Qualitative research on Diversity & Inclusion at a Dutch multinational
By Henrieke van Bommel
Diversity & inclusion research through interviews and focus groups uncovers areas for improvement and leads to more equal opportunities
When employees receive equal rights and opportunities..
According to research, companies with employees from different backgrounds tend to have higher turnover, better chances of survival, be more innovative, more creative and better at solving problems. That is, if those employees collaborate well and receive equal rights and opportunities.
This is what Diversity & Inclusion is all about. Diversity revolves around recognising differences between people, for instance in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability and sexual orientation, but also includes differences in educational background, training, work experience, work seniority or even personality differences, such as introversion or extraversion. Inclusion is about how we handle these differences and how we create a working environment where everyone feels welcome.
The related terms Equity and Belonging are increasingly used alongside Diversity and Inclusion. Equity means that everyone – no matter how diverse – is treated equally. Belonging reflects people’s sense of belonging.
Diversity, Inclusion, Equity & Belonging (DIEB) also played a role at a large Dutch multinational that sought to create equal opportunities for all, starting with men and women. To investigate whether they were already doing a good job or whether improvement was needed, they enlisted the help of AnalitiQs.
Having their research conducted by an external party ensured the anonymity of the participants, which is an important precondition for people to speak up and speak frankly. In addition, since AnalitiQs is an independent party, the research was not coloured by opinions or experiences from within the organisation itself.
Gido van Puijenbroek, HR / People Analytics expert and owner of AnalitiQs, elaborates on this research:
Gido van Puijenbroek
Organisations that get started with Diversity & Inclusion are aware that it is a very broad subject indeed. Yet most organisations start by investigating the gender dimension of diversity. This time was no different.
The first step in D&I: the gender dimension
It all starts with the research question; 'We initially analysed data for evidence that women within this organisation were given the same opportunities and options as men, i.e. evidence of Equity. Think, for example, of data on promotion rates or access to leadership programmes. While we could not 100% confirm there was equity through the data, we could not disprove it either. One limiting factor was that there were proportionally fewer women in the upper salary scales. This is a situation we encounter regularly, but it is also precisely one of the reasons for doing this particular research.’
Qualitative research within HR provides answers
If data cannot answer or only partially answer the research question, qualitative research can help. <link to product page> Gido: ‘This time, we opted for a combination of focus groups and interviews. We preferred using focus groups, but in some regions and certain parts of the organisation there were too few women in our target group. In such instances, we decided to hold one-to-one or one-to-two interview sessions. Our main question was: ‘Do women in management positions receive equal opportunities as men?’
To determine where to start developing the dashboard, we prioritised based on; (1) feasibility and (2) added value (see figure 2). The main considerations for feasibility are the presence and quality of the relevant data. In addition, the added value of the dashboard is relevant, i.e. having the data on the dashboard correspond directly with organisational demand. This also secures support for further development of the dashboard in a later phase of the project.
To generate speed and leverage support, the decision was made to start small and deliver a Minimal Loveable Product (MLP). What does this involve?
- Focussing on the themes that show high added value and feasibility (see figure 3, omission and progression).
- Working with already available data from a single source.
- Using the software recommended by IT: R and MicroStrategy.
- Initially making the dashboard available to one user group: People Managers. They were selected because they work at the interface of business and HR and therefore often take part in MT or regional consultations. This allows them to respond directly to questions from the industry about the selected themes.
The above 4 principles carry a number of advantages:
- Speed: by using available data, there is no need for additional steps to generate data through, for example, research.
- Savings: by using software recommended by IT, there is no need to select and purchase BI products. This reduces costs and avoids the selection and implementation processes.
- Privacy: by keeping the group of end-users limited to the People Managers, the research project will immediately get the green light on data privacy as they are often authorised to view personal staff data anyway.
- In addition, a well-functioning MLP sparks demand for more.
Stay in Touch
While developing the MLP, the end users are actively involved in the design of the Microstrategy dashboard. Their involvement is achieved through an agile working method that includes frequent testing whether the dashboards meet the end user’s requirements. Based on end-user feedback, rapid adjustments can be made to the dashboard’s look, feel and content, e.g. important KPIs. This keeps end users involved and enthusiastic.
Selecting and inviting a representative group of participants
In most cases, it is impossible to interview all employees, simply because they are too many. Gido: ‘We used the HR system as a pool, from which we drew a random sample, so as to create the most representative group possible. We focused on women in particular, but we also formed a control group of only men. Given the global nature of this company, we distinguished between the Americas, Asia and Europe as well.’
‘In the end, this led to six groups of five people. We reserved 90 minutes for the focus groups each time, and one hour per individual interview. Participation was voluntary and anonymous. Though the invitation was sent by a board member, the qualitative researcher at AnalitiQs was the only person who knew the final participants. This kept them anonymous from their employer and gave us a robust mandate, which is a huge help in getting enough people to participate.
Analysis offers directions for improvement
Next, the interviews were analysed. Gido: ‘Themes such as organisational culture and unconscious behaviour emerged from the interviews. We then clustered our findings around these themes. One important outcome was that cultural differences are not always recognised, especially compared to the Netherlands. For instance, there are major differences in flexibility: whereas not working full-time is almost universally and fully accepted in the Netherlands, working part-time is really not an option for women in Asia.’
‘Another important issue that came up is what we call unconscious behaviour: men are usually unaware of their own discriminatory behaviour. They see this as a women’s problem. But if women then start exhibiting more masculine behaviour so as to be accepted as a minority, they often disapprove of that too.’
Another example: the job qualifications in vacancies are largely decided by men. This is not very good diversity practice and makes the vacancy less attractive to women. In addition, women are less likely to apply if they do not fully meet the job requirements. The analysis thus revealed quite a few concrete areas for improvement.
‘What also makes this study impactful is that all of these findings are presented together. Doing so paints the bigger picture and allows you to move away from thinking in terms of incidents or isolated cases.’
Remarkable research findings
It is the unexpected that often makes this type of research extra interesting. Gido: ‘While organisations tend to think of gender first when it comes to diversity and inclusion, employees appear to have different ideas: LGBTQI+ was mentioned first, followed by ethnicity and nationality, all before gender. This information can serve as input for policymaking and follow-up research. That is a great benefit of qualitative research: it gives you ideas that you might not have come up with otherwise.’
‘What also struck me is how incredibly well it worked to have an external party like AnalitiQs conduct the interviews and to keep participation anonymous. That really sent a signal, for example that the organisation finds the issue important. It also definitely helped to speed up the process. It also confirmed once again something I obviously knew already: that the combination of qualitative and quantitative research is hugely powerful.’
Lightning-fast valuable results through qualitative research
Lead times need not be long for qualitative studies like this. In other words, quick results can be achieved that help you move forward.
Gido: ‘In this case, designing the method took a week or two. Drawing a sample from the entire population and then inviting and scheduling people takes about two weeks, mainly due to people’s busy schedules. The actual fieldwork, i.e. conducting the interviews and analyses, took about five weeks. A week later, the report and the results were ready to be shared. That puts the total lead time for this comprehensive survey at about 2.5 months.’
Implementing improvements towards more equal opportunities
Once the findings have been presented to all stakeholders, it is time to take the next steps. Gido: ‘It is now up to the organisation to turn the findings into policies and actions. In doing so, it is obviously important to keep monitoring further D&I development via dashboards and analyses. That is the only way to determine, after some time, whether the right actions have been taken and which follow-up research is needed.’