Many DEI executives seek to gather workforce demographic data beyond race and gender. “That is something that we as a company are looking at – to start our own database of how our people are self-reporting for sexual orientation, for example, or disability, because these aren’t required metrics that companies or that employees have to report,” says Amber Micala Arnold, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at MWW, a global public relations firm.
However, collecting data on sexual orientation, mental health, disability status and other demographic traits beyond race and gender can be difficult for DEI executives. Employees may not feel comfortable sharing such private information with their employers.
The more granular the data, the more companies can understand and support subsets of their workforces as part of their DEI initiatives. ”The more information we have, the more insights we have about our people, the better we’re able to respond and address the needs of our workforce,” says Nadine Augusta, real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
For instance, many employees with disabilities may go unnoticed and underserved. “In the United States, we’re at about 250,000 employees,” says Walgreens Boots Alliance senior vice president and global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer Carlos Cubia. “For that 250,000, what are their needs? How many of our employees need accommodations, and we don’t even know about that, or accessibility issues that we don’t know about?”
To get workforce demographic data, DEI executives typically are driven by the EEO-1 report, which requires private companies with 100 or more employees to annually report the demographic breakdown of their workforce – by race and gender — to the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Employers can ask their employees to disclose that information, and, if employees don’t, employers can do a visual examination. “They can do a visual identification of that employee and, using their best judgment, indicate the race and ethnicity and the gender of that employee,” explains Maureen O’Neil, chief diversity officer at Consilio, which provides document review technology for law firms.
There’s growing pressure for the EEOC to expand reporting requirements. But even if the EEO-1 came to include sexual orientation and other details about workforces, individuals would not be required to report it to their employers. “While companies of a certain size are required to file that report, employees are not mandated to voluntarily disclose information,” O’Neil says. “No one can force you to disclose that information.”
So chief diversity officers will still have to figure out how to collect more personal demographic data from workers voluntarily.
Here are three must-dos for collecting demographic data beyond race and gender.
1. Survey Employees on Less-sensitive Topics First
Employees need to trust that the information they provide will not be used against them. “I talk to my fellow chief diversity officers from across the country – large and small employers. This is a challenge that they all have as HR professionals,” says Walgreeens’ Cubia. “How do we get people to disclose sensitive information that, in the past, has traditionally been used against them?”
Trust is the most important factor in the success of any survey. “The biggest factor that determines whether employees are going to respond to a survey or not is whether they trust that that feedback or that information is going to be used appropriately and not used against them,” says Benjamin Granger, head of employee experience advisory services at Qualtrics. “What that implies is that the company needs to have a rhythm of listening and surveying before they start asking about very sensitive things.”
Qualtrics recommends clients start off with surveys on less-sensitive topics.“For example, making regular pulses a core part of an organization’s employee experience program,” Granger explains. “Asking about a range of topics–including overall engagement, well-being, inclusion, productivity, intent to stay and more—can be integral for building trust among employees.”
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2. Be Transparent About Why You Are Collecting the Data
“We’ve heard this from our ERGs that people want transparency,” says Ashlee Davis, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Ancestry, a genealogy tech firm. “We ensure that people know how the information is going to be used and why it’s being asked.”
At Walgreens, which successfully collected sexual orientation and disability data from its UK force in a survey with 67% participation rate earlier this year, “we did a disclosure notice so that folks know how we were going to use the data,” says Cubia. “As we think about representation, as we think about things that we want to do as a company, having this data will help us to make future determinations in terms of policies, practices, goals.
“We even leave room for questions,” adds Cubia. “We say, ‘If you have any issues, please let us know.’ We want to be very forthcoming with the plans.”
3. Let Employees Know Their Privacy Will Remain Secure
Reinforce the non-personally-identifiable nature of sensitive demographic surveys, and stress the privacy protections in place. We’re “very protective of the data, we talked about our privacy laws, we talked about what we can and can’t share,” Cubia asserts.
Employees too often think the information they share will be traced back to them. “Employees overestimate how much access companies have to that data,” says Qualtrics’ Granger. Experience management software firms such as his, in adhering to terms spelled out for survey-takers, may not even collect and won’t reveal unique identities.
“The vast majority of our customers are not able to tie responses to an individual,” says Granger. “They basically can only describe the type of individual.”