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Considerations for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Research

Gareth Bowden

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Christopher Martin

    It’s too easy to say that EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) research is ‘becoming’ more and more valuable. Rather, it’s always been valuable – but has been too often ignored and dismissed by leaders who knew they would not lose either profit or reputation by failing to address structural inequality within their business. A fairer statement would be: You can no longer ignore the value and necessity of considering EDI when building and curating your business.

    The importance of considering EDI when assembling a research team is an important topic in its own right. It’s all too easy for researchers to discuss EDI with an air of ‘I get it’ authority, but the industry track record isn’t great. IFF Research’s small-scale study is an indication of this: 80% of surveyed research commissioners believe that research should be representative of the populations studied, but only 25% believe their teams are actually representative, with 28% agreeing that the profession is accessible and 20% agreeing that there are equal opportunities to progress.

    This links back to the point made at the end of my first paragraph: Yes, there are moral and ethical reasons to implement EDI policies across and within our teams, but increasingly, there are also profit and reputation considerations too. Just take a look at MSDUK’s supplier diversity initiative, that now has Unilever, Google, WPP and Dow onboard… Blue-chip clients are becoming less and less willing to accept suppliers who can’t evidence genuine, positive EDI performance.

    Whether you’re working on improving internally or you’ve been commissioned by a client, a key step in improving EDI is to run proactive research to find out how the company is doing and what it can do to improve and maintain EDI excellence. Doing this research in the right way is a vital foundation to implementing robust, equitable and representative EDI policies.

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    Equity, Diversity and Inclusion research has always been valuable, but is too often ignored - there are many important reasons to conduct EDI research.

    Setting Up Research

    EDI research shouldn’t come out of the blue or seem like a box-ticking exercise. Effective EDI research should be planned with a steering group, giving individuals across the company the chance to contribute to formulating the approach, themes and follow-up actions (more on this later). A collaborative approach goes a long way to ensuring your research isn’t misaligned or poorly contrived. This includes your approach to resourcing and scheduling your research… in terms of resourcing, your research team needs to be diverse, at least in terms of any biases.

    In terms of scheduling: Are you picking a time when a certain department is likely to be in a seasonal rush? Have you scheduled qualitative research during religious holidays? Does your methodology give non-office-based staff a fair opportunity to participate?

    Without meticulous and inclusive planning, you can undermine your EDI policy-making before you even start. And, as a further point: If you don’t have full buy-in from senior staff, this policy-making will never happen.

    Methodology

    There is a place for both quantitative and qualitative approaches to EDI research. For me, the best approach is quant -> qual; find out the stats and trends, and then delve deeper and give participants the opportunity to challenge and contextualise your quantitative findings. In fact, in an ideal world, I’d recommend quant -> qual -> qual.

    Firstly, start with a survey to understand willingness to participate, stats and trends. Once you have this survey data, invite a large and representative sample to participate in a qualitative task; tools like Question BoardMR, FlexMR’s asynchronous qualitative tool, are great for this because it allows participation over a few days at whatever time best suits the participants. This qualitative task can be used to explore the initial themes that emerged from the quantitative data, giving participants the opportunity to provide deeper responses to more focused and data-led questions.

    Finally, a second qualitative task, for example in-person, video or text focus groups, gives the research team an opportunity to delve deeper into clear pain-points and also start to create solution recommendations.

    There are key methodology considerations here:

    • Ensure the sample is diverse. This seems obvious, but it’s easy to do this poorly…

    a) Ethnicity/religion/gender/sexuality/class should be self-reported, not assumed. Provide answer options, but also provide a custom response option.

    b) Don’t over-aggregate your sample! Non-white, non-hetero, etc. are convenient and often useful metrics, but disaggregate these where possible to avoid creating generalised and non-representative data.

    • Make sure your methodology is designed to give voice. There’s very little merit in a researcher speaking at a group and then considering this to be a conversation. Whether it’s a survey, Question Board or focus group, participants should be able to query questions and suggest amendments.

    a) Don’t put 100 people in a chat group and think you’ve engaged effectively with 100 people. People who struggle to find a voice in the company will be just as ‘talked over’ in this scenario as they are in any other meeting, despite the ‘EDI Group’ title.

    b) Consider anonymity and dynamics. Participants should of course have the choice to identify themselves, but in the first instance your methodology should be designed to ensure your participants feel they can speak openly and frankly. This could mean supplying them with a direct line of communication to a researcher or HR contact, but is also an area where an online methodology can be a great solution. I’ve used text focus groups here to good effect.

    • Try to avoid ‘railroading’ responses, particularly in quant. Yes, you’ll want to supply answer options but you should be providing a custom response option for almost all of your questions. If you have a 40-question survey and a participant has given you 38 text responses, this won’t fit easily into your SBSS or Q data model but it will give you 38 potentially unexpected data-points to explore. EDI research is all about voice, not just data!
    • Your research tools need to be accessible. Make sure you understand the access needs of your potential participants, and if you need to offer a second or third alternative to ensure everyone (who wants to!) is able to participate, then do it. It’s a job worth doing properly.

    Following Up

    The structure of this should have been established in your setting up, but ensuring effective follow-up is vital. You don’t want your EDI research to be ‘that survey we did back in 2022 - whatever happened to that?’.

    • Publish your results. If the research has uncovered issues, don’t shy away from this: Let your staff know you’re aware, and that you’re doing something about it. This comes with the caveat of preserving anonymity!
    • Take action! Depending on the findings, and the structure of the company, this could be making specific and immediate changes, or it could be establishing working groups and training programmes to address structural issues. Whichever it is, include the right stakeholders and look to act on your findings.
    • Run the research again… and again. The EDI landscape of the company will change in response to the actions that are taken, but will also change due to staff churn and myriad other factors. Bring in a quarterly biannual or annual model for repeat research, to make sure you stay pro-active and positive with your EDI policies. Create a feedback loop with staff to keep the company informed of issues, solutions and propositions.
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    In the long list of stakeholder priorities, EDI research and programmes should be at the top of the list. But only if given the time and effort to conduct it properly.

    In the Pursuit of Effective EDI Research

    EDI research often goes against the grain of some current research trends and stakeholder priorities. It’s not something that should be automated. It should be repeated, whether you identify any issues or not – but especially if no issues are identified. Getting it done cheaply isn’t an inherent ‘win’, as sometimes it takes more than a little effort and resources to realise better EDI programmes.

    Whatever way it’s conducted, market research ‘best practice’ still applies: EDI research should be collaborative, representative, accessible and thorough, and above all designed to drive and influence action.

    As should be the case, having effective EDI policies is increasingly a requirement in order to recruit and retain staff, as well as staying on the supplier list of blue-chip clients. By taking the above advice into account, you should be able to create a robust EDI research programme that delivers what you need.

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