From Unpleasant to Progress: Managing Challenging Inclusion Survey Results

By Kasper Jelsbech, Partner & Chief Consultant at Living Institute

From the dwindling year of 2023, the reminder I am taking with me into 2024 is how important and necessary – but also delicate and complex it is to measure and communicate the temperature-taking of a company’s culture and level of inclusion through inclusion surveys.

Additionally, how crucial it is that the top management honestly and transparently address the issues that come to light in such a survey. No matter what skeletons might hide in the closet.
Let me tell you why, and how management handles this type of situation. 

An inclusion survey is a set of carefully curated questions providing a deep dive into employee well-being and the company culture as a whole.

A good survey provides a baseline with both hard and soft data to track progress and identify the most critical challenges to tackle.

Approached correctly, it is an invaluable map to navigate in your DEI initiatives through data.

Handling uncomfortable information

The tricky thing about inclusion surveys is that when you paddle around in the results, you often get a splash of surprising information. Maybe even statements or numbers you do not like to see.
This is a dilemma we experience often when working with organizations on their inclusion survey.

The immediate urge from senior management is to exclude unpleasantries from the reports and internal communication. Even when the overall results generally show a healthy organization. But it is, when all comes to all, it is precisely those aspects where there is room for improvement that we need to focus our attention.

Successful inclusion surveys

The key to success with an inclusion survey is how you deal with unpleasant findings to handle them correctly and reshape them to progress. Sweeping a negative comment under the rug will not make harmful cultural dynamics disappear. Typically, they tend to escalate when you do so.

The leadership must recognize an employee expressing feelings of exclusion, and try to understand why, and how it affects them. Yet, at the same time, the leadership may choose not to publicly disclose specific information for valid reasons.
This could happen if isolated incidents, though significant, can either jeopardize individuals’ anonymity or raise concerns among external stakeholders and negatively impact an otherwise inclusive company’s reputation. In such cases, not all information needs public communication, but reported incidents must be proactively addressed, nevertheless. 

Here are a few strategies for navigating this challenging scenario.

Anchor the inclusion survey at top-level management

We often see DEI outsourced to and anchored in HR instead of top management where it belongs.
When inclusion surveys or employees reveal uncomfortable information HR is stuck between a rock and a hard place because they have to protect the interests of both employees and management. 

Ask the right questions and analyze for inclusion

You will not find many companies today that do not ask their employees about inclusion at all. The problem is that they often do this as a minor part of the overall engagement surveys.

For DEI purposes this is creating more questions than answers. Asking three questions about inclusion will provide you with data. But more often than not – what you get out is completely useless data. 

Imagine that you ask how the employees feel at work in a survey. Imagine how that would be answered by individuals with an ethnic minority background or someone with cognitive impairments. Both struggling to fit in at the workplace. Then you look at the data.
The results look lovely. Your inclusion score is 95%. You and most of the employees seem to be happy campers. Left excluded is the minority. The ones the inclusion-related questions are really for.

If you primarily look at what the majority thinks. You are doing it wrong. At the end of the day, exclusion will be the signal you inadvertently communicate, and your survey comes out as harmful and counter-productive.

Remember why you did the inclusion survey in the first place. 

Here are a few more tips for top management considering fielding an inclusion survey 

  • Prepare for bad news and how you intend to handle this. Don’t ask if you are not ready to act on the answers.
  • Be extremely clear in your communication before, during, and after launching the inclusion survey. Explain why the survey is necessary. Acknowledge and thank people for taking the time to fill in the answers. Communicate how you will follow up on the results. If there is sensitive information that cannot be made public, communicate why to the extent that it is possible.
  • Don’t sweep anything under the rug. If sensitive and critical information is given by employees, they do so, expecting you to do something about it.
  • Use an established inclusion survey developed for DEI purposes. Don’t invent your own questions. Rely on validated data.
  • Use a third-party provider to ensure a safe and anonymous flow of information between you and the organization. Onboarding an external partner makes it easier to keep the survey at arm’s length with no possible leadership influence on the result.
  • Remember: An inclusion survey is not a standard engagement survey. As leaders, you must take ownership through your written or verbal communication and subsequent commitment to action.
  • Measure frequently to track your positive impact on the discovered challenges.