Why quantitative DEI data isn’t enough, and why it’s critical to measure qualitative employee data to advance DEI goals and outcomes.
As Grads of Life shared previously, we’ve noticed an interesting trend take shape: Workforce representation data has often become a proxy for DEI data writ large. While representation is undoubtedly a key DEI metric, when employers rely on a single type of data point to measure progress, they miss out on the opportunity to learn what else may be impacting (and be impacted by) the hiring, retention and advancement of underrepresented talent — most notably, employees’ everyday lived experience. We know that capturing lived experience data is one of the top 10 proven actions to advance DEI because it enables employers to know if their DEI efforts are having their intended impact. So why aren’t more employers capturing this critical data?
The roots of this disconnect — between what is considered a best practice and what gets implemented — run deep. In white supremacy culture, “things that can be counted are more highly valued than things that cannot.” This characteristic of white supremacy culture has important implications. Data that is easily enumerated, like the number of employees of color, gets prioritized in data collection efforts. Meanwhile, qualitative data, like an employee’s experience at work, becomes significantly undervalued and is often not even considered “real” data.
It’s time to change this narrative. Despite years of conditioning to the contrary, lived experience is data. It is just as valuable and real as any other type of data. Furthermore, neglecting efforts to measure lived experience can have a deleterious snowball effect: It leads to an incomplete view of an organization’s DEI challenges and, eventually, will cause attrition, particularly among employees of color. If historically excluded people don’t feel like their experiences matter and that interventions are being developed in response to their concerns, they will walk away. Conversely, making a practice of tapping into these experiences, and iterating based on that feedback, can enhance your culture. In fact, recent research from Culture Amp suggests the simple act of administering a DEI-specific survey can yield positive outcomes: Employees in organizations that administered such a survey felt more positively about the quality of decision-making processes at their organization, growth opportunities, and their relationships with their managers.
Now that we’ve established the value of lived experience data, how might we go about measuring it? Luckily, we have plenty of tools in our toolkit. Employers can begin by adopting these three evidence-based practices:
- Conduct employee sentiment surveys. This is perhaps the easiest way to collect lived experience data because a single survey can reach hundreds or thousands of employees at once. However, there are a few key things to remember when conducting this type of survey. First, you must be able to disaggregate your survey results by key variables, like race, ethnicity and gender. This requires building questions directly into your survey that ask about these identifiers or developing a process to link your survey responses back to existing records in your human resources information system (HRIS) using unique IDs. Second, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel! Platforms like Culture Amp have predesigned surveys that can also be customized to meet your unique needs. If you do choose to build your own survey from scratch, make sure to incorporate best practices for survey design.
- Conduct employee focus groups and/or interviews. While surveys go wide, interviews go deep. Whether conducted one-on-one or as part of a focus group, they allow you to dig into specific topics of interest and walk away with a better understanding of the “why” behind an experience. When collecting qualitative data through these methods, we often get asked, “How many interviews or focus groups are enough?” Research tells us that most themes are identified within the first five to six interviews, and it takes about 10-12 interviews to reach 90% saturation. Usually, no new concepts are found after 20 interviews.
- Use social listening tools. Web-scraping tools, typically one of the lesser adopted practices among employers, shouldn’t be discounted. They can help you analyze external review sites like Glassdoor and yield insights into employee and applicant experiences. In fact, Glassdoor has built-in tools that help employers understand common topics coming up in reviews, whether they’re bright spots or areas of growth. Although it’s not possible to disaggregate this data by demographics, when paired with other lived experience data sources, social listening can provide important additional context for employee sentiment.
Before starting any data collection process — whether via surveys, interviews or focus groups — you should be intentional about creating conditions for psychological safety so that employees feel empowered to offer an honest account of their experiences, without fear of backlash. Ensuring that survey responses remain anonymous and unidentifiable is a key first step. Employers can also consider bringing in an external consultant to conduct interviews or focus groups so that participants’ identities remain anonymous to the company.
When embarking on any new DEI data collection effort, it’s important to take stock of what you already have in place. Most companies are relieved to find that they don’t need to start from scratch. For example, you may find that your HR business partners are already having informal conversations with employees that can be formalized into regular interviews. Build on the resources and opportunities you already have, then implement any new activities one step at a time. Most importantly, remember that this work goes beyond checking boxes — it’s about shifting culture. And in building a shared understanding of employees’ discrete experiences, you lay the groundwork to improve your practices and foster a just, flourishing workplace.