Treating diversity differently from other organizational goals leaves the firm vulnerable to consulting fads, symbolic actions and slow or no progress, according to a new report.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have the opportunity to rethink strategies, goals and ways to measure them — key performance indicators (KPIs), as experts call them. During this process, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) should be at the center of strategies, but organizations often struggle with deploying DEI goals, even though diverse workplaces boost business performance.

It can be really challenging for companies to figure out where to start, but companies can use evidence-based insights to create DEI initiatives and, later on, quantifiable goals, according to the report entitled, What Works, Evidence-Based Ideas to Increase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace. The report, based on research by academics and business leaders, offers guidance for HR professionals, diversity officers and front-line managers.

Countering Implicit Bias

A few years ago, they researched workplace inequality, bias and discrimination to address inequality, bias and discrimination in workplaces. In 2018, they hosted a meeting of academics, researchers, business professionals and strategists at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard to discuss what is proven to work, which ultimately resulted in the report.

In the report, researchers focused on countering discriminatory behavior by tracing implicit attitudes and beliefs about different social groups. Major U.S. companies, such as Starbucks, have provided employees with implicit bias training. The Seattle-based company closed more than 8,000 U.S. stores and its corporate office for several hours in 2018 for training following an incident in Philadelphia when a store manager racially profiled two Black customers.

“What Works?” indicated that improvements in implicit (and explicit) attitudes in the workplace toward race, skin tone and gender roles can improve over the long-term as a result of “large-scale cultural shifts,” according to the Harvard researchers. But there’s little change in regard to implicit bias against age, disability and body weight, which increases over time. Implicit attitudes or beliefs have predicted discriminatory behavior, “particularly when aggregated at the population level,” according to researchers. It benefits companies to understand the nature of implicit social cognition — how individuals process information — including its parameters for change, the report noted.

Avoid Consulting Fads or Symbolic Actions

A recent survey by Clutch, a B2B rating and review firm, found that as businesses engage in efforts to become more diverse, HR professionals may build overly diverse perceptions of their companies, creating surface-level diversity in an organization.

In “What Works?,” there’s a chapter dedicated to the importance of data usage. The “simple recipe” for managing diversity is “to develop metrics, make them transparent, and hold people accountable, just like for any other outcome of interest, be it profit, sales or market penetration. Treating diversity differently from other organizational goals leaves the firm vulnerable to consulting fads, symbolic actions and slow or no progress.

Useful metrics include collecting data on aspects such as gender, race, ethnicity, age and disability, the report stated. “This will permit analysis of flows of hiring, promotions, terminations, and departures by category at the job level,” the researchers said. Companies should also use detailed pay data to analyze pay gaps. Keeping records on internal and external complaints of discrimination, bias and harassment as well as managers’ responses, helps to identify systemic problems in the workplace, the report stated.

The researchers also noted that making employment processes and the outcome of their decisions transparent to stakeholders — employees and the public — can foster leadership accountability.

Engaging Managers to Achieve Goals

In the creation of DEI strategies, the decision about which KPIs to track and share with stakeholders can be a collaborative effort between the workers in an organization and management. Managers have great insight into what workers need, what’s going on in the organization.

This idea is bolstered by findings by researchers at Stanford VMWare Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. Their work concluded managers’ involvement in the design process of DEI strategies can increase the likelihood of effectiveness and sustainability of D&I work over time. They also found that organizations can build momentum by introducing initiatives to the most engaged departments or teams first.

These findings may have immediate implications. As employees’ stress levels and anxiety increase amid the pandemic, employers looked to managers to address their needs as well as foster resiliency, according to a Willis Towers Watson survey of 200 employers published April 27. A quarter of respondents have increased employee training opportunities for managers, and another third are planning to do the same, according to the survey. The majority (89%) of employers said that throughout the pandemic, managers have shown support to employees.

Using Fair Technology for Candidates

One of the focuses of the report is the importance of proactively trying to audit any technologies being used in the workplace to make sure bias isn’t creeping in.

For more than 50 years, “despite countless studies that have shed light on the inevitability of human bias,” HR professionals have “relied on methods that introduce these biases to talent pipelines and employment selection procedures,” according to the report. The business leaders noted that in using technological innovation for promoting DEI, there can be pluses and minuses. However, they described how their companies have worked to develop tools to evaluate candidates.

Technology used for screening and hiring must be built on data points that show evidence of fairness across demographic groups, according to the report. The business leaders suggested solutions to prevent bias, including: designing tools that mitigate the risk of human bias in impacting outcomes; designing technology-enabled assessments that predict job success and are objectively job relevant; and hiding demographic indicators from decision makers. Before the technology is used on job seekers, it should be “proactively tested for and address disparate impact in selection algorithms,” according to the report.

As the COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge in many ways for workers at companies, the report is aimed to help organizations regardless of where they’re at in DEI processes and to offer new interventions that might be useful. We believe that they’ll be useful as we move forward in the post-pandemic world.

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