Diversity and the power of data

Posted on 15 August 2017 by Åsa Waring

While supporting equality and preventing discrimination are legal obligations, there is currently no requirement for most organisations to monitor equality or report on their staff profile. One limited exception to the rule is in relation to the obligation for large employers to publish reports on their gender pay gap (which includes showing the proportion of men and women at different pay bands within the organisation) as we have reported here.

But with a possible trend towards more reporting by employers, not just in relation to the gender pay gap but also potentially ethnic background and age (see our blog piece here, and even workplace structure (as highlighted in the Taylor Review) should employers make better use of data to monitor, and ultimately deliver, diversity?

Many employers will routinely ask job applicants or new recruits to complete an equal opportunities form to gather data on their gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, age and so on. That's a good start, but it is only by also analysing the data, and taking action if necessary, that the equality monitoring and data collection can have a meaningful impact. So how can an employer effectively monitor its workforce data and use it to deliver diversity?

An effective monitoring process will include a number of stages. First, it is important to persuade employees of the benefits of equality monitoring. Employees cannot be forced to disclose personal information and may be reluctant to respond fully or honestly to requests, particularly in relation to certain characteristics such as a mental health disability or sexual orientation. Being able to provide reassurance around confidentiality and how the information will be stored, and the purpose for which it will be used, will be essential.

Second, an employer will have to decide what data will be relevant and how it will be captured and collected. Will it focus on a particular area such as an equal pay audit or make-up of the workforce  in relation to a specific characteristic such as disability or race, or will it be more wide-ranging, looking at all aspects of diversity, including gender, religion, race, age, sexual orientation, disability and social background? Data protection issues may need to be considered here, either to seek specific consent for the processing of sensitive data in particular, or to establish that the equality monitoring exemption applies.

The next step involves collating and analysing the data. It can then be compared against regional or industry standard data or compared with the employer's own data for previous periods, if any, to identify patterns or highlight issues relating to workers with particular characteristics. What is the data telling you? Are there any significant disparities? This stage is also about understanding the data so that the employer can get to the root causes of why there might be disparities. Disparities do not necessarily mean discrimination so it is important not to jump to conclusions.

The last step will be to decide on and implement an action plan. This could include reviewing and amending job advertising, recruitment or promotion processes, promoting flexible working or introducing unconscious bias training.

So why would employers bother with diversity monitoring? One reason might be that monitoring of equality-related issues, and taking appropriate steps, can be used as evidence, if faced with a tribunal claim, that an organisation is doing what equality law says it should do. Perhaps more importantly, using and understanding the data resulting from monitoring can support and help drive any diversity and inclusion initiatives. Or, as the saying goes; "what gets measured gets done".