Diversity Data – Opening a Can of Worms?

15 February 2021
diversity data, an image of a can of worms

Most organisations now collect some elements of staff data but what about that of their customers? Collecting diversity data from both staff and customers doesn’t have to be difficult as long as it feels safe and authentic, borne from a genuine desire to improve workplace inclusivity and customer service. During LGBT+ History Month organisations may be asking themselves this question more than ever.

So, how does an organisation prove its authenticity? How does it ensure staff and customers feel confident in sharing and confident that the organisation has a genuine desire to make a positive difference?

This doesn’t happen overnight. Are you sitting comfortably, well let me tell you a story about my experience and what I learnt from it.

Back in 2007 housing associations were required by the regulators of the sector to carry out three yearly postal surveys of their tenants. What an ideal opportunity I thought to add a sexual orientation question as part of the diversity monitoring set of questions. This was the first time the organisation for whom I was working had asked about sexual orientation, we didn’t even ask it of our staff back then but to me it seemed like a chance not to be missed.

I didn’t have to wait long to experience the first results of my action. All of the calls that came into the contact center from an irate bunch of customers, affronted that we had the audacity to ask such personal questions, were directed to me.

But, when the official results were in, well, I couldn’t believe it, 16.4% of respondents declared themselves to be bisexual.

Really? Majority age group of respondents 60+?

It turned out to be inaccurate. As a (non- scientific) survey of the understanding of the term ‘bi-sexual’ amongst an older age group quickly identified. I kid you not, when we asked the parents and grandparents of those in the office whether they knew what bisexual meant and we got the responses ‘yes, I’m bisexual I’ve had a couple of partners’ and ‘yes, I’m bisexual I do it a couple of times a year’ we realised it wasn’t a true reflection of the sexual orientation of our customers!

But did this matter, well no it didn’t because in asking the question we had opened a can of worms, a can we couldn’t put the lid back on and it spurred us into action.

I have frequently asked people when sharing this tale, whether they think that three years later, when we were next required to do the survey, we provided definitions for sexual orientation terms.

No is the answer and why not, well because language in that three year period had evolved and what was not perhaps common parlance in 2007 was more understood by 2010.

So, what did I learn from all of this about collecting diversity data?

Well, what I learnt was that staff and customers need to understand why you are asking about them. They need to know why it matters and what you will do with the data collected both in terms of confidentiality and service improvements.

The organisation went on to see their staff declaration rates improve from a starting point of under 66% to over 98%, an LGBT+ staff network group was created, a focus group of LGBT+ customers designed a plaque for the sheltered and extra care schemes and so much more.

And how did we achieve all of this? Well now there’s a story for another day…..

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