Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Government: Chapter 4

Posted on April 13, 2021

Black Lives Matter Protest with signs
Photo by Kalea Morgan on Unsplash

This series on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Government was written by Vince Vu. Stay tuned for the five-part series on Diversity, Equity, and Belonging in Government. Read Chapter One. And Chapter Two. Chapter Three.

Chapter 4: Building a Culture of Action to Improve DEIB in your Organization

Welcome to the fourth chapter of our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) in Government series (“the Work”)! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, or want to do some refreshing, please check out chapter 1, chapter 2, or chapter 3 of our series in engaging with the Work.

Last time, we took a dive into the weeds and talked about the specific ways that you can listen to DEIB feedback. We compared and contrasted an old way of collecting data to a new way of listening to stakeholder feedback. We reiterated the fact that people don’t suffer from survey fatigue – they suffer from lack-of-action fatigue. We went into the best practices for asking demographic questions – first, framing upfront your point of view about demographics, and why you’re asking them. We examined the terminology we use when talking about demographics, and even went into nitpicky details like the order of response options in demographic questions. Finally, we highlighted why it’s so important to disaggregate your data, and be as explicit as possible (while protecting employee anonymity!) about the disparate experiences of employees.

This week, it’s time to talk about why we’ve been collecting all this data in the first place – to take action!

Why is a culture of action important?

First, let’s spend some time talking about why acting on feedback is so important. Not only does it have programmatic implications (after all, why go through the trouble of collecting all this data if you’re not going to do anything with it – might as well not collect the data in the first place), but there are specific, negative multiplier effects that can happen if you don’t take action on your data:

1. Employees will become increasingly skeptical about your People strategy and activities.

At the risk of preaching to the choir, employees do not need another reason to be mistrustful of HR or People activities in an organization. If they go through the trouble to read communications about DEIB activities, take a DEIB assessment, or participate in DEIB listening groups, they will expect some sort of concrete action to be taken. Many DEIB initiatives have been hollow or perfunctory. Employees have seen evidence that this Work is usually surface level – so it’s our prerogative as leaders to help show a new way. If no action is taken (or maybe more tragically, the action taken is not communicated), employees will start to believe that they are only driving the organization’s agenda – and not an agenda that actually improves their lived experience. Put bluntly, your DEIB efforts will seem like token, hollow acts that your organization is doing to check the box. So, fostering a culture of action and communicating the concrete actions that will be taken – based on results from listening – will help create a more authentic DEIB initiative in your organization.

2. Employees will be unwilling to provide honest feedback.

This is our worst nightmare as people engaged in the Work – that we’ll go through the trouble of creating culturally-specific, authentic programs, only for employees to face barriers in being honest in their feedback and assessment. I get it – there are too many examples of employee feedback being twisted into solutions that conveniently meet the organization’s ulterior motives. Worse, there are numerous examples where honest feedback has been weaponized and used against employees by managers or leaders. Without really putting in the time and effort to focus on creating authentic outcomes based directly on the feedback you receive, employees will stop giving you honest feedback, and make the data you DO collect, meaningless.

3. In the long run, employees will be unwilling to participate in ANY feedback program.

If #2 doesn’t work, impactful change will be tough. Not only will employees be unwilling to participate in DEIB initiatives, but they will start to be hesitant about other employee experience projects (engagement surveys, lifecycle pulses, exit interviews…). Employees will start to be unwilling to put any data forward – even “basic” data needed for HR reporting. This is serious – the results of neglecting to pour energy into a culture of action have spillover effects on every other People initiative you will put together. How you show up in the Work will affect every other People project you put out there.

How do you create a culture of action? 

How do we avoid those negative effects associated with not creating a culture of action? Luckily, if you’ve been following this series, the steps are pretty straightforward:

1. Collect actionable data 

Collecting actionable data comes from making sure that a few consistent qualities are interwoven in all of your listening efforts:

  • Data that is representative of your workforce: check your results to make sure that the demographic profile of your data is similar to your organization. If you’re missing some representation from specific communities, make concerted and targeted efforts to reach out to those populations specifically.
  • Assessment items that are defined and direct: when you’re asking for feedback on DEIB concepts, make sure that you’re working from a shared understanding of terminology. Refer back to Chapter 1 if you need a refresher about some common definitions used in the Work. This can be as simple as prefacing your survey questions with your organization’s specific definition for a concept like equity, inclusion, or belonging.
  • Listen in real-time: the more lag time you have between asking for and acting on feedback, the more work you’ll have to do to remind employees about what is happening and why it is important. Trends, sentiments, and beliefs can also change during the time that you’re processing and analyzing data. Ensure your data is actionable by increasing the cadence that you ask for feedback – if you do a DEIB assessment every five years, consider shortening that timeline to one year. If you do a DEIB assessment every year, consider some sort of always-on system or a more frequent employee pulse. The point here is to start where you are and build as close to real-time as feasible/possible for your organization.
  • The data can be aggregated AND broken down for analysis: I’ve already made the case about how important data disaggregation can be in previous chapters of this series. However, there will be scenarios where it’s useful to aggregate the data or combine data together. For example, you may have very small groups of employees who share demographic characteristics. Because these groups are so small, there is a greater risk that they might be identified in the data – or, at least feel very vulnerable being honest in their feedback. By adopting a “disaggregation-first” mindset – as well as aggregating when appropriate – you’ll be able to not only highlight the greatest disparities in your data but also talk about your results in a way that does not compromise individual employee identities.

2. Act on insights from the data, actually

I’m not being facetious with this recommendation. Truly, look at your data with a lens that is as objective as possible. What is the data showing you that is important? How does that insight support or even detract from your organization’s existing efforts? If you’ve been in government a long time, you probably have multiple projects that have been bubbling away on the stovetop for a long time. Yes, all of those projects probably involved some sort of rationale based on data – but, are those findings and assumptions still accurate? Would it be okay if you stopped some of those projects because your data does not support them? I encourage you to be relentless in making the connection between what you’re hearing and what you’re doing. Most of the time, yes, the data will be supportive of your existing efforts. But – sometimes it won’t. And the worst thing you can do at this point is to force the data to tell a specific story when it does not. So really examine your data, and do what it tells you – which is easier said than done. 

3. Communicate about your program’s goals, successes, and challenges

This step may appear simple, but is actually often overlooked in DEIB Work. Often, leaders will be so focused on taking action that they forget to communicate the actions they are taking

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

Like other People initiatives, you should err on the side of over-communicating rather than under-communicating. Repetition is key – numerous studies have found that people need to see a message at least seven times before it sinks in. So as you’re embarking on collecting DEIB data, communicate to employees about how and why you’re collecting data. As you’re analyzing the data, communicate to employees about what you’re finding (even if preliminary). As you’re creating actions based on the data, communicate to employees about what sort of steps you’re taking, the results you expect to see, and how long these initiatives will happen. 

One dimension of communication that is often overlooked is not only communicating about the “good” things that happen – the successes and the wins – but also communicating about the “bad” things that come up – the delayed timeframes, the difficulty in ensuring that your analysis is accurate and authentic, or even the magnitude of work that your actions will take. Especially with DEIB work – being vulnerable, authentic, and honest with employees will foster more trust than pretending to have everything under control. This is a big, messy topic. It’s okay to acknowledge that it can (and probably will!) take longer than you’ve planned.

4. Circling back to your communities with acknowledgment, involvement, and engagement

At this point in your DEIB journey, you will have done a lot of work and engaged with a lot of different stakeholders. You may have connected with some employee affinity groups, or even external organizations and residents to help define your strategy and programming. One way to ensure that you are taking an action-oriented approach to DEIB is to circle back with these communities at every step along the way and continue to solicit their feedback. Often, engagement with these groups feels more perfunctory than inclusive – for example, these groups are asked for feedback at program conception and design, and then invited back in at project completion. In order to create authentic involvement, invite these groups in at every stage of the way – yes, during program design, but also during data collection and analysis. Ask these groups to do their own analysis of the data, or to add/augment your own analysis. These communities are a consistent knowledge and expertise resource for you – treat them like a true partner, rather than a pit stop along the way.

If you’ve been following along with this series, you’ve come a long way. You’ve gone through the work to align your organization on the right foundation, terminology, and concepts. You’ve borrowed concepts from external community engagement to design your program with authenticity. And, you’ve built in tactical best practices for collecting DEIB data. We’re almost there, folks. Next time, we’ll put all these steps together and wrap up our series on the Work. Onwards and upwards!

Vince headshotVince Vu is the Head of Government Strategy at Qualtrics, focusing on state and local government. He advises government agencies and organizations on effective experience management (XM) programming, including program design, survey assessment, resourcing, and change management. Prior to joining Qualtrics, Vince managed research and data analytics teams in multiple government settings at the city, county, and state levels. Vince earned his Masters in Public Policy, specializing in advanced policy analysis. Connect with Vince on LinkedIn.

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