Who exactly are your employees?

The best type of diversity survey is the one that everyone looks forward to
By Michael Bach
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/11/2015

Why do a diversity survey? Getting a better handle on changing demographics in the workforce can lead to increased market share with different communities, improved talent acquisition and retention, higher employee engagement and lower turnover rates. 


And diversity is important: A diversity of thought leads to better creativity and innovation, and organizations can boost their public image by being transparent about embracing diversity, fostering inclusion and addressing systemic inequities. 


For people planning a diversity survey, there’s a lot to consider when asking questions that explore how employees identify and feel. 


The most effective ones have three elements: 


• well-defined objectives


• a platform that employees feel they can trust enough to share personal information 


• a good communications plan for employee engagement. 


Where to start?

The first step is to align the survey with the organization’s key business goals and objectives — is it for regulatory compliance or an innovation agenda? An effective diversity survey will measure areas that are relevant to the organization’s demographics for reliable quantitative data — but also include inclusion-type questions to start to tell the larger story in analysis. 


Aligning the survey with key business goals can help move a survey’s findings into actionable results by demonstrating value to key decision-makers.


In planning a diversity survey, organizations might want to look at distribution of demographics, such as gender, race, Aboriginal status or disability status. Is it a census of identities in the workplace to ensure diverse interests or so identities can be understood and planned for? 


Is the goal to assess the range of backgrounds or identities against metrics for performance and advancement? These are quantifiable and play an important part in planning the data you’re hoping to uncover.


For example, one question that might be relevant to an organization’s goals and objectives could be gender, and whether the workforce has a similar female-to-male representation when compared to available talent. 


By setting up a survey with good, basic data points, analysis can pull out valuable insights to further examine gender distribution across roles in the organization.


Demographic identities such as sexual orientation and cognitive disability are easier to hide than other personal identity questions and so can be useful to uncover. 


The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) has noticed a substantial trend for people to report more cognitive disabilities (such as mental illness or depression) in diversity surveys than HR leaders were aware of within their workplaces.


Diversity surveys are most valuable when qualitative research is layered in to better understand sentiment and underlying issues that might be bubbling beneath the surface. Demographics are just numbers.


Incorporating good qualitative research to help diversity surveys examine inclusion can bring a better understanding of how a particular segment or category of the workplace is feeling. 


Build trust to build participation

To have people honestly share how they feel, the importance of trust can’t be understated. The quality of survey results is directly proportionate to how safe people feel in disclosing personal information. 


The promise of privacy means everything in building the kind of trust that allows people to open up and share. At the back end, privacy and confidentiality particularly become an issue in survey analysis. 


A good diversity tool has parameters for any category or cross-section that blocks the results of fewer than five people in any one group. 


The industry standard varies from five to 10, however, five is a minimum threshold because anything less isolates individuals and makes it easier for people within an organization to identify who a person is.  


When employees can trust that a survey is set up so the employer isn’t going to be able to track their identities when they disclose personal information — especially at workplaces where harassment and similar issues have surfaced — trust improves survey participation significantly. 


Be ready with a communications plan

With these surveys, CCDI has seen participation rates vary from 45 per cent to 93 per cent, driven significantly, if not entirely, by communications. It’s not possible to over-communicate when conducting a diversity and inclusion survey. 


Communications is the magic that brings out engagement from leadership and the employee base. Communication helps to build trust and answer nagging questions that people might be too afraid to ask.  


It’s a good idea to have a thorough communications plan with multiple touch points to help spread the message far and wide. Ensure there are strong allies in leadership, with communications conduits in place, so the message that the survey is important filters down to supervisors and across staff. 


And employers should engage employees through their own direct reports as they’re bound to be more responsive within their teams.


Organizations that announce a survey with a one-time, organization-wide email, without supplementary messaging, are much more likely to have low participation.


On the other hand, doing training sessions and interactive activities with employees leading up to a diversity census sets it up nicely for more engagement.


Employees respond well when topical seminars are offered, helping the diversity survey fit into a larger initiative.


Linking to bottom line

Demonstrating how diversity is linked to the bottom line is vital to the funding, support and resources to support progress toward inclusion. As some organizations struggle with exactly what to measure and how to determine whether their programs and initiatives are truly impactful, it helps to remember that what gets measured is what leaders focus on and what gets measured is what organizations invest in.


In short, what gets measured gets done. An effective diversity survey is the first step in connecting the dots between an organization’s goals, leadership and employees.


Michael Bach is the founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion in Toronto. For more information, visit www.ccdi.ca.

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