With DEI top of mind, industry professionals continue to consider the importance of collecting demographic data from employees. But when it comes to self-identification questions on gender, race, sexuality, ability and the like, how can HR ask these questions respectfully?
Beyond the number of questions and methodology used — for example, whether data will gathered through an open-source Google form or a glossy engagement survey from a vendor — it’s crucial to solidify the “why,” a lead researcher at McLean & Co. told HR Dive.
Obie Odunukwe, director of Advisory Services – DEI at McLean & Company, explained that nailing down a clear purpose for data collection helps ensure the scientific process is sensitive to employee well-being. “Why are you seeking to understand that demographic a little bit more? How does that align with your DEI strategy — or DEI principles that guide the work that you're doing? Those are really critical to understand,” she said. The task is to balance curiosity with ethics, she said.
How clarity can create success
Regarding DEI, Odunukwe challenged an old maxim: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
“[That approach] is not purposeful and intentional. What you're trying to collect is somebody's whole life and all the traits they have — that they may be comfortable sharing or not sharing, without the proper ethical framework around it,” she said. Having a clearly communicated, concrete goal ensures “psychological safety is still embedded in the whole process,” she said.
This is critical in organizations that have 250 workers or less, she said, because there likely isn’t enough representation for specific categories. That may put certain employees in a position to “out” themselves. HR leads should consider that marginalized people may not feel safe enough to share certain aspects of their personhood.
Ultimately, action builds trust
Creating emotional safety can foster more positive interactions with the survey — and provide employers with useful feedback. It’s essential to follow through and act on the knowledge gained through the survey.
“When you access really sensitive demographic [data] and you do nothing with it, you leave that population feeling vulnerable,” she said. Employees will start to worry about what the company will do with the information and lose trust in the organization, she noted, which emphasizes the importance of HR teams finding a “why.”
Ultimately, business leaders can think of their approach to asking identity questions not as “best practices,” but “recommended practices” — a distinction that McLean makes. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. HR teams, Odunukwe said, have to balance practicality with inclusion.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Obie Odunukwe's title, which is Director, Advisory Services – DEI at McLean & Company.