Objective DEI survey questions helped Orange County Fire Authority build its programs based on science-driven data.

Former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said, “Diversity and inclusion are not policies and programs. They have been integral to our habits, practices and purpose for more than 100 years.”

True enough, DEI is so much more than a policy, it’s an approach, and a set of priorities. It’s the way an organization conducts itself. But it’s no secret that DEI programs can be controversial.

In fact, despite national awareness around issues of racial equity, employees often respond skeptically to DEI survey questions, making it difficult to succeed from the start.

Employees may be even more hesitant when their jobs require them to put their lives on the line to save others. When the stakes are this high, it’s understandable that some employees would view DEI programs as a distraction from the core mission.

This was the case at OCFA (Orange County Fire Authority), which serves 23 cities and nearly two million residents in Orange County, California. When OCFA first proposed a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative in 2021, some staff responded skeptically.

Common Reservations to DEI Initiatives

Fears of reverse discrimination, tokenism, retaliation, or lowered standards are common among employees when DEI programs are first introduced.

In fact, Harvard Business Review says many DEI programs fail, and tactics like diversity training, hiring tests, performance ratings, and grievance systems can exacerbate bias instead of reducing it.

But  “skepticism can be an opportunity to engage in further dialogue and bridge diverse perspectives,”  OCFA’s Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator Julián Velarde said.

Start with Facts

Coming from a scholarly background, Julián knew that without a data-driven approach to gathering employees’ thoughts and opinions, the chances of a DEI program successfully taking hold would be limited.

So before launching any DEI classes, consulting, or initiatives, Julián reached out to market research firm Interaction Metrics. He enlisted Interaction Metrics to write a DEI survey, implement it, and conduct its analysis. The objective? To foster a more inclusive, respectful, professional, and equitable workplace culture based on science.

To achieve that goal, I/M developed a fully double-blind anonymous survey to collect OCFA employees’ honest opinions and feedback.

DEI Survey Questions: Nuance and Detail

Off to the races! In March 2022, Interaction Metrics conducted OCFA’s first DEI survey. A whopping 42 percent of OCFA employees responded to the DEI survey questions. They answered both rating questions and, just as importantly, wrote copious answers to the open-ended text questions.

The findings? Interaction Metrics’ analysis showed many employees were skeptical of the need for DEI programs. For example:

  • Some were concerned that hiring standards would be lowered to meet diversity quotas – this in an industry where first responders’ lives are at risk.
  • Others felt that DEI programs played into a political agenda.
  • And still others argued that any kind of DEI program would waste money and resources, believing that OCFA doesn’t have bias or inclusion problems.
Establishing the prevalence of skepticism clarified which DEI programs would work. However, the survey uncovered nuances too – and the nuances are where the action takes place!

For example, OCFA learned from their employees:

  • How they rated the inclusivity of OCFA
  • Whether they would recommend OCFA as a place to work
  • How to introduce DEI to maximize its appeal
  • And much, much more!
 What was the impact of surveying employees through a third-party firm? 
  • First, having a third party issue the survey indicated how seriously OCFA takes DEI issues.
  • Second, as mentioned above, the survey was strictly anonymous. Since respondents’ answers could not be traced back to them, employees were free to share their heartfelt opinions. Incentives to boost employees’ response rate were also offered anonymously.
  • Third, working with an outside expert ensured that the DEI survey questions were phrased objectively.
  • Last, meticulous text analysis tagging of employees’ verbatim responses ensured employees’ voices were heard.

Next Steps!

A year after issuing the survey and receiving Interaction Metrics’ analysis, Julián and the OCFA board have launched several DEI programs.

First, OCFA responded to employees’ skepticism by being transparent about its DEI process. For example, it now publishes a Quarterly Progress Report on the HR page of OCFA’s website showing “our staff the many aspects of our DEI program, well beyond simply identity and culture,” Julián said.

Second, the agency has shed light on one of its greatest assets: its generational diversity. Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers comprise OCFA’s staff, and each generation offers unique answers to DEI survey questions.

OCFA’s age-diverse workforce is an opportunity that Julián describes this way: “Each generation has unique strengths. It’s essential for leaders to capitalize on this enormous range of skills, knowledge, and life experiences.”

In addition, OCFA has launched three key DEI initiatives:

  • Recruitment Team:
    More than 60 OCFA staffers reach out to high school and college athletes, members of the military, and paramedics. They explain what a career with OCFA offers and the benefits of joining a fire service organization. The team’s goal is to reach individuals from demographics historically underrepresented in the fire service.
  • CARE Committee:
    This new committee (still under process of formation) will advise OCFA’s management on how to foster a thriving workplace that reflects the diversity of Orange County. Also, this committee will ensure that OCFA’s language reflects equity and inclusiveness, and they will ensure there is adequate cultural competency training. Plus, they will review hiring data for diversity.
  • Courageous Conversations Training:
    Since 1992, Courageous Conversations has facilitated healthy interracial dialogue in the workplace; their longevity gives them a depth of approach that goes beyond trends. That’s why in Q2 2023, OCFA Chiefs participated in a Courageous Conversations training, where everything was on the table, including sensitive topics like gender, sexual orientation, and politics in the workplace. Over time, more training will be added.

Embrace the Skepticism

Too many DEI programs launch without establishing objective DEI survey questions and a foundation based on understanding how employees feel. This results in misalignments between leadership and staff.

Starting with objective data means OCFA knows where employees stand and can track changes over time.

Martha Brooke, Interaction Metrics Program Director, adds,  “Instead of sweeping employees’ skepticism under the rug, OCFA has formed DEI initiative based on solid evidence about how employees actually feel.” 

A few of the benefits of this data-backed approach are:

  • With evidence in hand, it’s easier to achieve staff buy-in.
  • Precise, nuanced next steps are clear.
  • OCFA leadership can measure its DE&I programs’ impact with testing and data collection.

Employees’ skepticism of new programs is an opportunity for growth — when leaders address it directly.

Although it may feel reassuring when everyone is on board with a new program,  hearing criticism and addressing naysayers ensures that programs stay realistic.  And realism is essential to building corporate cultures effectively.

To accelerate profitable and productive change, you need to address the heart of the matter and understand how all your employees think — not just the ones nodding in agreement.

Advice for Other Organizations

Most of the reluctance around DEI is from a misunderstanding of what it is, Julián said. A data-driven approach to analyzing employees’ sentiments has helped establish the program and clarify its goals.

Julián is part of a national committee developing a DEI toolkit for the fire service. He noted that his colleagues across the country face similar sentiments from staff. “If this were easy to do, there would be nothing to talk about,” he laughed.

And to discuss actionable DEI programs, get in touch!

This article was written in collaboration with OCFA and approved by its Human Resources & Communications Teams.


Categories: Employee Engagement
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