Inclusion is invisible: How to measure it
April 24, 2019
In the course of my D&I work, I often encounter corporate managers and leaders who struggle to understand what “inclusion” means, and, more importantly, how to measure it. These questions are motivated by the growing realization that inclusion is a key to having happier employees and increasing company performance. In fact, I have argued before that companies should focus on inclusion rather than on diversity, and that focusing on inclusion avoids some of the pitfalls of focusing on diversity.
One challenge in understanding inclusion is that, whereas diversity is relatively easy to measure, inclusion is typically described in qualitative, often subjective terms. For example, Vernā Myers, VP of Diversity and Inclusion at online entertainment giant Netflix, is credited with coining the phrase “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” In the context of one’s working environment, inclusion is sometimes defined as “being able to bring your whole self to work.” These definitions, while useful, are nearly impossible to measure and quantify, and they give little guidance on how to create and foster an inclusive environment.
I believe that at the root of these problems lies the fact that inclusion is invisible to those who enjoy it, because inclusion reflects the absence of negative incidents that make one feel excluded. This observation helps us to understand why inclusion is difficult to define, let alone measure. But how do we reconcile the importance of creating an inclusive organization with the difficulty of defining and measuring inclusion?
Based on my work measuring inclusion, I have found it useful to draw an analogy between inclusion and healthcare: just as inclusion tends to be invisible unless we are experiencing incidents of exclusion, we also tend not to think about our health unless we have an illness or injury. The value of this analogy is that we can borrow ideas from healthcare to understand how to measure and quantify inclusion.
First, let’s consider the problem of assessing the level of inclusion by thinking about how we typically assess health. When you visit a doctor’s office they don’t just ask you “on a scale of 1 to 10, how healthy do you feel?” Instead, they give you a questionnaire that includes a lengthy list of diseases and other afflictions, and ask whether you are currently experiencing or have previously experienced any of them. The doctor then gets a sense of how healthy you are by seeing how few negative health conditions you have.
This concept can be immediately applied to inclusion: an effective way to measure inclusion in your organization is to create a questionnaire with a list of “incidents of exclusion,” and ask people in your firm to indicate whether and how often they experience these types of exclusion.
There are other important lessons we can borrow from our healthcare analogy: medical questionnaires don’t just give you a blank sheet and ask you to write down as many medical conditions as possible, even if you’ve never had them. With the exception of a few common diseases, most of us would never think to write down a medical condition unless we have experienced it ourselves or know someone who has experienced it. In fact, when you fill out a medical questionnaire, there may be many conditions with which you are not familiar, or that you have never even heard of. More generally, the healthier a person is, the less likely they are to be aware of all the medical conditions listed. Conversely, the sicker a person is, the more likely they are to be familiar with medical conditions.
The same notions apply in the context of inclusion: it would be extremely difficult for anyone to write down an exhaustive list of every possible incident of exclusion. And those who enjoy the greatest degree of inclusion, i.e., those who belong in the normative majority within their organization, are least likely to have experienced incidents of exclusion, and to be able to recall them or even recognize them. For example, most white, straight, cis-gender, fully abled men have never been the victim of workplace sexual harassment; they have probably never had the experience of being unable to enter a building because it does not have a wheelchair ramp; and they are probably unfamiliar with inclusion issues such as “code switching” – the practice of having to behave or speak differently in the workplace than we do in our personal lives – and the toll it exacts on individuals from certain underrepresented backgrounds.
Developing an inclusion questionnaire and collecting responses requires some careful planning, both in terms of the kinds of questions you include, and in terms of who will be asked to provide responses. To develop the initial questionnaire, you can create a task force with broad representation, or you can tap existing Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Once you have designed the questionnaire, it would be ideal to get responses from the entire organization, but you can already get meaningful insights by asking smaller groups such as ERGs.
My colleagues and I have been developing inclusion questionnaires as part of making organizations more inclusive and equitable. Based on our experience, in part 2 of this blog, I will provide some detailed suggestions of how to organize questions into broad but meaningful categories and provide specific examples of questions to ask. In part 3, we will provide examples of specific initiatives to create a more inclusive organization.
For now, I want to close by addressing a concern we encounter frequently: while some organizations embrace the idea of identifying – and eradicating – incidents of exclusion, some organizations are hesitant to ask what they see as leading questions about negative incidents, fearing that these questions may generate animosity and lead to increased complaints.
While there is no doubt that some employees may experience negative feelings while being reminded of specific incidents of exclusion, there is overwhelming evidence that employees appreciate being given the opportunity to provide feedback. For instance, a recent study showed that just the act of conducting a satisfaction survey decreases churn rates and increases productivity. The positive impact can be even greater if employees see a genuine effort to identify problems, with a clear commitment to using the results to create opportunities for improvement.
Please subscribe to my weekly newsletter for D&I news and events. To learn more about my work on diversity & inclusion visit Aleria, Aleria Research and QSDI.
By Paolo Gaudiano