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Do You Know Who Your Employees Are?

Employers sometimes measure the effectiveness of their diversity and inclusion efforts by tracking new hires, promotions and turnover by employee race, ethnicity and gender. Although few go so far as to measure the same results by less visible characteristics, such as religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability, there are good reasons to consider doing so—if permitted by law.

There are a number of issues to consider before proceeding. For example, it can be challenging to track a characteristic such as disability because it is not a fixed status; a person can become disabled at any time. A similar argument can be made for religious beliefs, which can be acquired or abandoned over time.

It is especially important to be aware of federal and local equal employment laws when tallying the number of employees that fall into various demographic groups—regardless of where in the world an employer is located—to be sure that the type and manner of questions asked do not run afoul of applicable statutes.

Why Bother?

Given these complexities, many employers shy away from trying to capture data other than that mandated by federal and local laws. Yet experts say such employers are likely to underestimate the percentage of their population that falls into various protected groups and might, therefore, fail to address employee needs in office design, benefit plans, holiday practices and work hour policies.

Selisse Berry, the founding executive director of Out & Equal, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for safe and equitable workplaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, says that “the purpose of collecting the data on sexual orientation and gender identity is not to measure the percentage of the workforce that are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender per se, but rather to determine if the experience of gay and transgender employees is measurably different than that of others.”

“Giving employees the option to self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender in employee surveys allows businesses to better evaluate the number of LGBT employees within their workforce and the success of LGBT inclusion efforts with regard to recruitment, retention and employee engagement,” said Deena Fidas, manager, workplace project, for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation.

HRC research has found that 72 percent of LGBT workers would self-identify to their employers if asked to do so via an anonymous survey.

HRC’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) 2011, an assessment of LGBT equality at top American businesses, found that 35 percent of rated employers allow employees to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity voluntarily on anonymous surveys or confidential HR records. This kind of effort will be emphasized for employers seeking recognition on the CEI for 2012.

Religion and Disability

Giving employees the opportunity to disclose their religious (or non-religious) affiliations can be a good idea as long as the disclosure is voluntary and anonymous, says Joyce Dubensky, executive vice president and CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a secular, non-sectarian organization in the United States.

“The more employers know about the demographics of their workforce, the more proactive they can be in creating a productive work environment with high morale,” Dubensky said. For example, an employer with a substantial Hindu population might decide to make Diwali a floating holiday, while one with a large Muslim population might implement policies addressing prayer breaks or religious attire, she told SHRM Online.

Nadine O. Vogel, president of Springboard Consulting, a firm that specializes in the disabilities market, said employee attitude surveys should include disability-related questions, but only if it is clear that the answers to such questions are not going to be associated with an individual and therefore cannot be perceived as a means of self-disclosure under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Yet even if an employer asks such questions, some employees with disabilities will not respond truthfully, despite assurances of privacy, Vogel said, because they fear how the information will be used.

For example, she noted, even on a confidential HR profile “there are employees who have a disability (typically not visible) that do not disclose the assistance they would need in the event of an emergency [or] evacuation.”

“It’s because of this lack of disclosure that so many companies feel they do not need to do anything to support this segment of their employee population,” Vogel told SHRM Online. “On the other hand, it’s because of lack of support that we have the fear and lack of disclosure.”

Getting Started

Anonymous satisfaction and attitude surveys provide convenient mechanisms for inviting employees to self-disclose, Berry said, after which many companies offer a self-identification option as part of an HR recordkeeping system.

Offering both options is ideal, she said, because the data gathered in the two systems is used for different purposes.

Regardless of which tool employers use, questions should be drafted carefully to increase the likelihood that employees will respond.

Out & Equal says employers should include separate questions for gender identity and sexual orientation because “everyone has a gender identity and a sexual orientation, but the two are distinct, unique characteristics, even though the community is known collectively as LGBT.”

According to Monitoring: How to Monitor Sexual Orientation in the Workplace, a guide published by Stonewall, a U.K.-based advocacy group, an employer that asks “What is your sexual orientation?” should give employees the opportunity to choose from options such as:

  • Bisexual.
  • Gay man.
  • Gay woman/lesbian.
  • Heterosexual/straight.
  • Other __________________.
  • Prefer not to say.

As for gender identity, Out & Equal suggests that employers use questions such as:

  • Is your gender identity different from the sex you were assigned at birth? (Yes/No).
  • Are you /do you identify as transgender? (Yes/No).
  • What best describes your gender identity? (Female/Male/Other).
  • If you identify as transgender, are you open about your gender identity? (Yes/Partially/No).

If space permits, employers should ask employees if they have disclosed their sexual orientation, disability or religion to others at work.

Arin Reeves, J.D., Ph.D., president of Nextions, an inclusion and leadership consulting firm, said some organizations prefer to ask open-ended questions such as “Do you have a religious affiliation?” and “If so, what is your religious affiliation?” rather than pre-selected options, in order to “scan the landscape” and get a feel for how employees respond.

Ernst & Young, a professional services organization, asks employees if they “identify as a person with a disability” rather than asking if they have a disability. This distinction is significant, according to Lori Golden, who leads AccessAbilities, the company’s initiative to build an inclusive work environment for employees with disabilities. “People may know they have disabilities, but they may not categorize themselves that way,” she said. “This may be one of the main reasons why under-reporting is so common; it’s not only a question of confidentiality and perceived risk, but a question of personal identity.”

Encouraging Employees to Respond

Employees of the professional services firm KPMG LLP in Canada have the opportunity to self-disclose their sexual orientation, gender identity and religion through the organization’s “Diversity Profile Tool,” according to Michael Bach, national director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The information gathered is used in many ways, “but mainly to have a broader understanding of our people,” he told SHRM Online. “It helps us determine where we should be focusing our efforts and our money.”

“Everyone in the firm is required to fill it out as part of their induction,” Bach said, but he noted that the tool “is a living, breathing entity as opposed to a census,” so that if something changes, the information can be updated.

“Everyone’s information is private, particularly because of Canada’s privacy laws,” Bach explained. “I am the only person in the firm who can see how a person responded, and I’m legally bound not to reveal it.”

“We have an optional question on our ‘people survey,’ which is distributed to everyone in the Americas every two years to help track the firm's progress on people-related issues,” Golden said of Ernst & Young’s approach to capturing data on employees with disabilities. “The question is part of the demographics we gather. Responses are anonymous and aggregated; no individual results are reported, so the survey gets a very high response rate.”

To increase the likelihood that employees will supply the information being requested, experts say employers should:

  • Include the organization’s diversity and inclusion statement at the top of any survey or form that requests demographic information.
  • Explain the reason the information is being collected and how it will be used.
  • Assure employees that their privacy will be protected.
  • Make the questions optional and allow employees to skip them.

Dubensky said employers should make it clear that the questions are being asked only for the benefit of the workforce and to enhance the employer’s ability to be responsive to employee needs. “No one should ever feel that they have to provide this information, and certainly no one should fear reprisals or discrimination based on the information they provide,” she added.

Vogel observed that companies that provide programs and support for employees with disabilities as a normal function of business tend to have higher rates of self-disclosure than other firms.

Be Careful What Is Shared

Some question the purpose of such surveys and point out security issues.

“I can only see a downside to these questions, particularly where the characteristics employees would be asked to identify are legally protected in many jurisdictions,” said Timothy Davis, partner with the national labor and employment law firm Constangy, Brooks & Smith LLP in Kansas City, Mo. “What possible, legitimate, employment-related goal would the employer be seeking to achieve by asking these questions? If there is no legitimate goal, don't ask,” he told SHRM Online.

Even anonymous data can be risky to collect, according to Davis, if results are shared with employees. “For example, if five people report on the survey that they are satanic worshipers, this could leak [out] and set off speculation and office gossip,” he said, as employees ask “who do you think it is?”

The bottom line, he said, is “don't ask what you don't want others to know.”

Reeves said there are ways to mitigate such concerns. “The data sharing should be general and aggregate,” she told SHRM Online, rather than broken down by departments, and it should be shared only if it will help the organization communicate its efforts, results and expectations.

“If the data is kept in the aggregate without breakdowns by department, job function, et cetera, then it is difficult for people to engage in the ‘who is in this box’ type of conversations,” she explained.

She noted that it’s not just what, but how the information is shared that matters.

“If the data is distributed without being anchored in communication as to why it is important … and how the organization plans to use the data to enhance the workplace, the culture, overall support services, employee resources, et cetera, the probability for gossip increases,” Reeves cautioned.

At the same time, executives can emphasize that certain types of conversations are unproductive and might be offensive, Reeves said. “By setting the right tone upfront, they can enforce positive behaviors later.”

Other Considerations

Dubensky noted that employers should exercise added caution before asking employees outside the U.S. to identify religious beliefs voluntarily, in part to be sure that the request is not misinterpreted by those in countries that view the U.S. with suspicion.

But that is just one of the issues she cited.

“U.S. employers collecting religious information globally need to be prepared for the quantity of information they’re going to need to gather,” Dubensky continued. “For example, they may well get responses from employees about religious traditions that are wholly unfamiliar, and they may need to research or ask follow-up questions to fully understand those employees’ needs.”

Moreover, just because someone says they hold a particular belief does not mean that a one-size-fits-all approach to religious accommodations will suffice. “Employees in the American South, European, Asian and African offices of a global company might all answer the same question with ‘I am Christian’ and yet practice their faiths in entirely different ways,” Dubensky said.

“It's always good to know what your people are thinking and how good a job the organization is doing at creating a healthy work environment,” Golden told SHRM Online. “However, we can expect significant under-reporting even when people trust the confidentiality.” Thus, the numbers should not be relied upon as an indicator of the size of an employer’s population of employees with disabilities, she said. “Artificially low numbers may hurt the case for focusing on disabilities in an organization, rather than helping it, so companies need to understand the nuances of self-reporting.”

That’s one reason why Reeves said employers should avoid the use of numerical targets. “It is very difficult to set quantitative recruiting, retention and advancement goals for self-disclosed identity groups,” she said, as organizations sometimes do for race and gender.

“We recommend to our clients that goals be set to ensure that people from different groups have the same level of engagement with, connection to, and favorable perceptions of the organization,” she said, so they strive for “improving experience instead of increasing representation.”

“The former leads to the latter,” Reeves added, “but trying to focus directly on the latter can often be more frustrating than productive.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Business Needs Inform Diversity Strategies, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Oct. 15, 2010

Companies Face Risks by Favoring One Religion, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Oct. 7, 2010

Be Aware of Disabilities, Whether Visible or Not, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Sept. 28, 2010

Has the Americans with Disabilities Act Made a Difference?,SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, July 9, 2010

Companies Lauded for Being ‘Gay Friendly’, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, July 8, 2010

Make Sure Religion at Work Stays on Right Side of Line, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, March 30, 2010

Accommodating Sex Transformations, HR Magazine, October 2009

The Ideal Future for Diversity and Inclusion, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Aug. 31, 2009

Sexual Equity in the Workplace, HR Magazine, September 2008

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