DEI Surveys: Best Practices, Limitations, and an Alternative Way to Get Answers
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is the bedrock of a thriving workplace. According to original research published in HBR, diverse companies are 70% more likely to report capturing new markets. And according to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity are 35% more likely to bring in more money than the average.
Clearly DEI matters, but how do businesses know if DEI initiatives are actually working? How do you know if your employees all feel equally valued and if that plays out across measurable metrics like compensation and bonuses?
The most common way to measure success and gain a deeper understanding of your program’s effectiveness is by using a DEI survey. In theory, these surveys let you take the pulse of your team so you can see how they really feel. But in practice, even the best surveys have flaws that may block you from seeing the full picture.
In this guide, we’ll look at how to get the most out of DEI, and then we’ll examine the alternatives data-driven companies are reaching for instead.
What is a DEI survey?
A DEI survey is a survey designed to help you understand how employees are feeling at work. Because the focus is diversity, equity, and inclusion, questions are usually designed around these three pillars.
To help increase accuracy — and to help your team feel comfortable participating — the surveys are usually anonymous and sent out a few times a year.
The purpose of DEI surveys
In theory, a DEI survey helps you understand the lived experiences of everyone inside your organization. Instead of wondering if members of specific groups feel like they can fully participate without changing any part of themselves, you’ll have answers.
That way, you can make sure that any active initiatives are actually working and that all groups feel like their voices are heard and valued. Ideally, these surveys should identify the gaps and highlight key opportunities for improvement so you know what areas need more work.
The best DEI survey questions you can ask
Running an effective survey that gives you the information you really need most isn’t easy. Questions need to be specific enough to show you what’s going on without leading. That’s why the best surveys combine three types of questions: pulse-taking, demographic, and open-ended. Let’s take a look at them in turn.
DEI pulse survey questions: getting the overview you need
Before you can dig deeper into program effectiveness, you need to build foundational knowledge. That’s where pulse-taking questions come in. These questions ask the reader to grade their answer on a scale of one to five or one to ten — where one is ‘strongly disagree’ and five (or ten) is ‘strongly agree’.
These DEI survey questions are usually built around the three buckets: diversity, equity, and inclusion. (However, depending on your organization, you can add extra ‘buckets’ like racial justice and other vital social issues.) These examples for each bucket show where to focus your attention in your next survey.
- My organization values diversity
- I’m confident that my direct manager understands that diversity is critical to organizational success
- I’m confident my organization is actively investing in hiring diverse candidates
- Everyone on my team has an opportunity to succeed here — regardless of race, sexual identification, gender identity, or disability status
- I understand exactly what I need to do to earn a promotion
- I’m confident I can grow in my role
- I feel I belong among my peers and colleagues
- I feel safe bringing my whole self to work
- I feel comfortable reporting any issues or challenges and I know they’ll be taken seriously
- My direct manager actively encourages different opinions during work discussions
DEI demographic survey questions: revealing a complex matrix
While the DEI pulse survey questions we just covered are a great place to start, to interpret them properly — and to make sure you understand how specific groups feel — you need to collect some demographic data around race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability status. (Just make sure you get direct feedback from different groups about how to best ask those questions first.)
Add nuance with open-ended questions
The two question types we just covered will help you get the overall picture and create some great graphs. However, open-ended questions are essential for digging deeper into what your employees are truly experiencing and can’t be reduced down to ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’. Here are some questions to consider adding to your next DEI survey:
- Describe a time you felt truly seen and supported at work
- Describe a time you did not feel seen or supported by your direct manager or team. What could have gone differently?
- Describe a DEI initiative you’d like to see implemented at work
- Describe a time you felt diversity was really celebrated at work
What makes a good DEI survey
We’ve talked about why surveys matter and what questions you need to focus on if you choose to run one. But the questions are just a beginning. To be effective, a solid survey needs to go beyond that and follow the DEI survey best practices. It needs to be:
- Impartial. The questions need to be bias and prejudice-free.
- Objective. The questions should feel neutral and not lead the reader to any pre-set conclusions.
- Reveals the truth. The way the survey is presented and delivered should make your team want to fill it out. This means allowing them plenty of time, using a tool that promotes a great user experience, and strongly encouraging the initiative as a company.
Limitations of DEI surveys
But let’s get to the crux: DEI surveys can be a useful tool if you don’t have an alternative. For starters, surveys only capture a single slice of time. This ‘slice’ may not be representative of what’s actually going on. Because they’re run once or twice a year, they lag behind reality so it’s harder to make agile changes. And of course, surveys are naturally biased. The way the questions are written and set up, the way the survey is presented, and the way people are approached about taking it all influence the answers.
When you add up all the factors you’re left with a single, simple conclusion: DEI surveys may be better than nothing, but they lack objectivity. Even if you control for as many variables as you can, you still end up with something that doesn’t show you the truth.
A better alternative to DEI surveys
If DEI surveys are deeply flawed, what’s the alternative? The answer is simple: look at what’s happening.
Instead of relying on people to tell you their perception of what’s going on, monitor your existing data (in a not creepy way) that different parts of the company are currently collecting. Your organization already knows people’s workload, bonuses, compensation, engagement, and promotions — and when looked at from a DEI lens, this data can reveal a lot. Let’s break it down.
Indicators that work better than a DEI survey
Examining these five buckets closely — and studying the patterns emerging from them against demographic data — can reveal deep DEI insights and show you exactly where to focus new initiatives.
Is everyone on your team getting the right kind of projects? Are they getting enough work so they feel satisfied but not so much work that it’s leaving them burned out and frustrated? A big part of DEI initiatives is making sure everyone feels like they contribute and belong — this means that people in the same role should be getting similar responsibilities and challenges.
Tracking weekly workload will show you if certain teammates or groups are not getting the level of work that makes sense so you can address the problem accordingly.
We spend over a third of the year at work — and that’s not even counting the commute, the mental energy, and after-work commitments and initiatives. Connection matters: for people to come together as a team, they need to be able to feel part of the whole.
Measuring a few key meeting metrics can shine a light on how connected your team truly is:
- Manager 1-on-1 reviews. Are managers meeting with everyone on their team evenly? How often is it happening? Does too much time pass between meetings? Are certain people or groups getting less attention?
- Manager and/or team turnover. Are there teams with unusually high or unusually low turnover? What do such teams tend to have in common?
- Team meetings. Are teams spending enough time together collaborating where it makes sense and getting to know each other?
Meeting data like this can show you if certain team members or groups are getting excluded or if they’re participating in too many initiatives.
Keep an eye on recognition patterns
Tracking how much (or how little) people get recognized at work can tell you a lot about the big picture. Are bonuses spread as evenly during people in a similar position — or workload — as you would expect? What’s happening in team-led recognition programs where teams get to acknowledge their own?
Tracking all of these — and comparing the distribution across DEI lines —can be a better indicator of whether everyone is receiving the inclusive treatment they’re owed.
Are employees compensated fairly when compared to their peers? Or are there worrying trends worth examining? Focus on the wider workplace too — are employees at your organization within or above average market rates or are they lagging behind? Both internal and external compa ratios can tell you a lot about the health of the organization and any changes you need to make.
Don’t ignore growth
If you want to create a thriving, diverse and inclusive workplace looking at growth opportunities can tell you a lot about what’s going on. Track promotion patterns and stagnation patterns. Are there people that have stayed in their roles for too long? Are there certain roles that tend to get better promotion opportunities? Ultimately, everyone wants to grow and learn and this data can tell you a lot about upward mobility and real inclusivity.
Creating a work environment by paying attention to the day to day
DEI initiatives are vital. But to change the workplace, DEI needs to be a bedrock of how everything works. Surveys fail to capture what’s happening because they take an irregular snapshot in time.
Praisidio, on the other hand, helps you track everyday behavior so you can see who’s at risk of getting left behind. This helps you efficiently build programs around the people, roles, and teams that need it.
Book a demo to see how Praisidio can help you foster a real DEI culture by understanding the employee experience in real time, without bias.