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Five steps to a successful DEI assessment

So you have a commitment to move your organization toward greater diversity, inclusion, and equity. Your leadership is on board. You have allocated resources and time to match the level of importance you know it has. You are ready to go on a challenging journey.


Before you set out on the road, though, you need to find out where you are on the map. That’s where assessment comes in.


Getting a clear picture of your organization’s current state—how diverse, inclusive, and equitable you currently are (or aren’t)—is an essential step. It allows you to identify the most urgent issues to address and the strengths to build on. You’ll access quantitative and qualitative data that can yield rich insights about your culture and policies. A successful assessment pays off for years, guiding your strategy, leadership, and even your day-to-day routines.


That is, if the assessment is successful. Delicate adjustments can mean the difference between hearing candid feedback from a range of people—and hearing crickets.


These outcomes depend on a wide range of factors…as detailed as the grammar of survey questions, as prosaic as the logistics of scheduling focus groups, or as subtle as a leader’s tone of voice.


But what all these things ultimately come down to is one word: trust.


The level of trust in your organization is the single most important factor in the effectiveness of DEI assessments. Every employee has a gut-level relationship with their employer. We are willing, and even excited, to offer feedback and perspective when that relationship is positive. But when we don’t believe deep down that the organization has our best interest at heart, we hesitate before speaking up.


This anxiety is especially high for employees with experience being marginalized at work. If you’ve seen people retaliated against for criticizing a boss, you will be slow to raise your hand. And if you are at all economically insecure, your risk calculation has very high stakes.


That’s the worst case. Other times, staff just don’t feel strongly about their workplace at all. They don’t trust because they don’t feel investment. Why put in the time to fill out a survey if I’ve never felt any attachment to the organization’s success?


This creates a daunting paradox. In order to assess the level of trust, we would need to hear from employees. But in order to hear from employees, they have to have a high level of trust. The more critical the need for change, the harder it will be to identify that need.


But there is good news. Even if employee trust is not as high as you want, the process of carefully implementing an assessment can itself increase the trust. In other words, the vicious circle can become a virtuous cycle.


Here are five steps to a successful DEI assessment. Each one, done well, can be an important driver of trust. Employees who might have held back might reconsider, based on their experience with the assessment process itself. Or conversely, if done clumsily, these steps can erode whatever trust existed before, doing more damage. Step carefully!


  1. Take the pulse on the current state of trust. Is anything particular happening in the organizational culture or operations that has brought people together—or brought them stress? Are there indicators of tension and distrust showing up in HR complaints, lawsuits, or union interactions? And if you have done surveys in the past, be sure to review those results for indicators of engagement. Since I mentioned surveys…did you share the results of previous surveys with staff? If not, that’s a potential red flag. See #5.

  2. Form a DEI assessment working group. The assessment process, when it runs smoothly, takes three to four months from kick-off to final report. There should be an all-staff survey so that everyone can provide input and focus groups that some employees will participate in. Along the way are many decisions that send signals that employees pick up. You should not make these decisions on your own. It is crucial that you assemble a working group represent different roles and identities within the organization. They can help to plan things like the best times to hold focus groups and how the groups should be formed. This group’s insights into the organization help inform the questions for the focus groups and surveys. And they can help to generate interest and participation in the assessment.

  3. Engage your population. How you let your team know that this work is coming is a pivotal opportunity to build trust—or squander it. Center your communication on the “why” questions. Share your personal story about what is driving your DEI leadership. The medium matters too. One size doesn’t fit all. An email announcement or a town hall? That depends on how your organization communicates. And don’t assume there is only one way. Many organizations have subgroups that can’t use email as regularly because they are on their feet, like clinicians, security, or maintenance. How do you make sure they know about the process? Take advantage of all-staff meetings or retreats and work the assessment milestones into the agendas. Consider incentives to increase participation, like awarding T-shirts, gift cards, or an ice cream party to every department with more than 75% participation. And have your timeline finalized when you announce the project. You want to be able to start signing people up for focus groups right after the town hall or email blast. We recommend you go as far as laying out a specific timeline and even schedule a date for the release of the findings. This sets up another opportunity for trust-building: stick to the schedule, and employees know how seriously you take this.

  4. Organize demographic-based focus groups. The groups might be of like race, age, gender, seniority, or something else—we ask clients which groups might feel marginalized at their organization, and we send a list of possible categories to aid their thinking. We’ve had focus groups differentiating by sexual orientation, or for caregivers, or for immigrants. You might have a single group for all BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), or your organization might be large and diverse enough to break out Black, Latinx, Asian, or multiracial demographics. Your working group can help to determine the right focus group formation. Once you’ve made the decision, be prepared to answer a lot of questions about this. Some people don’t understand why it is a good practice. Again, it’s about trust. It’s not that everyone with the same identity feels the same way, but we have found that people will speak more openly when they are with others who share their identity. Practice explaining this. When employees ask, “Why is this about race,” it’s an important test. Your people (especially people of color) will be assessing you to see if you are set up to take their point of view seriously.

  5. Present the findings. Once you launch, the assessment process should move with purpose. A midsize organization might have 10-20 focus groups; ideally, we would get those done within two weeks. My team then takes about a month to analyze the notes and the survey results, and presents an initial report to leadership and to the working group. But whatever the results, there is one more major opportunity to build trust: sharing the report with the whole organization. This is a key moment. In fact, we won’t engage in a cultural assessment if you don’t plan to share the findings with the whole organization. It’s not reasonable to ask people to take their time and give their feedback and not share what you learn. Being transparent, including about data that reveals problems, drives trust. Even an unhappy employee can feel heard and begin to restore their relationship. Conversely, when companies have kept the findings under wraps, even loyal and enthusiastic employees may wonder why their colleagues’ opinions are being kept secret—and imagine the worst.

The assessment isn’t over until the company has heard and begun to process the findings. Now you have located yourself on the map. Wherever you are in terms of inclusion and belonging, the experience of assessing—if done well, from planning to communication to execution—can be a catalyst for trust-building. You will have set a standard for listening and responding to staff input, cultivating confidence that can transfer into the next stage of DEI: planning the journey with a strategy.


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