Self-Identification Initiatives: What Leaders Need to Know Right Now

Companies seeking to build or strengthen an inclusive workplace culture want self-identification data to inform a range of talent management activities including recruiting and hiring, mentoring, leadership development and succession planning. By collecting and analyzing data that employees voluntarily provide, leaders can target areas for improvement and focus resources for the greatest impact in meeting their employees’ needs.

Self-identification takes a variety of forms. Certain employers must annually report to the federal government data such as total numbers of veterans and people with disabilities they employ. Many companies, however, have broadened the range of data they invite employees to self-identify, with the aim of deconstructing barriers to engagement and equity within the organization.

Obstacles to self-identification success

Yet, despite the noble purpose of self-identification initiatives, employees may not be keen to disclose their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability status and other demographic data. Fear of reprisal or of being made an example can prevent employees from revealing what they may consider private aspects of their identities. Employees must feel psychologically safe before sharing personal information.

Self-identification is complex and nuanced. Another obstacle among the modern workforce is that identity for some may be fluid and non-conforming. For example, researchers found “a broader acceptance of the fluidity and multiplicity of identity already exists among millennials and Gen Z, much more so than prior generations. Thirty-five percent of Gen Z and 25 percent of millennials know someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun.”

The best employers are moving beyond check-the-box activities toward making self-identification part of the overall employee experience in their organizations. They want employees to see tangible benefits as a result of self-identification, whether that be in additional resource groups or new programs.

In our practice, we advise leaders to develop a strategic communications plan that allows self-identification to be woven into the fabric of the company culture. It includes listening and learning, bringing a change-ready mindset to the process, and developing compelling content that equips managers and employees to learn together.

We recommend the following best practices before launching a self-identification initiative:

Listen and Learn: Connect with key stakeholders and company influencers. You will find them in leadership positions in Employee Resource Groups and Diversity Councils. They are your Human Resources business partners and your Corporate Communications practitioners. Be sure to include in your conversations acknowledged naysayers and devil’s advocates in the organization. Listen to learn. Do not judge, explain, compare, or relate. Ask employees to identify obstacles to self-identification and encourage them to offer suggestions for overcoming the obstacles. Find out which messages resonate, and which ones repel. Use this information to build the data collection tool, which may be an anonymous stand-alone survey, inclusion in the annual employee engagement survey, or entries in your human resources information system.

Be Change-Ready: A successful self-identification initiative is actually a change management initiative. We advise approaching the project with the tools and resources of a change management practitioner. Identify an executive sponsor, select, and train change champions from among employee volunteers, and equip managers to communicate the purpose and goals of the program directly to their teams. Including people throughout the organization gives you the benefit of their thinking and perspectives and allows you to create content that is authentic and impactful.

Communicate to Educate: Companies that seek to inform and educate employees about the rationale and benefits of self-identification will have better outcomes than those that don’t. Invite, don’t push.

A strategic communication plan that makes use of the organization’s existing channels and platforms and offers intelligent, interesting content delivered in snackable, shareable formats will engage employees in understanding the company’s point of view and give them the information they need to make up their own minds.

Our recommendations are borne out in a recent study, noted that 80 percent of companies used communication campaigns to raise awareness and amplify the message throughout the organization.

Self-identification builds an inclusive workplace culture

Leaders need to plan beyond the check-the-box approach. We recommend an ongoing communication strategy that measures engagement, reports the aggregated results of the data-gathering to managers and employees, and commits the organization to actions that will build and enhance an inclusive workplace culture. Going forward, self-identification must be operationalized, including it as a natural part of recruiting candidates and onboarding new hires. In doing so, leaders signal that the organization is one where diversity of experience, thought and identify is respected and valued. When employees know it is safe to share, they will.

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