What’s the real deal with Diversity metrics?

A holistic look at the debate surrounding diversity metrics

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I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a numbers guy. A bit ashamed to admit it, but when I hear the term KPI, a little part of my spirit shrivels up and dies. I’ll take a pass on pivot tables, too. I’m a Word and PowerPoint kind of guy. So maybe I’m not the best person in the world to make this point, but I think it needs to be made so I’ll make it anyway.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to measuring results. The first is, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. The pro here is having metrics is valuable for setting goals, tracking progress, and the big “A” – accountability. You can use all the flowery words and statements of solidarity you want, but the stats tell the story. If you consistently have 0% of people in upper management from underrepresented groups or the needle barely moves, chances are you are just blowing smoke. There is power in being able to agree on what the future should look like and how to measure progress against it.

With every pro comes a con. And I’m using the word “con” in the most unflattering way possible. There is a false security in metrics. While those who worship at the house of statistics may say qualitative analysis is style over substance, in a very real way, so is quantitative analysis. Allow me to explain. The challenge with quantifying something is it is not the real thing. It is just an agreed marker used to measure the real thing. It is not the thing. And therein lies its vulnerability.

Let’s look at an example. How do you measure one’s love for their mother? Is there any stat or formula any Nobel Prize winning economist can come up with that can reliably measure this? Number of hugs? Visits in a year? Time spent on the phone? No, no, and just no.

Would it be valid for a mother who is truly loved to throw statistics in their child’s face? “You don’t really love me because you did not meet the critical threshhold for Zoom calls in a month.” And conversely, if a mother is not loved, would any number of KPI’s met and exceeded convince her otherwise? “But mom, I kept my promise to visit you at least once a week so how can you question my love for you?”

Metrics, while useful, are an imperfect tool. What about the other school of thought, that it is the quality of a thing that reigns supreme? The pro here is it is very persuasive on a personal level. I feel it, so it must be real. You can tout all the KPIs and statistics you want, but my feelings tell the story. If you treat me like a second class citizen, brush off my concerns about bias, and don’t promote and develop me in the same manner as others, chances are you are just blowing smoke. There is power in creating an environment where people feel and believe in what you are doing, irrespective of the current numbers.

The con here is while qualitative information is powerful locally, it can be deceptive globally. While those who worship at the house of feelings may say quantitative analysis is prone to manipulation, in a very real way, so is qualitative analysis. Allow me to explain. The challenge with qualitative measurement is it is limited to each individual. It is just an agreement of how you feel about something. And therein lies its vulnerability.

Let’s look at an example. How do you measure how good a job your real estate agent is doing? Are there feelings alone which can reliably measure this? Comfort level? Feeling heard? Making you laugh? No, no, and just no. If your realtor takes over 6 months to list your house and doesn’t market it at all, would it matter that you really like them? And conversely, if your realtor sells your house in record time, above listing price, and as a result discounts your commission, would that matter if they disrespected you and your family at every turn?

What is the answer? Where is the balance? Do we throw out the baby with the bath water when it comes to both quantitative and qualitative anaysis? Or do we play favorites and go with whatever HR fad is in vogue or what suits our personality?

To get to the answer, it’s important to remember what the real question is.

Why are we addressing diversity in the first place?

Why does diversity even matter to a company? Let’s be real. Why? If you can’t answer that question clearly, it seems like coming up with solutions about how to measure success is a tad premature.

There are several different answers, but I think all the sincere ones boil down to the same principle – it’s the right thing to do. Whether you come at it from a historical, moral, cultural, or business perspective, the goal is the same. At the end of the day you want your people and your organization to do better and be better. That’s it. That requires you to believe that a diverse organization is a better organization. Whether you believe that is another article entirely. I’m going to assume that if you’ve read this far you are a true believer.

Once you understand this, it puts both quantitative and qualitative analysis in their proper places. You can’t throw a bunch of numbers at me while hiding the real treasure and fool me into thinking I am valued. By the same token (and I use this word very intentionally), you can’t hand me and a few of my lucky brethren some treasure while denying it to most others and expect me to sing your praises.

If this is the problem, what’s the cure? Nobody likes a person who just points out problems, but doesn’t offer any solutions.

The key, and the path forward is we need alliance, not compliance.

I work in the compliance industry so far be it from me to say compliance is not important. However, having worked in compliance for over 20 years, I understand its inherent limitations. The problem with solely relying on compliance is it does not measure intention, meaning, or purpose – it has no heart. As a result, people who do not believe in the spirit of what is being measured can meet compliance “goals” without truly supporting the goals compliance was meant to ensure. It can also result in compliance being used as a sort of self-congratulatory, self-righteous shield. “How dare you complain that you are not being treated fairly? Look at our numbers! You’re getting emotional and letting your feelings run amok.” Is anybody else’s blood pressure rising?

When there is alliance, everything changes. The focus moves from meeting numbers to breathing life into the things that the numbers are supposed to measure. Not because it is a target or required by management, but because it is the right thing to do.

I’m not saying you ignore or throw out metrics. That would be a mistake. The metrics, especially ones that are thoughtfully established, serve as an indicator of progress. Are you going fast enough? Are you making a big enough difference? Where are you strong and where are you weak? When used with the right intentions, metrics are useful to measure results against intentions, but they can’t measure or replace what is in your heart. When the use of quantitative data is in lockstep with the results you hope to see in qualititative data, the results of both are more valuable and trustworthy.

But this article is not really about how to measure or manage diversity programs. It’s not about which approach is better, smarter, or more innovative. It’s about making a difference and doing the right thing. And that starts and ends with a real, genuine, and strong alliance between those who are in upper management and those underrepresented professionals who, through their contributions at all levels, will make the organization stronger, better and dare I say, more profitable. Can’t we all get behind that?

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