Despite the recent limelight, diversity, equity, inclusion and other similar initiatives have been around for decades.  Success with these programs, however, is far from guaranteed.  Throwing training workshops and programs at a population who is not cognitively ready could, and often does, backfire.  It risks marginalizing the exact message you are trying to convey, the change you are trying to affect.

Let’s start with a few questions about Diversity and Inclusion missions, initiatives and programs in organizations today: How does any person or group experience work?  If there is an issue, do people recognize it?  Are they willing to speak up or do something?  Are they afraid?  Do they care?  Do people assume, or insist, there are no issues?  Are they open to, or even ready for, discussing or engaging in any particular issue?  

The Harvard Business Review article “Why Diversity Programs Fail” has reported evidence that things like mandatory training can lead to increases in undesirable, biased views and behaviors.  If, however, you understand the nuances in the experiences and perceptions of various groups – whether demographics or even departments and locations – then you can be more strategic about what you choose to do, including the messaging and subsequent initiatives and programs.    

All of this is to say, don’t blindly put together a diversity, equity, inclusion, or belonging initiative, without understanding where your people are today.  All of them.  Overall, and per group.  Don’t throw money at a problem based on what you think and wish to happen.  Instead, invest in improvements based on data.  Your data.  You can gather that data with informal Q&A or feedback sessions, 1-on-1’s, town halls, HRIS data, and of course, with surveys.   

Surveys, with properly designed questions, are one of the simplest, quickest ways to gather data.  There are caveats, however:

  • Responses must be anonymous, and respondents must actually believe their feedback is anonymous.
  • Communication about the survey, by the C Suite and managers, is paramount for participation.
  • If you can’t easily view the data by various organizational slices, like demographics, groups, business units, geographies, etc., then the data won’t be very useful. 

The key takeaway is that you can’t craft strategic messaging or properly focused initiatives unless you understand how all groups experience work.  Fortunately, getting that information is fairly straightforward and cost effective if you use a properly structured survey and if you let data, not intentions, influence your strategy.  It reduces the chances of very real, unintended consequences.  And it increases the likelihood that your DEI programs will actually make work better for everyone.