We're Looking at the Wrong Workplace Diversity Numbers
Hiring and retention are just the beginning.
Well before Black Lives Matter thrust the issue into the spotlight — again — the research on workplace diversity was crystal clear: Diverse companies are more innovative and perform better. There's even mounting evidence that companies that hire for and promote diversity and inclusion will come out of the pandemic stronger than those who don't. Yet so many companies continually fail to move the needle on D&I, with people of color, women, LGBTQ+ and people living with disabilities largely underrepresented in leadership roles across industries.
So what gives? Now that companies from Microsoft to Amazon to Adidas (to name but a few) are being publicly called out for failing to walk their talk on improving diversity, people are quickly losing patience with companies that mask inaction with good intentions and toothless public statements. Those things alone are not enough to effect real change. What might, however, is delving deeper into the data. Doing so can reveal some ugly truths. Are companies willing to act on what the data reveal?
Good data, ugly truths
Yes, some progress has been made on D&I. Many companies already track hiring, retention and attrition among various employee groups, but what's needed to provoke real and lasting progress is more sophisticated analysis that captures the experience of diverse employees at work. We now have the tools and analytics at our fingertips to do just that. The problem is, the pictures they paint are not always, or even often, pretty.
Though many companies make concerted efforts to improve diversity, when it comes to hiring and recruiting, they don't track the many factors that dictate someone's experience at work. These are things like whether they're invited to social gatherings, included in meetings or properly mentored, to name a few. It's these "small" details, not simply pay and promotions, that ultimately influence someone to stay or leave, and it's in these interactions that discrimination, micro aggressions and a lack of support derail efforts to improve diversity. Without this information, companies create massive blind spots for themselves, making it nearly impossible to pinpoint and address destructive patterns that hamper progress.
For example, say a company hired several women of color, but after a year almost all had quit. Retention data shows that they've left, but not the critical reasons why. Cohort analysis tools that capture a person's detailed interactions and movements through an organization allow companies to tease out critical nuances that are often missed in simple entrance and exit data. Applying cohort analysis can reveal significant patterns over time, such as encounters with certain managers or missed promotions compared to other groups.
This type of analysis can indicate how race and gender play a role in turnover by revealing day-to-day interactions that fail to support an inclusive and diverse workplace — or actively work against it. The tools are available, so why are so many companies still reluctant to take the data plunge?
Data won't do the hard work of change
It's true that D&I data isn't always straightforward. It can be expensive, time consuming and perceived as intrusive — in some countries, certain data collection around race and gender is even illegal.
In my experience, however, the main reason businesses don't dive below surface level D&I metrics is because it reveals truths that are hard to acknowledge — and even harder to address. The fact is, making real change on diversity and inclusion is a long and difficult road. It won't happen overnight. The solutions aren't always obvious, and companies striving to make real change will certainly fail along the way (and must be willing to do so publicly).
This is a tall order for organizations already fearful of being called out for their lack of progress. What's more, many organizations don't want to investigate the problem because that don't have immediate and obvious solutions. Too often, seemingly intractable issues are put on the back burner, with little effort or encouragement put toward finding a way forward. Companies that choose not to get a full picture of where they fail on D&I often do so to avoid uncovering a compelling reason to do the hard work and dedicate the resources required to make real change. That's why, even among companies that have Chief Diversity Officers, only 35 percent actually measure employee demographic data. Need further proof? My company makes a tool expressly designed to collect key data around D&I and, despite the public attention paid to the issue, it is still not a top priority for HR investment.
Understanding the problem to get to the solution
Look, I get it. As an engineer who works in tech — an industry with long-standing challenges when it comes to D&I — I understand how overwhelming this can seem. Addressing diversity and inclusion is still very much a work in progress at our company — one we approach by recruiting female engineers and people of color, but also by ensuring they are offered mentorship, encouraged to participate in meetings and offered ongoing support once the onboarding process is over.
Still, I know we are far from perfect on this front.
The bottom line, however, is that collecting in-depth information on D&I is absolutely critical to finally shifting the dial for good. The reality is it's impossible to come up with effective solutions to problems that aren't fully understood, and the backward approach most companies take on this issue — failing to look into the problem because they lack solutions — is costing them dearly, both in public perception and their own business goals.
Like all difficult endeavors, there are no shortcuts here. Technology and tools can help, but companies have to start by being willing to look at the hard truths sitting right in front of them rather than being satisfied with showcasing surface-level progress made in hiring and recruitment. Only then can they get through the messy business of addressing D&I and truly come out better on the other side.
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