusually positive or negative experiences at work. Finally, we use advanced qualitative techniques, such as natural language processing and computational grounded theory, to explore written comments and search for significant themes.

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 beyond the business case for DEI, there is also a moral imperative.

Despite decades of effort, racism is still a pervasive societal problem, both in the US and around the world. The only way to ensure an organization isn’t part of the problem is to conduct a careful review of its culture and people practices. By committing to a regular discipline of listening to your employees, exploring critical questions and rectifying problems, leaders can help build a better organization and create a more just world.

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