“You can’t measure this stuff!” We hear it all the time, and we can sympathize. Diversity and inclusion (D&I) professionals are frequently working with limited resources and limited measurement training, and the expectations set by data-driven stakeholders can feel impossible.

Rest assured; you can measure this stuff. Whether you’re starting out on your D&I measurement journey or you’re looking to add to your toolkit, here are three best practices for D&I metrics that work:

  1. Redefine “Data” at Your Organization

If your stakeholders are looking for charts and spreadsheets, let’s do it. But let’s remember that employees’ experiences and stories can show progress – or lack thereof – in ways no survey or demographic analysis ever could. In D&I work, you need both quantitative and qualitative data to get a complete picture. If you’re patting yourself on the back for having a leadership team that’s 51% women, and women elsewhere in the organization are still getting talked over in meetings, then your work is not done.

On the quantitative side, employee and leadership demographic information is important when setting diversity goals. We always recommend putting numbers around what you’re trying to achieve, even if it feels uncomfortable at first. Look at the demographic make-up of the area you’re based in, the areas where your employees live or your customer base, and set concrete goals around representation. For inclusion and belonging to work, consider what options you have for an internal survey to capture employee sentiment. As your resources allow, try to gather data before D&I initiatives launch to establish a baseline, at several points midstream and then on a regular cadence – for example, biannually – to track progress over time.

On the qualitative side, you may have to adopt the mantra: Qualitative data is data! It can sometimes be difficult to persuade stakeholders on the merit of focus group or interview data, but in this kind of work, it’s incredibly important. The Nova Collective recently worked with a large, multinational company where we conducted interviews with key stakeholders, and nearly every single stakeholder uttered the phrase, “I know our survey data says we’re doing fine, but…” That “but” was critical for identifying the real work that needed to be done, and without it, some harmful cultural patterns would have persisted unchecked. Experiences matter, and they can’t all be captured in a survey.

  1. Work With What’s Already Available

We did a research study in 2019 to assess the landscape of D&I work in the U.S., and we found that only 65% of D&I practitioners have direct control of their budget, and 7% have no dedicated funding at all. That means most practitioners aren’t in a position to hire a big research firm and do a comprehensive study. So, what can you do for little to no money? Get creative, and take a look at what’s already available.

The two most common spots D&I practitioners find existing data are human resources (HR) talent management systems and employee engagement surveys. Even if HR isn’t tracking anything but gender and ethnicity, that’s a start, and you can formulate some meaningful goals around that. Depending on the talent management system your organization uses, there may be an easy way for HR to start collecting additional demographics for new hires.

Employee engagement surveys can provide a wealth of data because they are often already asking the questions you want to answer. Survey administrators at your organization should be able to provide a list of questions asked and the existing data for those questions, and you can set goals around specific measures relating to D&I. If your organization uses a third-party vendor for the survey, the vendor may even be able to suggest some measures for you to use or use the questions to create a D&I index for you.

If you’re interested in holding focus groups or doing interview research, check in with the team who coordinates training and professional development. Frequently, these folks have training in facilitation, and you may be able to get on their calendar to do some informal research with employees. One thing we caution people against is attempting to do focus groups yourself. Focus groups are a fine art. With sensitive topics such as D&I, you can end up doing more harm than good if the conversation isn’t facilitated well.

  1. Focus on Behaviors

In D&I measurement, we frequently talk about the difference between what people know, feel, believe and do. In the end, what people actually do makes the biggest difference in your workplace. Measuring all four of these responses to your work is important. For example, if you’re doing some basic training, it matters that people leave the room understanding what diversity is. The real work comes in when you ask people to take action, and that’s why we recommend focusing on behavioral measurement.

With behavioral measurement, begin with the goals you’re trying to achieve. We always recommend tying your D&I goals directly to your organization’s business goals so the line of sight between D&I work and business success is clear. When you consider your goals, think about what needs to happen to achieve them. What do people in your organization need to do? For example, if you have diversity goals around hiring, what specific things are you asking recruiters to do? And how will you know they’ve done it? Likewise, if you’re working to create a more inclusive culture, what are the behaviors your people managers need to actively demonstrate? Again, how will you know if they do?

The strongest behavioral measurements are those behaviors you can independently verify. For example, are all of your job descriptions being written using the new guidelines for inclusivity you developed? That’s something you can confirm. But can you independently verify that managers are actively and intentionally making space for all voices in meetings? Probably not. Sometimes, self-report will have to suffice. And sometimes, within the scope of your resources and support, true behavioral measurement isn’t possible. That’s where other know, feel and believe metrics can fill in the gaps.

No matter what kind of data you collect and how comprehensive – or relatively nonexistent – your measurement system is, keep a few quick things in mind as you look at your data:

  • Averages aren’t enough. If the majority of your workforce holds dominant identities (e.g., white, male, straight, etc.), then averages are going to be misleading. You need to weight survey responses to ensure all voices are represented.
  • It gets worse before it gets better. D&I work is hard work. It pushes people, it makes people uncomfortable and, if you’re doing it right, it gets messy. Trust in the process, and don’t shake up or abandon your strategy at the first sign of falling numbers. We always encourage D&I practitioners to make this clear to stakeholders from the beginning, so there are no surprises later.
  • Something is better than nothing. You may not have an employee engagement survey, support from HR, funding or anything else mentioned here. We get that. Whatever you can do – do it. Measurement matters, particularly when D&I work is seen as a nice-to-have rather than the business imperative it is. Do what you can to prove your worth.

You can measure this stuff, and with the right approach, you will measure it. Getting stakeholders on board can be difficult for many reasons, but data to back up your work shouldn’t be one of them.