How can research benefit diversity and inclusion initiatives?
Research is often the first step in an organisation’s journey to cultural transformation. Global players especially want to harness the power of new d&i initiatives and research is essential in ensuring they are adapted to different geographies and organisational challenges. The question is: how?
GDP Head of Consultancy Theresa Stearn specialises in the creation of effective research programmes and solutions at every stage of d&I transformation projects. She has delivered successful projects with Taylor Wimpey, Barratt and Walgreen Boots as well as many global projects with organisations in culturally complex and challenging environments.
We spoke to her to find out more about how research can be used to add value to d&I initiatives
What role does research play in helping organisations become more diverse and inclusive?
Research gives companies a clear picture of where they are and where they want to be.
Organisations often initiate a d&I intervention as a knee-jerk reaction. Perhaps there has been a claim for sexual harassment, or a group of people leave unexpectedly. The business feels they need to be seen to be doing something and they move forwards without having a clear picture.
Research clarifies the actual gap they need to fill. In our experience, there are always surprising elements that emerge that the business hadn’t expected to find, and this can completely reset priorities.
Benchmarking can help managers to assess what change or impact can reasonably be expected and what ‘good’ could look like over a period of time.
What are some of the key factors to take into account when planning d&i research?
Understand what you want the research to achieve. The answer should always be ‘in order to’ rather than ‘because’. It needs to look forwards to your destination and not backwards to an event that may have prompted the concern. Have a clear idea of what you are planning to do with the results.
Be prepared for surprises. The distribution of answers across different groups may raise important flags that need to be resolved before you move forwards with any planned activity.
Know what capacity you have both to undertake and analyse the research and then to respond to the results. Many organisations start a d&I journey with research, often an employee survey. If you don’t have the capacity to follow through, it’s something employees remember and can lead to cynicism and poor response rates in future.
Ensure the research fits in and supports other initiatives. e.g. gender pay gap. The research should enhance or confirm what organisations are finding in those areas.
Consider all the factors such as, how long things will take, how many people need to be involved, who will take which roles, what approvals look like, diary management for key stakeholders and authorisers who may be absent at key times, how the team will communicate, what sort of cost is involved, whether it’s appropriate to get an external organisation for some or all of the work, especially if there are contentious issues.
What are the research options?
There are several main options, assess the viability of each carefully before choosing which is the best path.
- Surveys, which can be delivered with as much or as little technology as is appropriate.
- Analysis of existing data on staff turnover, retention, existing initiatives, take-up of programmes, recruitment data, graduate programme, benefits, pay etc.
- Comparative benchmarking with one or more companies in your industry.
- Comparative benchmarking with one or more companies with shared characteristics.
- Third party assessment – e.g. invite a charity that specialises in disability to assess how the company can become more disability friendly.
- Look at third party awards and benchmarks as these often represent best practice that is common to the most diverse and inclusive companies.
What is the best way to get the most value from a research project?
This comes back to the question about planning.
Know what you are trying to achieve from the outset. Be prepared for surprises. Make sure you have the capacity to deal with the whole project as well as some contingency for the unexpected. Factor in process crunch points like approvals into your planning. Use the research to support other initiatives so you extract the best value.
Another important factor is test before you roll out. Sample a questionnaire with one division or a team before taking it to the whole workforce.
It is also important to involve departments beyond HR to drive the process. Ensuring leadership, operational and financial divisions are involved is key to successful research.
What if a company has limited resources – are there any options?
Either look at ways of reducing cost out of new bespoke research, or look at how you can replicate bespoke research with existing data.
Look at other companies that are similar to yours, or who have already done similar things, to establish if there are useful pockets of data or learnings that are relevant to your business.
Examine public sector requirements and case studies via diversity organisations such as Business in the Community. Public sector best practice will prompt questions and highlight priorities to drive inclusivity in your business, services and culture.
If a bespoke approach is required, could paid interns, graduates or placement students under supervision be sufficient as a project team? Could it be a development opportunity for a more junior regular member of the company?
What are some of the pitfalls/mistakes that you’ve seen over the years?
Many of the pitfalls lie in inadequate planning. Not being clear why you’re doing research or not having an end in mind.
Sometimes companies ask questions out of curiosity rather than a specific intention to act on results. Research should always lead to change. If you ask a question, it will raise an expectation. If the expectation isn’t met, people will want to know why.
Companies often ignore valuable intelligence. Employee engagement surveys, for example, cover a whole range of topics. But many companies miss the opportunity to mine the data along demographic lines – to establish, for example, if female employees are more or less satisfied with their working conditions compared with their male colleagues. Or if younger employees feel more or less engaged than older colleagues.
Another risk is when specific individuals use research to prove a point rather than to discover and learn. This can restrict lines of enquiry because the objective is too narrow.
Great can also be the enemy of good. If employee response rates are low, companies commonly delay any action until the data set reflects perfection. Work with responses you have, proportions you have. Make decisions based on that. If people don’t respond that tells you something. Don’t ignore it.
I have often seen a reluctance to ask about ‘contentious’ issues such as bullying or harassment, or to ask for demographic data such as sexual orientation even though surveys responses are anonymous. This can mean really important areas are missed.
What are some of the new trends that you’re seeing in d&i research?
Organisations are starting to use research to dig much deeper and this is changing how it is being applied.
There is much greater recognition for a wider number of diversities, and it can help to consider them separately or in interdependent groups.
Research is becoming more issues led, say, looking at work/life balance or talent retention.
Companies are wanting to look at cultural issues that affect everyone rather than focusing on one group and unfair treatment.