◀︎ BLOG

Why You Should Treat Your DEI Data With Rigor and Care

Jan 31, 2022WORDS BY Lauren Collins

Proceed with care. It’s some of the best advice I can give when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion data—how to best measure it and what to do with that data once you have it. As head of IDEO’s global change management team, which focuses on belonging and equity, I’ve seen the importance of being rigorous with and thoughtful about the information we collect and how we share it.

Telling someone to handle data with care might suggest that it’s fragile or in danger of breaking. That’s not the way I view it. I see a responsibility to keep the data whole. It’s about integrity.

That applies from the very start: gathering and understanding your DEI data. Do so with rigor. The system, process, tools, and analysis method you’re using should stay consistent. Looking at the same factors the same way every time allows you to measure progress, and the uniformity will help people trust the data.

When it comes to data related to DEI (Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei puts it nicely as “achievement” and “sentiment” data), the achievement part is fairly straightforward. It’s what the organization looks like across different levels of the employee life cycle in a number of demographics. There are the core metrics around representation in terms of race and gender, and some organizations also track sexuality, disability, and education. These metrics help us answer questions like: How diverse is our senior-most leadership level? Which groups are leaving the organization the fastest? Are we over- or under-recruiting certain identities? Are we promoting men faster than women?

The sentiment data is about bringing in the employee voice and getting at what it feels like to work at the organization. If the achievement data is the what, the sentiment data is the why. These are the questions around culture, about whether employees can say “I can be my authentic self at work” or “I have easy access to information.” These are the questions that help you get at whether the culture is too transactional, too cautious, whether people feel they can innovate. The achievement markers are the same across the board, but the sentiment questions tend to change by organization and can be shaped based on places you might have concerns about based on early hunches or focus groups.

Presenting the DEI data you’ve collected to your workforce isn’t enough. You also need to share the actions you plan to take based on it.

Once you have collected the data, transparency is important. But pause first. The way forward is to proceed with care. Data and information can be a burden to people, especially if they don’t have the power to impact it, so it’s important to understand who holds the accountability. If you were to go out to the broader organization and say, “Hey everyone, we have a lot of evidence we’re failing on these metrics,” people will immediately want to know what you’re going to do about it. Building trust requires that you have thoughtfully considered possible interventions and solutions. There is responsibility that comes with transparency.

Design can be a powerful way to arrive at those interventions. Let the data first sit inside the group that is accountable for designing ways to prototype and pilot initiatives that might help improve future metrics. For example, if the sentiment data shows your people don’t feel like they belong upon initially joining the organization and don’t know where to get the information they need to do their job well, you likely have an onboarding problem. Maybe you’re putting a disproportionate amount of energy into recruiting but not ensuring those employees succeed once they are inside the organization.

What does the way forward look like? Use the insights that emerge from the data to prototype interventions.

With that insight, you can prototype interventions: What would it look like if we paired every new employee with someone from the same background or interest who is thriving in the organization? What if there was a two-week support circle for new employees every 60 days?

Once you have your interventions, you’ll want to test the ideas with a few groups of people and get their feedback: in the onboarding example, perhaps the ones who have been at your company for less than a year and the ones who the intervention might put a burden on. It's best practice to invite the employees at the margins of the organization (typically from a race and gender lens) to get their input on your recommendations—if they are willing and it’s not a burden to them—before sharing with leadership. If you’re able to design interventions that work for those most marginalized in the organization, the solutions will work for everyone.

Onboarding is something we’re working on at IDEO based on our last Culture survey. When we dug into the data we realized that as a creative organization, new hires want to tangibly contribute from day one. Great onboarding gives the security and confidence to do that, and so we have been piloting initiatives ranging from having two leaders dedicated full-time to onboarding within our talent organization to having new hires shadow a designer of the same craft on a project so they can start to understand how to create value from day one.

Treating the data with care involves sharing your findings and suggested actions with various groups of people, from those most impacted by the interventions to those who sit at the margins of the organization, and getting their feedback.

Once you’ve identified some potential interventions and soft-tested them with the right stakeholders, you are ready to share the data company-wide: “Here’s what we heard and learned and here are three to five things we’re going to prioritize as next steps.” You aren’t restricted to sharing shortcomings. Accentuate positive findings too, things you’re trying that are working or successes that you’re going to amplify going forward.

Especially with DEI data, remember that internal audiences are more important than external. A lot of companies capture this data and put it on their website as a recruiting and tracking tool, and that’s a great way for organizations to hold themselves accountable. However, the fastest way to break trust is to make employees feel like the data is only being captured for external purposes. Keep the emphasis on collecting and sharing data internally in service of improving employees’ experiences at the company and the effort will feel genuine.

A daily walk along Chicago’s riverwalk helps Lauren recalibrate.

Regularly deep diving into achievement and sentiment data can be emotionally taxing. If you’re doing this work, be sure to give yourself a way to take a break from it. Last year I started walking every morning on Chicago’s riverwalk, because it grounds me and gives me perspective. It’s easy to get hyper-focused on the challenges or overwhelmed by the gaps we need to fix and inequalities we need to right. Taking a moment to get my body outside and walk around helps remind me there’s more beyond the problems I’m trying to solve and helps me be present for people while I am working. There’s something so inspiring and revitalizing about having fresh air hit my face every day. And even though I pretty much walk the same route, I notice something new every day, something I didn’t see the day before. I try to bring this same curiosity to my work. Even though the challenge may look the same from day to day, there’s always a new idea or potential solution just one step away.

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