As stark, and even counterintuitive, as it may sound, the success or failure of workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives rest squarely on the availability of good quality data. 

Sound data helps understand the makeup of their workforce, and the parts of their identity which are intrinsic to their experience. It also helps leadership get to grips with the scale and scope of the DEI challenges they face, notably the areas of greatest strength and weakness among their own colleagues.  

Just as important, it likewise provides organisations with a baseline for measuring the impact of current and future DEI-related activities so they can make targeted improvements, rooting such decisions in evidence rather than simply speculation. 

This means, in turn, that employers are in a much better position to hold themselves to account and ensure particular policies and practices are designed to work effectively for specific workforce demographics, enabling them to boost staff engagement, progression, retention, and even attraction, in the process. 

As Zaheer Ahmad, Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity for Consumer Healthcare at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, pointed out in the recent Economist Impact report, sponsored by Zellis: “Data is absolutely fundamental to the development of a successful DEI initiative. If you don’t have data that shows where bias or discrimination is, it’s impossible to implement effective strategies.” 

The report – available for download from Zellis – is titled ‘Time to Act: Seven principles for effective DEI data gathering’. It’s based on the findings of a survey undertaken in July and August this year among 1,000 employees in the UK and Ireland, augmented by interviews with 10 leading experts delivering DEI initiatives at the highest level and at the largest organisations.  

How to encourage data sharing 

As for the willingness of these employees to share data with their employers, evidence of data-hesitancy is hard to find. More than two thirds (68%) said they were either ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ to do so. Only 10% indicated that it was either ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ that they would get involved.   

However, they did have certain concerns. Their top worries likely to discourage data sharing were born out of poor internal communications, resulting in a lack of clarity over how their data would be used (34%) and why it needed to be collected in the first place (33%). There was also anxiety over how anonymous their data was likely to remain (27%). 

A clear correlation exists between how much progress individual organisations had made in terms of creating an inclusive company culture and how willing employees were to share relevant information – with trust being the vital factor.  

Among those companies that had made noticeable progress in embedding DEI into their culture, two thirds of staff said they were ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ to trust sharing their data with their employer. This figure compared with only 42% of employees who were willing to follow suit among business that had made little, or slow, progress here. 

The Do and Don’ts of Diversity Data  

One crucial but common mistake involves being too limited or restrictive in type and range of characteristics surveyed. Influential factors like socio-economic class, ethnicity, physical and mental disabilities are underrepresented as companies remain focused instead on age, nationality and gender.  

Binna Kandola, co-founder and senior partner of DEI consultancy Pearn Kandola, explained the problem with this approach is that it only looks at individual aspects of diversity, ignoring the fact that employees have multiple, overlapping, intersectional identities. Analysing individual pieces of data relating to race, sexual orientation, religion or disability alone makes it impossible to provide a clear picture of either the workforce as a whole or an individual’s multifaceted identity.  

Failing to see people in the round not only leads to low rates of data sharing. It also prevents employers from understanding and truly representing the interests of the most marginalised employees in their workplaces. 

The report finds that, in order to be effective, data collection cannot be a one-off activity. Instead, the process must be simple enough to do on a continual basis by making it easy for staff to update their personal information, for example, in the organisation’s HR system. One notable finding from the report was that employees were willing, indeed responded positively, to more regular contact.  

As Mr Kandola concluded: “Companies must take a long-term view of how long it will take them to obtain sufficient data, and data collection cannot be a one-time exercise. Organisations that currently perform the best on DEI are at risk of regression should they fail to prioritise sustaining progress over the long-term by repeating activities, such as surveys.” 

To download the Economist Impact’s ground-breaking report, click here