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Economist research highlights DEI trust deficit

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New research conducted by Economist Impact and commissioned by Zellis has revealed enthusiasm among British and Irish workers to contribute to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programmes by providing personal information.

However, many organisations are far behind where they must be to build the trust needed to gather that data, most notably by a lack of clear communications and commitments to action.

The research, conducted at a time of intense scrutiny over corporate DEI efforts, combines the views of 1000 people currently employed in the UK and Ireland with the expert opinions of ten leading diversity and HR experts.

The report, entitled Time to Act: Seven principles for effective DEI data gathering, provides a rich perspective on current concerns and barriers to diversity data collection and applies expert perspectives to offer seven principles an organisation can apply to improve.

Fiona Cannon OBE, Group Sustainable Business at Lloyds Banking Group and former Deputy-Chairs of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said of the research: “To be effective, inclusion and diversity needs to be treated like any other business issue. That means, as a starting point, understanding and analysing your data in order to develop a focused plan, set goals and monitor progress with clear accountability in place. If DEI is a priority for you, data has to be a priority. It’s as simple as that.”

Companies can no longer attribute poor DEI performance to employee hesitancy to offer up data. A clear majority of UK and Republic of Ireland-based employees are willing to disclose data pertaining to their demographic characteristics: 68% of respondents are “likely” or “very likely” to participate in such processes. Those who identified as a minority group are even more inclined to be “likely” or “very likely” to participate (75% compared with 66% who do not identify with a minority group).

This willingness is especially pronounced among people who recognise leadership efforts to improve diversity and foster culture of inclusion. Firms that have a poor track record on DEI suffer ‘chicken and egg’ paradox, where a lack of trust in commitment to diversity and inclusion is widespread are most likely to be starved of the data they need to enact effective DEI programmes. Only 42% of employees that believe their organisations have made no progress on DEI initiatives are “likely” or “very likely” to participate in data sharing, more than 20% less than among those at firms where some progress has been recognised.

The research does not find that all employees of are equally comfortable with disclosure. Only a third of racial and ethnic minorities and employees with a cognitive/mental or physical disability say they are “very likely” to participate in efforts to collect data, for instance, compared to 44% of individuals identifying as LGBTQ+. People who identify as a member of no minority group are notably the least likely of any group to express their willingness to share data.

When asked what factors are most likely to deter them from sharing data, trust and understanding in how data would be used emerges among the most significant factor. One third of respondents cite a lack of clarity about how the data will be used and why the data needs to be collected as the biggest deterrents. Over a quarter of employees are worried about “the anonymity of the data collected” and “how the data will be stored and protected”, illustrating how critical trust is to the offer of personal data.

The survey also reveals a disconnect between the types of data employees think should be collected and the data employers are collecting. The most commonly requested data by employers is age, nationality and sex, but employees consider data on race and ethnicity and physical disability or impairment to be most important for the development and implementation of effective DEI strategy.

The research offers a range of suggestions to build the trust necessary to gather more employee data. Most concerns can be allayed with clearer communication with employees about the purpose of collecting DEI data, public commitments to improvements to diversity and inclusion, and taking care in the methods, timing and means of gathering this data.

The top recommendations compiled from the diversity experts who contributed to the Economist research are:

  1. Provide clear explanations of how data will be used
    1. explaining need to promote fairness and inclusivity for all
  2. Update policies and processes to foster an inclusive workplace   
    1. ensuring that anti-discriminatory policies are strengthened and reporting mechanisms are simplified
  3. Frame data collection as part of a company-wide transformation
    1. involving everyone, from leadership to non-managerial employees
  4. Focus on reaching those whose disclosure rates would otherwise be lower
    1. insuring marginalised groups, particularly of racial minorities and people with disabilities, are listened to in order to gain their trust
  5. Ask for a wide range of data and make sure to ask the “right” questions
    1. covering the wide range of characteristics that employees can identify with
  6. Focus on the specificity of identity
    1. maintaining sensitivity when categorising characteristics and analysing data
  7. Make it easy for employees to update data at all points of their careers
    1. technology and procedure should make inputting, and updating, personal details easy

John Petter, CEO of Zellis, said: “The Economist’s research must be read as good news. It provides the clearest evidence yet of the opportunity to capture the benefits of a more diverse, inclusive workforce. No one is suggesting the work to build trust and a culture of inclusion is easy. But even for those who are unsure about where to begin, it’s time to put to bed myth that colleagues are unwilling to offer the data you need make changes.”

Fiona Cannon, Group Sustainable Business at Lloyds Banking Group, said: “I would have loved to have a report like this 10 years ago when we first started looking at data disclosure, as it clearly lays out the steps that companies need to go through and highlights the key challenges that need to be overcome. We know that colleagues are happy to share their data if they understand and trust how the organisation is going to use it and the report outlines how organisations can go about building that trust.”