2020 sparked soul searching inside many organizations. George Floyd’s death in late May led to widespread protests and a worldwide conversation about racism, equity, and discrimination.
While most companies are committed to creating a more just world, research shows that many still have work to do when it comes to dismantling structural racism. For example, a CNBC poll found that 61% of Americans believe racial inequality is a problem at work. Another study found that 71% of Black Americans have experienced racial discrimination or mistreatment. In our own research, we have found that Black employees rate their work experience as significantly less fair and equitable than their white colleagues do.
If you have not asked your employees about their perceptions of recent events, your organization may be unintentionally conveying the wrong message, leading some to believe that leadership is unconcerned about racial equity. During times like these, it is important to give your employees an opportunity to voice their questions, share their observations, and put issues on the table. Various studies have found that social support increases our resilience and ability to cope. Listening to your employees about their experiences inside and outside of work is an effective way to address concerns, provide support, and improve your organization’s culture.
One effective way to have these discussions—particularly if your employees are still working remotely—is via digital focus groups. New technology platforms like this one allow researchers 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 to. As a result, participants often feel safe, heard, and valued. We’ve found that by asking employees a combination of closed and open-ended items, and then using advanced techniques like natural language processing and computational grounded theory, we can explore complex topics like racial equity in a comprehensive and sensitive way. Focus groups can also be used to follow up on town halls or to explore survey results.
Through our work with various organizations, we have developed an extensive set of research questions that focus on workplace diversity and inclusion. Here are four areas of inquiry that often generate the most powerful insights:
What does it mean to have a fair and inclusive work environment?Employee expectations are one of the first things we discuss during focus groups. After ensuring participants understand the session’s purpose and process, and then using some icebreakers to establish trust and comfort, we ask employees to think carefully about abstract concepts like fairness, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Through a series of questions, we probe standards, explore expectations, and define ideals. These questions often generate some of the most inspiring visions of the workplace that employees desire
Do you ever feel left out at work, either professionally or socially?After exploring their ideals, we then ask employees to reflect on their day-to-day realities. What makes you feel included at work? When do you feel excluded? Have you ever witnessed or experienced harassment or discrimination? By asking employees to share their everyday experiences and challenges, and then looking for patterns across respondent populations, we can start to build a foundational understanding of what the work environment is like for different employee segments.
What characteristics, traits, contributions, and behaviors are valued here?Next, we talk about core values. Through a series of questions, we ask about the formal and informal power structure of the organization, exploring how decisions are made, people are promoted, and social relationships are established. By focusing on both the organization’s espoused and enacted values, we help surface any blind spots, misperceptions, or unspoken rules that may be causing equity gaps.
How fair and inclusive is our work environment? What could we do to improve?Finally, we ask for evaluations and recommendations. After discussing ideals, experiences, and values, we ask employees to think carefully and critically about what’s working and what isn’t. We focus on everything from senior leadership and company culture to HR policies and management practices, ensuring that participants reflect on their organization from multiple angles. This allows us to explore diversity and equity issues in a comprehensive way and identify any systemic strengths or areas of concern.