Are Employee Surveys Masking Flaws in Your DEI Efforts?
Employee engagement surveys are a great way to get a pulse on what employees really think about your company culture. But unless you dig into the details, you can make some dangerous assumptions, particularly around equity and inclusion.
“The experiences of the majority really don't matter when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI),” said Laurie Bassi, chief analyst at McBassi & Company, a human resources analytics firm. “It’s a point that people miss because in more traditional employee survey work, slicing and dicing the data is less central to the analysis.”
If you look at survey results for the overall population, you may find the vast majority of employees say managers are inclusive, that they feel valued, that your culture is safe and supportive. But when you tease out the data by population, it can give a very different view.
It’s only when you compare responses based on key demographics that important opinions emerge, Bassi said. You may find for example, that women or employees of color are less likely to say an organization is inclusive or safe compared to white or male populations. You may also find variations in different offices, departments or regions. “When it comes to DEI measurement you really need to be able to distinguish experience of the majority from the experience of the minority.”
Introducing Demographic Questions
The key to these kinds of insights starts with including demographic questions regarding race, gender, sexual orientation and/or any other details that could inform the analysis.
This can be tricky for small firms that may only have a handful of people fitting any category, but in mid-to-large sized firms, anonymity can still be maintained. Bassi suggests limiting cell sizes to five people at a bare minimum.
When including demographic questions, she strongly encourages companies to be forthright about why they are asking, what they intend to do with the data and how they will protect the respondents’ privacy. That can include using a third-party service to analyze data and limiting crosscuts of data to avoid getting too detailed (e.g., combining gender and race).
She also suggests leaving these questions till the end of the survey. “That way people can see that you've you aren’t asking anything nefarious,” she said. “And if they decline to answer, at least you've got their other responses.”
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Go Beyond Asking Questions That Only Identify a Problem
Demographic information alone can help companies understand variations in perception among different populations. That value can be amplified by including specific questions tied to the company’s DEI goals. “Without explicitly including ‘DEI questions,’ it's going be a blunt instrument,” Bassi said. It might identify a problem — e.g., women don’t think the culture is inclusive — but it won’t tell you why they feel that way.
Bassi suggested adding context by creating questions that fall into two categories: questions about bad behaviors that lead to harassment, discrimination or exclusion. And questions about good behaviors that eliminate these issues. These could include: “Have you witnessed a colleague being harassed?” “Would you feel comfortable reporting harassment?” “Do you experience this workplace as being open and inclusive for everyone on your team?”
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These types of questions can help uncover unspoken discomfort, and vet the company’s willingness to respond to problems. It also gives employees space to report on issues they witness (e.g., someone else being harassed), rather than just their personal experiences of inclusion.
Adding questions and being open to the information they reveal can also help companies uncover new trends related to current cultural events, said Andy James, managing director of talent strategy for Accenture in the UK. For example, in 2022, Accenture asked employees questions about their emotions post-pandemic and how managers were supporting their needs, then compared responses across different demographics.
The results showed that employees felt female senior leaders were much more attuned to their emotional frustration than male leaders. “It's not that women are feeling greater frustration, they're actually seeing the frustration in their teams,” James said. It wasn’t an insight they were looking for, but the trend emerged when they analyzed.
“Surveys can help you understand what people are genuinely concerned about, and provide benchmarks to compare progress,” he said. “But if you can’t slice and dice the data by demographic, then you're going to miss an awful lot.”
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Once companies decide to include DEI in employee surveys, it is tempting to ask every question they can think of. But be wary of survey overload. Employees won’t respond to surveys that take more than a few minutes, especially if the survey involves workers who don’t spend a lot of time at computer terminals. “If you are in a fast-paced environment, like a manufacturing floor where time is money, you need to be really judicious,” Bassi said.
And only ask questions if you are going to do something with the results, James added. “It isn’t about the survey, it's about using the survey data to spark broader conversations about what’s happening in your workplace, then listening and learning.”
Once the data highlights a trend, James suggested hosting listening sessions with employee groups to share the results, and to get their feedback on what it means and what they think could be done to make things better. “It is a way to be transparent and demonstrate that you want to improve things.” Sending that message is the first step to creating a more inclusive culture and giving employees confidence that you have their best interests at heart.