Sarah Cordivano
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Sarah Cordivano

How to run an Inclusion and Identity (Diversity) Survey in Europe

I’ve spoken to DEI professionals across Europe and many of them have a keen interest to run an inclusion and identity survey. But, compared to the US and UK, the concept of such a survey is not always familiar here. This means there are additional challenges of not only designing a survey but also communicating its purpose and value and getting key stakeholders on board. That’s why this blog is focused on this specific challenge: running an inclusion and identity survey in Europe. But no matter where you are based, this guide may still be interesting to you because it breaks down the step-by-step process needed for running a survey.

An image of windows of an office building at night with different color (purple, blue, pink) lights illuminating them from the inside.
Photo by Mike Kononov on Unsplash

For your DEI strategy, an inclusion and identity survey is a good initiative to start with because it helps you better understand your organization. Understanding your organization will help you find the baseline from where you are starting and give you the perspective to put the right initiatives in place.

The ability to combine identity with responses to inclusion questions will allow you to understand how communities within your organization feel included or excluded. This is where the power of the inclusion and identity survey lies. But why is this important? If you just have an inclusion survey that has no questions around identity, it’s impossible to understand how inclusion varies across the organization, specific to identity. Let’s assume 75% of your organization feels included (based on their responses to a series of questions), and 25% do not feel included. If you don’t know how identity intersects with inclusion, it’s very difficult to uncover systemic issues of exclusion, bias or discrimination. Often the experiences of the majority population of your organization (for example, white men) may mask the experiences of smaller communities within your company (such as Black women). You need to know more than just how the entire organization, in aggregate, feels. You will need to understand how each community within your organization feels.

Developing and launching an internal survey for your employees is an important but very complex task. There are many key considerations from data privacy, legal barriers, stakeholder management, building trust with employees and planning what you will do after the survey is complete. I’ve broken down the task of creating a global inclusion and identity employee survey into nine steps.

1. Figure out why you are doing the survey and what you will do with it

The first important step is to understand why you want to do such a survey. Collecting data for the sake of collecting data is not a good enough reason. When you ask people to share personal information with you, you are, in a way, creating a contract with them. You are telling them: “please share this information with me, and I will try to use it to make your experience and the experiences of others in our organization better.” If you don’t have an objective to use the results to make improvements, it’s not fair to ask people to spend their time and energy to be vulnerable in answering the survey. Before you start this project, ask yourself and your organization: Why do we want this information? How will we use it to understand our organization better? How will we use it to improve our DEI work or to measure its impact? How and with whom will we share the results?

It’s also essential to understand the landscape of trust around surveys in general in your organization. If your organization has conducted surveys in the past, but they failed to result in meaningful action or were misused, it’s difficult to build trust around a new survey. This trust is hard to build even if the motivations and intentions are different than with previous surveys. If this is your situation, organize focus groups to understand why there is not trust around the surveys and try to address those concerns before proceeding with a new inclusion and identity survey.

2. Make sure the Executive Team and HR are on board

To achieve a high participation rate, you must have leaders throughout the organization who understand why you need the survey and are willing to encourage employees to take the survey. I do not want to underestimate the value of having members of your executive team, ideally your CEO endorsing and communicating the survey. It is incredibly valuable in showing the strategic importance of the survey and the commitment you have made in conducting the survey.

Similarly, HR, the internal communication team and other essential stakeholders need to fully understand why you will conduct this survey and what it will be used for. If you have key stakeholders that are not bought in, they may actually work against the success of your survey and potentially discourage people from taking it. Take the time to help everyone fully understand the purpose of the survey and its contribution to your DEI efforts. This stakeholder engagement step takes a deceptively long time to accomplish, so plan extra time for this.

3. Fully understand legal and privacy concerns

Anytime you are capturing sensitive, personal information related to identity (such as gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, disability or other topics), you need to fully understand the risks involved. In Europe, GDPR has special considerations for this data which is outlined in Article 9: Processing of special categories of personal data. According to GDPR, there are specific scenarios that allow the collection of Special Category data. One scenario is that if the employee taking the survey is fully informed and gives their consent (via a separate question in the survey) to provide their data, then the requirements of GDPR have been fulfilled. It’s still important to responsibly collect and manage the data (see comments on identifiability and data thresholds below).

In addition to GDPR, some countries in Europe have their own laws and regulations regarding collecting employee data. Even if you are not subject to GDPR, your country may have other legal considerations for how to legally collect sensitive data. Some data categories may not be allowed. Be sure to consult with your local data protection and legal team (as well as external legal experts) to fully understand the legal restrictions in all relevant locations.

In addition to the legal considerations and to further protect employees and create trust in the survey, it’s important to collect data in a way that ensures no survey administrator or other employee will ever be able to identify an individual through the results of the survey. When looking at the survey results, look at them only in aggregation, not at the individual level. This further protects you from individually identifying anyone. Using a threshold of a minimum number of survey results before you can view aggregated data also helps ensure you safeguard individuals’ privacy. This threshold is minimally five but can be as high as 25 or even greater. In the next section, I explain the value of using a platform to run the survey. A platform specifically built for employee data collection will likely already have these safeguards built-in.

It’s important to fully document all legal and privacy precautions to be transparent with employees. Document all the ways the data will be used before ever collecting any data. This should be communicated with employees before they take the survey so they are fully informed when they decide to participate. Most data regulations do not permit the use of collected data for purposes other than what has already been planned and communicated. Talk to your legal department and data privacy team to understand all of the concerns.

4. Find the right tool or platform

Think about what tool or platform you will use to administer the survey. You may already use a survey tool for other employee surveys. If that’s the case, evaluate it to see if it’s appropriate for this type of survey. Some platforms will not allow the collection of sensitive data as part of an Inclusion and Identity survey, so be sure to check which types of surveys are possible in your preferred platform. Here are some specific tools and platforms to look into: Glint, Peakon, CultureAmp and Pulsely.

Working with a platform that offers dashboards to visualize and filter data can offer many possibilities to analyze and interpret the results. Some platforms also have protections to make it impossible to view aggregated results that have not met a minimum threshold, which is essential for privacy. I would not suggest developing a survey without using a platform built specifically for employee surveys and which can guarantee data privacy. Do not use google forms or any basic survey platform that allows you to look at individual survey results, even if anonymized. The risk of identification is too high.

5. Design your survey

When designing a survey, think about what topics are most relevant and actionable for your organization. When you ask questions in a survey, as mentioned above, it’s like creating a contract with your employees. You are asking for their experience, and you are committing to make improvements based on the results. If you ask questions without intending (or being able to) address those specific concerns, you will set expectations and then not follow through. So think about what you can meaningfully change in your organization (what is your organization willing to change?).

Think also about the length of your survey. Long, complex surveys may discourage participation. Instead, start with a shorter survey length of 5–10 questions for the identity topic and 10 questions for the inclusion topic. The survey itself and each individual question must be optional (no questions should be “required”). Some questions within the survey may need extra explanation, so plan to have supporting text within the survey to explain a specific question or terms you use.

Identity Questions

Regarding identity questions, there’s, of course, a lot you could ask. Typical identity questions ask about: race and ethnicity, gender and transgender identity, sexual orientation, disability, parental status or caregiving responsibilities, tenure at the organization, refugee or migration status, veteran status, age, religion, education level and languages spoken.

You can also consider questions that help you better understand privilege, marginalization or access to resources, such as whether someone had financial support from family members to attend higher education or whether they received government assistance growing up. These questions can help you better understand whether your organization accepts and welcomes individuals who lack generational wealth and privilege.

Make sure every question you ask has a purpose and is meaningful to the DEI work you are doing. Do not just ask every possible question just because you can. If you are not prepared to implement specific measures to increase representation and inclusion for the identity groups you are surveying about, do not ask.

Generally, identity questions should have a list of options to select from. For some questions, it’s also helpful to have an open text field (for example race and ethnicity or sexual orientation questions). The open text field allows for self-identification beyond a defined list, which is an important part of giving people the agency and autonomy to declare their identity. But be thoughtful about when to add the open text field. Adding an open text field along with a question about disability may inadvertently encourage people to disclose medical information. Also, make sure each question has an option to select I Prefer Not to Say.

To offer some guidance and inspiration: you can find a sample draft of identity questions here. These have been crafted to be as globally relevant as possible, but of course, it’s important that you adapt them to your local and cultural needs.

Inclusion Questions

Regarding inclusion questions, again, there’s a lot you could ask. Here’s a list of typical topics that are asked in inclusion surveys: sense of belonging, authenticity, leadership commitment, diversity of teams, role modeling of inclusive behavior, ability to voice diverse perspectives, fairness in compensation, discrimination or harassment in the workplace and equity of opportunities for growth or promotion. If you are working with a survey platform, they likely will have standard questions on different topics. They may also offer benchmarking, meaning for a specific question, they can compare the results of other organizations to your organization. There are many blogs and resources that offer drafts of inclusion, equity and belonging questions: Quantum Workplace, Survey Sparrow, Diversity in Tech, SHRM.

So how to take the universe of possible questions and narrow it down to a first draft? With help from a focus group of trusted colleagues and stakeholders, discuss what questions are relevant and actionable for your organization. Use that insight to reduce the list of questions to a condensed, meaningful list.

A small note about conducting a global survey: if your organization is located in several locations around the world, it takes extra work to develop a survey that is relevant and culturally sensitive in all locations. It may be necessary to make local adaptations of the survey. Be sure to get feedback from representatives in your organization across all sites. Don’t simply take a standard identity survey administered in the US or the UK and apply it globally. You will need to adapt the language to be meaningful and culturally relevant. For translations, be sure to work with translators and reviewers who are familiar with inclusive language to make sure the translations are locally appropriate.

6. Work with your communities

Before you finalize and launch the survey, work with your Employee Resource Groups and representatives from different locations and areas of your organization to get feedback on the survey’s design. Reach out to any employee representation forums (works councils, etc) to get their input (and sign-off if needed). This is a crucial step to improve the quality and relevance of your survey. It also helps get key stakeholders engaged with the survey before it goes live. Specifically for your ERGs, it’s important they feel like the survey is asking the right questions and has the right purpose. Their participation is important, and they will only participate if they trust the survey and feel like it reflects their needs.

7. Communicate about the survey

Communication supporting the survey is an absolutely vital part of creating transparency and trust. This communication is not just for the average employee taking the survey but also for stakeholders critical to the survey’s success, including HR, managers and your ERGs. If those stakeholders trust the survey, they are more likely to encourage others to take the survey. This communication should include an FAQ. An FAQ will cover the following:

  • the why (why are you doing the survey)
  • the who (who was involved in creating the survey and who to talk to if you have concerns or questions about the survey)
  • the what (what will the results be used for and what action is planned after the survey)

Communication should also cover common questions around privacy, such as who will have access to the results and how privacy is protected. Ask your stakeholders (leaders, DEI Council, HR, ERGs) to communicate directly about the survey and encourage participation. Invite your CEO to officially communicate the launch of the survey. This goes a long way in showing the strategic importance of the survey and increasing participation.

Plan your survey for a time in the year where there are no major disruptions (such as holiday seasons). Keep the survey open for 2–3 weeks to give people the best chance to participate. Send a few reminders during the survey to help encourage participation.

8. Finding meaningful insight in the results

The participation rate for an inclusion and identity survey will likely not be as high as regular employee engagement surveys. Understandably, there is more hesitancy around surveys that ask personal questions, so some employees will not wish to participate. I talked to 4 European-based companies that have conducted Inclusion and Identity surveys in the past year, and the average participation rate of the group was 58%.

After you’ve administered the survey, look at results overall, by business area and by location. But importantly, see how the results for each question compare to results for specific communities. By using the results of the identity questions as a filter for the inclusion questions, you’ll be able to see how your communities answered in comparison to your organization overall. For example, do parents feel less sense of belonging than non-parents? Do gay and lesbian employees feel less like they can be themselves at work compared to heterosexual colleagues?

The results of the survey can expose complex patterns within your organization. Because of this, be mindful of who has access to the full results. Even when your survey is entirely anonymous, if all managers have access to the results, some may be irresponsible or careless in interpreting them or acting upon them. Limit access to the survey results to a small pool of trusted stakeholders.

9. Communicating the results and acting

Plan to communicate the key insights of the survey to your entire organization and what actions you will take. This is part of the contract you make with your employees when you collect survey data. If the results show a lack of opportunity or inclusion for a specific community, meet directly with that community. After you have had time to meet with stakeholders and reflect on the results, decide and communicate which initiatives you want to put in place to address the issues you have identified. These initiatives should tie into the broader DEI strategy, but they may also require collaboration with other efforts in the company, such as hiring, promotion or compensation. Plan to provide updates on the progress of those initiatives.

Final Thoughts

Your first inclusion and identity survey allows you to set a baseline and understand the climate of the organization. As your DEI work moves ahead, use the survey to track the progress of initiatives, such as a training initiative to support leaders to become more inclusive. You can measure whether that initiative is having its intended impact by asking a question in your survey such as whether managers role model inclusion within the team. As you move ahead, you may want to add questions to address other concerns or adapt questions to make them more clear. Also, keep in mind: Employees experience survey fatigue if they are constantly asked questions but never see change happen. Acting on the results of the survey is a necessary step of the survey process.

In summary, I want to highlight the four most critical elements of success for an Inclusion and Identity survey:

  1. A platform that will protect the privacy of your employees and not allow individual identification. Ideally, the platform will also allow you to look at survey results for subsets of your employees, for example, based on their location, business unit or identity group.
  2. Strong buy-in from key stakeholders such as HR and legal who understand the purpose of the survey and support the project.
  3. Collaboration with your ERGs to develop a relevant survey that addresses their needs along with a commitment to share relevant results with them.
  4. A clear, top-down endorsement from your CEO and executive team that the survey is part of a strategic initiative to focus on DEI. This makes sure the survey is perceived as a company-wide strategic goal and not a “pet-project” of the DEI team or ERGs. (I personally would not conduct a survey without this clear, visible commitment).

And one final note: the entire process of survey development and stakeholder engagement can be really time-consuming. Keep in mind why you are doing the survey and what you are trying to achieve. In some cases, it may be better to compromise on the scope of questions (globally or locally) in order to get overall buy-in for the survey. And be sure to take feedback to heart. Even if there are no local legal considerations, there may be cultural considerations that influence how you design and adapt the survey. It’s better to launch a survey even if it doesn’t cover every possible topic than not launch a survey at all.

If you still have unanswered questions, check out my follow-up blog: Q&A — Common questions on workplace D&I surveys!

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This publication explores practical diversity, equity and inclusion guidance for driving change in a global working environment. Header photo credit: @aznbokchoy on Unsplash.

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Sarah Cordivano

Sarah Cordivano

Community Building, Equity, Inclusion and Maps. Former Philadelphian, Current Berliner. Twitter @mapadelphia & LinkedIn.

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