Companies across the country are spending innumerable Zoom and Microsoft Teams-filled hours unpacking their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) problems. And unfortunately, it will be all for naught without adding an essential ingredient.

In my work at GOL, every day, major companies confess the same challenge: “Erika, there is a  disconnect between what we anticipate and the way the policies and practices translate at local levels.” Sound familiar? You are not alone. Many well-intentioned leadership teams struggle to pinpoint why the equitable and inclusive talent practices they implement are somehow still detached and not taking root with local level staff.

Oftentimes, in trying to tackle this challenge, employers turn to traditional talent data sources: retention, promotions, policies, practices, and internal communication – standard ‘inventory’ stuff. Unfortunately, relying on quantitative data alone tells an incomplete story. At GOL, we find companies often overlook and even dismiss a critical ingredient: their employees’ lived experiences. Companies need to take a comprehensive approach to understanding their DEI problems, which includes conducting engagement surveys to surface the barriers and challenges employees may be facing followed up with in-depth interviews or listening tours to understand root causes. Companies must invest in deeply understanding their employees’ experiences before jumping too quickly to solutions which can end up being inaccurate and ineffective.

In fact, qualitative data might prove even more valuable as it can provide insight into the real impact of your policies and practices and help you understand the “why” behind the quantitative data. We’ve seen companies unearth microaggressions, learn about numerous rejected promotion attempts, lack of sponsorship and support, and feelings of no clear career path. Employees openly shared difficulty in navigating environments which has led to low or no sense of belonging. These kinds of factors exacerbate attrition problems, and lead to employee disengagement and decreased productivity and skill development.

Most companies are facing an uphill battle to make employees feel genuinely heard. Here are 3 steps to begin the climb:

  • First, look beyond the quantitative data. The quantitative inputs reveal valuable data such as retention and advancement rates. What they fail to show is the reasoning behind those rates, the very real human actions and biases influencing those rates despite a company implementing practices to address their problem areas. Too often, policies and practices are enacted and land on people differently, both positively and negatively, which creates an inequitable culture.
  • Second, actively listen to your employees – not with intent to reply or defend – but to understand their journey and experiences. Leverage platforms like Culture Amp to delve deeper into inclusion, belonging, hiring, performance review, advancement, and equity at your company. Then start to consider how to solve for the commonly reported problems. Consider road shows, focus groups, one to ones, stay interviews, and targeted topic check-ins to hear from staff.
  • Lastly, take action. Employees often feel that, even if surveyed, HQ never does anything with the information provided. While it can be more difficult to deal with the more subjective nature of this kind of qualitative data, companies must work to do so with the same rigor they examine the talent data. Especially when there are clear correlations between the quantitative and the qualitative data. For example, if a company observes greater turnover of Black employees and Black employees report daily micro aggressions, there is a critical connection between the two that must be taken seriously. The qualitative piece, the Black employees’ daily experience, is equally, if not more, important.

Acknowledging your staff’s experiences doesn’t mean you have to agree, or even like it. But these experiences matter and shape your staff’s perception of your organization. And while it is not feasible to expect companies to completely address every challenge that gets surfaced, ignoring them can undermine the entire effort.

Contrary to popular belief, you are not alone on this journey. I’ve explored and facilitated many major companies’ journeys to become more equitable and inclusive – they’ve faced a myriad root causes, ranging from: lack of diverse representation, over-indexed white supremacy and male dominated cultures, hiring manager bias, exclusive hiring practices and inconsistent communication.

Equity and inclusion are people problems first and foremost. Treating them as such, and maintaining a bias toward meaningful action, is key to success. Establishing at the onset a commitment to a transparent and comprehensive approach to solving your DEI challenges will ensure the hill feels a little less steep.