Sarah Cordivano
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Sarah Cordivano

Q&A: Common questions on workplace D&I Surveys

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Photo by Viktor Bystrov on Unsplash

Following my recent blog on How to run an Inclusion and Identity (Diversity) Survey in Europe, I took some time to address the common questions about how and why to run such a survey. By sharing these questions and answers openly, I hope other organizations can realize the value these surveys can bring to their diversity efforts and feel more confident in implementing them.

What is a D&I survey?

A D&I survey is an anonymous survey for employees that typically has two parts: one that asks about employee identity (such as gender, age, ethnicity) and another part that asks how they feel about working in the company regarding inclusion, equity and access to opportunity (such as: Do you feel comfortable being yourself at work?). Surveys typically have between 5 and 10 questions on identity and roughly the same number of questions on inclusion.

What is the purpose of a D&I survey?

A D&I Survey essentially helps the DEI team understand the experiences of inclusion and opportunity for employees across the organization, and specifically how those experiences vary by identity group. It also helps the DEI team understand how diverse the organization is. It’s as simple as that.

Why would an organization consider running a D&I survey?

The general purpose of the work of DEI professionals is to improve diversity and inclusion within their organization. Especially in large, global organizations with small DEI teams, it can be very difficult to truly understand how inclusive and diverse the organization is. Typically DEI folks have some assumptions about how employees feel as well as anecdotal stories from Employee Resource Groups. But those stories only cover the experiences of a limited number of employees. Because it’s very difficult to know how everyone feels, this survey helps to put actual data towards answering those open questions. And in turn, this data allows DEI professionals to shape their strategy to support the specific communities that lack inclusion and opportunity or create initiatives to increase diversity where it’s lacking.

And secondly, a survey can be very helpful in measuring the progress of DEI work. An initial survey is used to set a baseline- essentially a starting point of how diverse and inclusive the organization is. This is the point you want to improve from. By running the survey every year, you have a chance to see if your initiatives are actually making a change.

What were some of the challenges when implementing such a survey?

Here are some of the main challenges. I think these can be managed, but it’s important to be realistic about what challenges you will likely encounter!

  1. Legal. There are typically legal challenges including understanding what type of data collection, privacy and legal challenges you are subject to for all relevant locations. Many countries fall under GDPR guidelines or other legal restrictions on the collection, storage and use of sensitive data that could be collected in this survey. Legal and HR experts should be able to advise on this.
  2. Cultural relevance. Crafting a survey that is culturally relevant for the areas you are working in. This may involve making sure the translations are accurate and inclusive. And this may also include making adaptations to remove some questions in some countries due to local culture.
  3. Building trust. Another challenge is building up trust among key stakeholders such as ERGs, HR, Legal, Managers, Comms. These stakeholders should fully understand the value of the survey and be willing to support it.

Speaking of trust, what are the most critical steps needed to create trust in the survey?

Based on my own experience, there are 4 things that are absolutely necessary to make sure there is trust behind a D&I survey:

  1. Executive buy-in and endorsement. By inviting the CEO or executive team to announce the survey and other leaders to show their support it shows they endorse the survey and recognize it as a strategic business priority.
  2. Trust with ERGs. ERGs are exactly the stakeholders you want to trust the survey. To build this trust make sure they are invited to collaborate on the questions and commit to sharing results with them. If ERGs support their survey, they will encourage their members to participate which will greatly increase the quality of the data collection.
  3. Collaboration with key stakeholders. There are many teams that may not be directly responsible for the survey, but their support is necessary for success. This includes HR, Legal/Data experts and Communications staff. These teams will need to advise on the survey design and legal challenges as well as communicate that the survey is happening. These teams will also get questions from employees about the survey so it’s important they fully understand it and how it will be used.
  4. A surveying tool. It’s very important to carefully select a tool or platform that can be used to administer the survey. This tool or platform will ensure that the data is kept anonymous and results will only be shown as aggregated data (not individual-level data) which prevents the risk of identification.

Some would say that D&I surveys put labels on people and therefore put them in boxes instead of bringing them together. What are your thoughts on this?

The ultimate goal we are trying to achieve with our DEI work is to make sure everyone is treated fairly and equitably. In an ideal world, opportunity and experiences shouldn't vary by your identity. But, that’s not the reality we live in. In the reality we actually live in, people are not treated equally in society or at work. Avoiding asking people about their experiences keeps things exactly the way they are. We have to ask people about their experiences in order to change the situation. That’s why the survey is needed. It’s also important to note that no one should feel pressured or obligated to participate in the survey. They are always optional.

Ultimately, how is a DEI team going to use the data they collected with this type of survey?

Essentially the survey results offer valuable information that can be used to improve representation and inclusion, instead of acting on anecdotes and assumptions. For example, if you want to design a new mentorship program to support under-represented people to grow into leadership roles, it would be difficult to know what people have or do not have representation in leadership already. You can base eligibility in the mentorship program on your assumptions or anecdotes, but until you actually collect the data, it’s impossible to know for sure. That’s where the survey results help you understand how and where to focus your efforts.

Among the people and companies that are driving DEI in Germany, how do you think we can work together to share best practices and show the value of D&I surveys in the workplace?

I want to emphasize what a collective effort is it to do this type of survey. Sharing expertise and learnings between organizations is hugely important.

I also hope that the prominent diversity associations in Germany (such as Beyond Gender Agenda, Charta der Vielfalt) lead the way here. I‘d love to see them publish a collection of resources on the topic of D&I surveys that are freely and publicly available. These would show the value of these surveys to help convince decision-makers and the step-by-step process of how to run them. Having this information freely available from a trusted association would really benefit the DEI ecosystem in Germany. These surveys are perceived as such a big and impossible task and many companies have a lot of difficulties just getting started.




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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