Employers in the UK and Ireland need to dial up the action to prevent staff losing faith in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, according to this new report

Closing the Gap Between Talk and Action: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Today’s Workplace surveys 2,005 employees at all seniority levels, from a range of industries including the public sector. It follows up and expands on our previous 2021 study

The research revealed that 71% of all respondents, and 68% who are members of minority groups, believe their organisation has succeeded in making at least some progress towards becoming more diverse over the last three years. A third even stated that such change had been significant. 

While 71% of those surveyed also perceived their organisation to have become somewhat more inclusive, only two thirds of members of under-represented groups felt the same way. They also had much less confidence that their employer did a good job of treating people equally and fairly, particularly when it came to disability. 

Put another way, many respondents felt their employers could be doing more. In fact, just under two thirds (62%) considered that their organisation spends more time talking about DEI than taking action. The figure rises to 70% among under-represented groups. 

DEI 2 Dr Zaheer Ahmad, Haleon

“You can sense a growing feeling of frustration on the frontline. Employees aren’t seeing the level of tangible action they expect.” 

Dr Zaheer Ahmad (pictured, above), Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Haleon

Common problems here include only small year-on-year increases in the number of workers from diverse backgrounds and skewed focus in certain areas due to internal corporate governance goals and targets. 

Senior leaders and the workforce implications of slow DEI 

Senior leaders overall were more positive in general terms about the progress organisations are making than junior managers – unless they belonged to an under-represented group themselves. In this instance, 48% – compared with 26% of their non-minority director colleagues – indicated they had experienced feelings of alienation or of being unwelcome in the workplace. 

As a result, the report stated: “This is likely to be a major factor in why senior leaders now attach such huge importance to creating an inclusive culture within their organisation. Not only do they recognise that an inclusive culture is essential to build and maintain a highly skilled and engaged workforce, and to attract people from diverse talent pools in order to meet skills gaps; senior leaders also have more personal drivers.” 

In fact, many now appear to be taking DEI so seriously that they would consider leaving if they felt insufficient progress was being made. According to the report, a huge 86% indicated that their organisation’s DEI approach would have an impact on their plans to stay in their role or not. The same applied to just under three quarters of junior managers who are members of at least one minority group, and to 66% of such employees overall. 

As Zellis CEO John Petter pointed out: “This research shows that failure to make meaningful progress on diversity, equity and inclusion creates a serious risk of losing talent at all levels. The emerging gap between words and action reinforces the need for companies to have a rigorous, evidence-based approach to DEI.” 

Harnessing data can move the DEI dial 

DEI 2022 Zellis Report senior leaders

As to how employers can go about taking such a rigorous, evidence-based approach, John suggests a good starting point is to collect data on colleagues’ characteristics “systematically and at scale”, integrating it into HR reporting and analytics.  

The idea here is that “by understanding their workforce, organisations can begin to take real steps towards becoming more inclusive and fairer”. One way of doing this is to use DEI information to identify areas of poor performance and develop strategies to address them. 

Access to DEI data also enables organisations and their staff to measure the impact of their related initiatives over time and to ensure a process of continual improvement. But a key challenge is how to get hold of this kind of personal information. 

The most common approach is asking employees to fill in job application questionnaires during the recruitment process and to update their information in the company’s HR software. Other options include new joiner or employee engagement surveys with a diversity section, or relevant questions in appraisals and performance reviews. 

Where DEI data sharing problems lie 

Luckily, four out of five people feel quite comfortable sharing data relating to their nationality, gender or gender identity, ethnicity, age and marital status. But such comfort levels decrease the lower down the organisational ladder individuals sit. People are also less comfortable disclosing socio-economic background and pregnancy/potential pregnancy. 

What puts off a huge 87% of individuals from sharing personal information with their employer, however, is if they are unclear about the use of such data and why it needs to be collected in the first place. Other concerns include personal anonymity and how their data would be stored. 

Worryingly, almost one in five also said they would be concerned about the impact disclosing personal information could have on their job safety and career progression. The same number lacked confidence that their data would be used to improve DEI practices anyway, thereby creating a rather tricky chicken and egg situation. 

How to get DEI programmes right 

DEI 2022 Zellis Report Aggie Mutuma

But there are solutions. As the report indicated, employees attach a lot of importance to being able to see clear evidence that senior leaders care about creating a more inclusive culture.

They also feel that “strengthening anti-discriminatory policies and creating open communication channels for employees to voice concerns related to inclusion” can make a big difference. In fact, four out of five respondents believe it is impossible for organisations to effect positive change unless input from staff was included in the mix. 

Another key imperative is to boost diversity at mid-management level, to create a more diverse future leadership pipeline and get more people from minority groups into senior positions. 

“New generations of workers are expecting and demanding far more of their employers”. This means failure to get it will inevitably lead to growing scepticism, particularly among under-represented groups. The time for only talking is now over. Employers need to demonstrate a strong and ongoing commitment to improving diversity, equity and inclusion, not through their words, but through their actions.” 

Aggie Mutuma, CEO and Lead Consulting Director, Mahogany Inclusion Partners

Build DEI into your HR reporting and analytics 

DEI 2022 Zellis Report data

Companies need to have a rigorous, evidence-based approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. This starts with collecting diversity data systematically and at scale. This requires that employees feel confident enough to disclose their characteristics including gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities and social background.  

With this in mind, Zellis has launched a new module to help collect this data systematically and in line with best practice. It’s free to all customers of our cloud-based payroll and HR software through the self-service MyView module. We hope that this, coupled with strong senior leadership support in our customer base, can contribute to making workplaces more inclusive and fairer.   

For more key stats and detailed insights, download the full report.