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Is data analytics the answer to improving diversity at work?

13 Oct 2020

Ryan Wong, CEO of people analytics platform Visier, explains why data could help leaders achieve diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

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There are many ways companies are trying to address the inequalities that exist in workplaces. Specific business resource groups, for example, give employees a space to come together over shared interests. Getting on board with international events such as Pride can help demonstrate support and solidarity.

But one of the biggest problems we have with making any real progress is moving beyond performative allyship and breaking the surface. It’s easy to say we support and value all employees equally. The real challenges arise when we must put actions behind our words.

The missing link here could be hard data, according to Ryan Wong. As CEO of people analytics platform Visier, Wong is passionate about using numbers to “help leaders see important truths about their business”. He has more than 20 years of experience in business intelligence and enterprise software.

Wong channels that experience into encouraging leaders to rely less on surface-level indicators when it comes to diversity and inclusion milestones. Companies are looking at the wrong diversity numbers, he explains. But it’s not always easy to collect and analyse diversity and inclusion data, he adds, especially in countries where it’s illegal to do so.

Global retailer H&M, for example, was recently dealt a €35m fine after it kept personal information about staff members on file.

“Beyond the expense and time-consuming nature of this process, I find that the real trouble comes when faced with the truths revealed in an organisation’s diversity and inclusion data,” he said. “For this reason, it’s easy and comfortable to rely on surface-level indicators without taking a deep dive into the data or tracking more meaningful metrics.

“It’s more convenient for leaders to ignore the underlying problems, while giving themselves a pat on the back for improving surface-level metrics like hiring, retention or attrition among various employee groups, or putting out well-intentioned statements without the action to back them up. Data can make all the difference on the path to create lasting change, but only if leaders act on what it reveals.”

What kinds of data?

What exactly is the data Wong believes we should be paying attention to? In an ideal world, he said, the “inclusion element” of diversity and inclusion is what we need to consider. “Put another way, the experience of diverse employees at work,” he said.

“To illustrate, an organisation might demonstrate efforts to improve diversity in hiring and recruiting but fail to analyse the factors that dictate an employee’s experience once they’re hired.

“Are they invited to social gatherings? Included in meetings? Receiving proper mentorship? Looking at these interactions – where discrimination, microaggressions and lack of support often creep in – will reveal what’s truly derailing efforts to improve diversity.

“Without this data, organisations are essentially running blind as to what will move the needle to better their efforts.”

Privacy is an obvious issue here. What details can – and should – employers collect about their staff? The EU’s GDPR guidelines state that “equality data are a crucial element of this reconsideration and powerful tools to support the fight against discrimination and exclusion”.

But gathering sensitive personal data must be done carefully. By the very nature of the exercise, it’s usually not possible to anonymise the data. It cannot be used to the disadvantage of specific groups. It must be collected and processed in line with national frameworks.

If working with data on gender, race, sexual orientation or religious beliefs, for example, a company must be able to prove that it is doing so to assess its diversity and inclusion efforts, such as equal opportunities and treatment of staff.

In these instances, the EU says, diversity monitoring – if done right – can aid evidence-based policy making against “discrimination, inequalities and exclusion”.

The right route to take

Of course, how you go about analysing the data is paramount. Wong explained that workforce analytics tools are “readily available” today. These help measure the experiences of diverse groups, he says.

He gives the example of cohort analysis. This method helps businesses unearth “critical nuances in entrance and exit data by capturing a person’s detailed work records” and comparing them against those of similar employees.

“Retention data can only show how an employee left, but a cohort analysis can reveal the reasons why,” Wong said. “Cohort analysis can ultimately reveal how race and gender play a role in turnover by showing interactions that support an inclusive and diverse workplace, or actively work against it.

“Organisations can’t rely on their HR management systems, as these were never designed for analysis. To leverage employee data for insights, it’s critical that business leaders have a way to extract insights from their data quickly and correctly so they can make better decisions.

“An analytics platform that can perform side-by-side employee comparisons is especially important for informing diversity and inclusion strategies.”

Ryan Wong of Visier is smiling into the camera.

Ryan Wong. Image: Visier

Data analytics is only ‘one piece of the puzzle’

Is data analysis the solution to workplaces failing to achieve true diversity and inclusion? Wong doesn’t think so. Data is “critical”, he said, but it’s simply “one piece of the puzzle”.

“Creating lasting change on diversity and inclusion will not happen overnight,” he added. “Companies working to improve diversity and inclusion need to know that they will fail along the way (sometimes publicly), and can’t let this deter them from sticking to the path.

Businesses should also be aware of the limitations of data when digging into diversity and inclusion issues. Harvard Business Review says that having a large amount of data about one group and a small amount of data about another leads to inaccuracies and, ultimately, the propensity to make big claims based on small numbers. However, this shouldn’t be used as an excuse to stall progress. Incorporating data analytics into your wider efforts instead of banking on a single tactic is probably the best chance you have at achieving diversity.

Wong said: “Collecting in-depth information on diversity and inclusion is essential for understanding the unique problems your company faces to inform an effective solution, but it’s not a shortcut to improving diversity. Companies can only experience real change on diversity and inclusion once leaders take action to address the hard truths it reveals.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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