Do Corporate DE&I Metrics Actually Help Drive Change?
Diversity, Equality, Inclusion

Do Corporate DE&I Metrics Actually Help Drive Change?

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Over the last few years, some of the unjust treatment the Black community faces has finally started getting the media coverage it deserves. As a result, in corporate boardrooms, it seems like many brands have seen the memo that they are expected to be a part of the change.

Yet many corporate DE&I initiatives can feel like little more than performative “virtue signaling.” I’m sure I’m not alone in looking at some campaigns and thinking a company isn’t really doing anything–they just want everyone to think they are. Executives are wise to the implications of brand perception, and annual diversity reporting is becoming more popular. These often include both qualitative and quantitative DE&I metrics as a way of showing progress.

Ironically, sometimes these reports show the opposite. An industry-wide survey, the BuiltIn State of DEI in Tech 2022 report, showed that 73% of responding companies had zero Black leaders on their executive teams. And demand for people in charge of driving the change seems to be rapidly waning.

This raises the question of whether DE&I metrics are means to an end–or the end itself.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure

Business theorist Peter Drucker famously coined (some version of) this phrase, and to some extent it’s true. If companies didn’t track DE&I metrics, then how could they possibly know if they were making any progress?

Perhaps more important than the metrics themselves is the targets they become associated with. Simplifying your organization’s inclusivity levels into dashboard-friendly deliverables might make it easier to get leadership teams aligned, whereas vaguely trying to “become more diverse” could cause confusion.

Salesforce is a great example of a company that is doing this well. They set a target to have 50% of the company’s U.S. workforce made up of underrepresented groups, and they reached it a year early. They also doubled their U.S. representation of Black leaders and aim to do more.

Metrics without consequences

I caution the BIPOC community against applauding companies for simply producing diversity reports, as Salesforce’s progress can sadly be an exception.

For many companies, it feels like a box-checking exercise with no real consequences. They release numbers that reveals how they aren’t diverse, then make an empty statement about being better next year. For instance, only 4.9% of Meta employees in the U.S. identify as Black. Why is this not a bigger issue?

Industry reports can be misleading too, as they generally allow companies to self-report on their own progress. Lever’s “State of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” report reveals that 83% of employers think their company accurately reflects their diversity efforts. Yet, of course, employers would think they are doing well. What matters is how the employees and applicants feel.

We aren’t numbers

Many companies focus their reporting on simple percentages of different backgrounds and celebrate increases in diversity. The pie chart will look better, but the devil is in the details.

If a company hires 10 people and half of them are Black, then it looks great on their report. Yet if those five Black people take longer to be promoted, report lower satisfaction, and feel their opinion is less heard then is that truly progress?

Aiming for diversity first can be a mistake, and it can be better to target inclusivity – which is, of course, trickier to measure. If current employees from diverse backgrounds feel respected, then naturally they will encourage others to join.

A recent TrustRadius HR Trends Survey showed that 60% of HR workers think their companies are diverse, but only 43% think they are inclusive. This is a serious gap that begs for action.

Breeding resentment

Most of us are aware of the negative feelings some campaigns around DE&I metrics can cause.

Quotas are a particularly sticky subject when used to meet arbitrary goals for representation. They can be a powerful tool to tackle diversity issues, and some would argue it’s better to force company culture to change than be too laid-back.

Quotas can backfire, invalidating the achievements of Black people because others will think they only got their role because of positive discrimination. I’ve heard many sad stories of friends and family members who are made to feel like a token.

Gartner found some terrifying statistics when they asked about internal attitudes towards DE&I programs. Apparently, 44% of employees agree that a growing number of their colleagues feel alienated by their organizations’ DE&I efforts. Metrics can give the idea of reaching a target for the sake of reaching it, rather than actually changing cultures to be more welcoming.

We need to go deeper

DE&I metrics can obscure the human element behind what companies are trying to achieve. How many of us truly care about having the exact right percentage of Black people in each industry?

More than numbers, we want to feel heard and like our opinions matter. There is a story behind every failing DE&I statistic. It’s someone who didn’t bother to apply because they thought they didn’t have a chance. It’s a highly qualified person who was passed over because of their name. It’s people who are frustrated by their everyday work life because their colleagues don’t respect them.

Unless businesses take qualitative measures into account and actually sit down and interview those who feel alienated, company DE&I measurement programs will always be destined to fail.