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Developing a DEI Listening Strategy: Four Critical Areas to Assess

Over the past year, racial equity has become a top concern in many organizations. Based on our latest poll of business leaders, 75% of U.S. firms have increased their focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in recent months. But only 46% said that they are seeing signs of improvement.

Building a culture of inclusion isn’t easy. If you want to ensure your workplace is fair and equitable for everyone, feedback is critical. Taking a ready-fire-aim approach to DEI — reactively launching into corporate-wide trainings or initiatives without getting input from your workforce — probably won’t work. Instead, you need to start by listening to your employees and developing a deep understanding of their experiences at work. 

Many organizations use engagement surveys or pulses to get a read on the overall health of their work environment. Based on our research, this is not an effective way to evaluate your culture when it comes to DEI. In a comprehensive analysis of over one million employees working in more than 100 organizations, we found that engagement levels for Black employees, Indigenous employees and People of Color (BIPOC) are just as high as engagement levels for white employees. But we also found that BIPOC employees experience significantly higher levels of workplace discrimination and favoritism than white employees do. This means that if you are focusing narrowly on engagement — relying solely on this metric to evaluate employee experiences in your organization — you could be overlooking inequities in your organization. 

So what’s the best way to evaluate your culture from a DEI perspective? Based on our research, here are four critical areas to assess.

Relationships

Relationships have a profound impact on the employee experience. We have found that when employees feel a sense of belonging at work, their motivation and commitment levels soar. When they experience exclusion, isolation or indifference, stress levels increase, performance declines and health problems can emerge. Do your employees have good working relationships with their colleagues and managers? Do they experience a deep sense of community at work? If you want to ensure your workplace is inclusive, assessing the quality of relationships and the level of social capital in your organization is a critical place to start.

Racism is still a pervasive societal problem, and the only way to ensure an organization is not part of the problem is to conduct a careful review of its culture and people practices.

Rewards

Work is a social exchange. Employers provide extrinsic (e.g., pay, benefits, bonuses) and intrinsic rewards (e.g., meaningful work, learning opportunities) in exchange for employees’ effort, dedication and performance. Various studies, including our own, show that when employees feel this exchange is fair, they work hard and stay long. But when the deal is not perceived to be fair, employees withdraw — either psychologically (by caring less), physically (by investing less effort) or literally (by quitting). If you want to evaluate how equitable your work environment is, it is important to understand how your employees feel about their rewards. Do they think they are receiving a fair deal? Do they feel they can grow and develop? Do they understand how reward decisions are made? By gathering feedback on these kinds of questions and then conducting internal and external benchmarking, you can determine if any gaps exist and need to be addressed. 

Workplace Practices

All workplaces are shaped by norms — shared assumptions, expectations and patterns of behavior. These norms can either foster connection and community or division and inequity. Because norms have such a powerful impact on the work environment, it is important to understand what patterns of behavior your employees observe and experience on a regular basis. Do they witness discrimination? Do they see signs of racism or sexism? Do they hear inappropriate jokes or experience micro-aggressions? These types of questions provide insight into the daily lives of your employees. Results can be used to identify discriminatory behavior and target either systemic or local problems.

Strategic Commitment 

Without commitment from the top, meaningful culture change rarely happens. When diversity programs fail, it is often because organizations implement piecemeal solutions and stopgap measures rather than coherent strategies and system-wide interventions. Do your employees believe your senior leaders are committed to DEI? Do they support your DEI strategy?  Do they think it is being deployed effectively? By asking these kinds of questions, you can evaluate the extent to which your workforce understands your DEI strategy and thinks it is making a meaningful difference. 

At this point, the research is clear: When teams and organizations are more diverse, they perform better financially, attract and retain top talent, and generate more creative and innovative ideas. But beyond the business case for DEI, there is also a moral imperative.

Despite decades of effort, racism is still a pervasive societal problem, both in the U.S. and around the world. The only way to ensure an organization is not part of the problem is to conduct a careful review of its culture and people practices. By committing to a regular discipline of listening to your employees, exploring critical questions and rectifying problems, leaders can help build a better organization and create a more just world.

Varavit Chinnapong

Talent Strategy Consultant at Mercer | Sirota

Varavit Chinnapong is a talent strategy consultant with expertise in employee listening strategies and organizational research. He received his M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from San Jose State University.

Patrick Hyland

Director of Research and Development at Mercer | Sirota

Patrick Hyland, Ph.D., is the director of research and development at Mercer | Sirota. He has over 15 years of experience in organizational research and consulting. He is currently conducting research on a variety of workforce topics, including employee lifecycle research, onboarding practices, senior leadership team effectiveness, mindfulness at work, and survey actioning best practices.

Liubov Phillips

Talent Strategy Consultant at Mercer | Sirota

Liubov Phillips, Ph.D. is currently a talent strategy consultant at Mercer | Sirota where she works on a variety of consulting projects that include development and analysis of surveys that focus on employee listening. She received her MBA from American University in Washington, D.C., and a PhD in Applied Organizational Psychology at Hofstra University, NY.

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