Podcast: UKG Council Drills into Science of Diversity

Diversity Screen


Mark Feffer: Welcome to People Tech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer.

My guest today is Jarik Conrad, vice president of human insights and HCM advisory at UKG, and executive director of The Equity at Work Council, a group of business and academic people focused on D&I and workforce issues. We’ll talk about the council and its work, and the challenges surrounding diversity in the workplace, on this edition of People Tech.

Jarik, thanks for being here today. Could you tell me about The Equity at Work Council? What is it? And can you give me an update? What’s going on with it? What are you doing?

Jarik Conrad: Yeah, I’ll kind of tell you how it came about. So the Equity at Work Council is really born out of a little bit of frustration. I mentioned, prior to us officially starting this discussion, that I spent almost 20 years in HR, and much of that time was working with diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging in some capacity. I also, for my doctoral work, I did a dissertation related to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and I couldn’t find a whole lot of science. We have a lot of stories, which are important, a lot of anecdotes, a lot of emotions and feelings around the topic, but I couldn’t find a lot of science. And this was, I guess, about 16 years ago.

And over the years we still have not tackled the science of what makes us tick and what makes us tick differently as it relates to these human differences, as we get engaged with each other. So it was really born out of not having enough science and when the science existed it was in pockets, in silos; it was in this journal in sociology, it was in this journal in anthropology, it was in some other journal. And so I we thought that there needed to be some cross-functional, interdisciplinary panel of folks that could really bring the best to bear of the science and then take it a step further; how do we bridge the gap between the science, that the lies in the halls of academia, and the practice, what we can do in our organization? So that has long been kind of a goal of mine in the background.

And when folks said, what was then Ultimate Software, heard about this idea, they said, “Man, this is so consistent with who we are as a company. We’re trying to make the workplace better for people, for all people. Let’s explore this idea further.” So fast forward to today, we officially launched The Equity at Work Council last year. We have about 28 folks now who are on the council from various backgrounds. Again, academia, people working in companies, people working in nonprofits. And our whole focus is to rid workplaces of inequities, period. That’s the goal.

Mark: There’s been a lot of groups out there in the space talking about diversity and inclusion, diversity and equity, who say they have a goal that’s very much like yours, and they get out there in the real world and they try to make things happen, and it’s very, very difficult. How are you guys addressing that? What’s your plan?

Jarik: A couple things. Number one, I think that we have a comprehensive approach that’s a little bit different. Again, sometimes diversity initiatives are focused on one aspect of diversity and so they leave out everybody else, they don’t draw the attention of everybody else, meaning that it might just be focused on race, it might just be focused on gender, which are important, but it may leave out other people in the conversation. And the other thing is I don’t think that people are relying on the science as much as they could, because some of this stuff is not straight forward. Some of the underlying reasons that cause us to behave in certain situations may be found in subjects that don’t seem like they’re related to diversity. So, as you talk about neuroscience and how we make decisions and how emotions affect our decision-making process, you might not see the word diversity in there anywhere, but that’s the kind of knowledge that we’re trying to build our foundation on. So that’s the kind of science that we’re trying to explore.

And then the other thing, too, is that, again, we’re trying to marry the science and practice. And so I’ll give you a little bit about our structure, maybe that might help. So we have this broad advisory team that, again, it’s made up of people from different backgrounds and different disciplines, but then we have a research committee that, again, is really focused on the science. We’ve partnered with an organization called SODI, the Science of Diversity & Inclusion, and they are all researchers who are working on tenure track and publishing research in this area. So we’ve partnered with them to help guide our research efforts. And then we have a thought leadership group that is composed of chief diversity officers and other people whose day jobs focus on thinking about this issue on an ongoing basis. So we’ll talk about big picture, systemic things, strategic aspects of this whole puzzle.

And then we have a practice group. And this group is what we find a lot of our customers, they might be smaller organizations. I’m an HR generalist. I haven’t even been trained in diversity myself, but, because of everything that’s going on in society, I’ve told to introduce a diversity initiative. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to start. ERGs. I don’t know what those are. How do I institute those in my organization? And so we have that practice group that is designed to help people like that, give them some guidance, give them some support, provide a network for them to share their stories and experiences.

So we got those three layers. And then under that, we have our Equity at Work social room. And this is anybody who has a passion, who has some questions, who want to engage in a conversation relative to this topic, can go on to… We have a LinkedIn group, The Equity Work Council social room. And we’re going to develop some more real-time mechanisms, working on Twitter and other mechanisms to keep a conversation going.

So when you look at this entire ecosystem, wherever you are, there’s a place for you to plug in. And we want each of those groups to learn from all of those groups. So sometimes the science will drive the conversation that happens in a social room, but sometimes the social room, what’s happening in real life, in the real world, there’re issues that might bubble up that we might say, “Look, we need to study that. We’re hearing this, but let’s go out and add some rigor. Let’s formally study this and see what we can find out.”

So we hope we got information going up and down. So I think we’re a little bit unique in terms of the voices that we’re trying to hear and how we’re trying to pull all those voices in.

Mark: The whole idea of equity at work, how would you define it and is it really achievable?

Jarik: Well, I hope that it’s achievable or else we might as well forget about it. But we think absolutely, it’s achievable. And I know that the definition of it is going to be different. Right? I’m might be a person who… I might not aspire to be a chief executive officer, for instance. And so when somebody publishes chief executive officer statistics, and people who are like me, whatever my group is, people who are like me, if that’s not what I aspire to, maybe that’s not an element of equity that might resonate with me as much. Right?

So there are going to be some individual definitions, but if you step back and you look at the aggregate, we want people to have an equal opportunity at success in organizations. And so if you choose to pursue a career in leadership, we don’t want invisible or real, very tangible barriers to hold you back because of some kind of group affiliation that you were born into.

And so, for us, it’s really more about equal opportunity. And we think, over time, equal opportunity results in more equal outcomes. Right? That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to highlight any perceived or real barriers that anybody might have for success, however they define success, in organizations based on their group affiliation or their multiple-group affiliation, because we have the intersectionality piece that we are targeting as well.

Mark: Let’s talk about the role of HR technology or technology in establishing equity in the workplace. A lot of vendors are pursuing different efforts, building applications to try to help. What do you think the role of technology is?

Jarik: I think technology is going to be critical in providing the type of support and trying to help us be a diverse… the best versions of ourselves. The reality is technology won’t fix the problem though. I worked for a software company, and we realized that technology is a tool. But, ultimately, we can create all the technologies we can that identify bias in the hiring process, that may identify where there’s pay discrepancies where people are not paid equally. We can identify all that stuff. But at the end of the day, it’s still going to come to individual human beings making decisions. And we can’t remove all the subjectivity out of the day-to-day decisions that people have.

And so while we need those technologies, especially as a stop gap right now, because we know we have people that are making these biased decisions, either consciously or subconsciously, we absolutely need those tools, but we got to go further than those tools. I mean, we got to change the thought process, the decision-making patterns, the understanding of human behavior that people have in their organizations, especially leaders who are in charge of… they’re making decisions regarding people every day.

Mark: Technology regarding diversity; it involves the HR tech vendor, it involves the employer. And I’m wondering how the dynamics of that relationship are? Are vendors leading this discussion? Are employers leading this discussion? What’s the pressure, the pushing and pulling that’s going on in the discussion, between those two sides?

Jarik: Oh, I think it’s very mixed. It’s very mixed. It’s like and/both, right? There are certainly some very forward-thinking organizations. We’d like to think that we’re one of them, at UKG, who are authentically trying to figure out, “How do we create environments where everybody can succeed?” Right? They can bring their authentic selves to work and they feel included. They feel like they belong. They feel like they have just as good of an opportunity to succeed as everybody else. We absolutely want to do that. So we are going to use technology, we are going to be training people. We’re going to do everything we can to try to create that environment.

When you look at organizations who have gotten rated as the best places for overall, and the best places in technology, and the best places in this industry, and all that, so many of those organizations, they’re thinking about this stuff and they’re asking for help. “What can you give us?” Right?

On the other hand, there are some organizations that have not, probably, made that transition as easily. They’re kind of at the stage where that organization is in its own evolution; the size of the organization, sometimes. The leader or the leaders in an organization oftentimes set the tone for the culture. If the leader doesn’t care about it, if the CEO it looks on television and sees these protests, and they’re like, “Forget that mess,” then, certainly, that’s going to be felt in the organization.

So I think overall there is a mix. I will say, from an optimistic standpoint, I feel like more organizations are engaging in the discussion at deeper levels than they have before. More organizations are looking, I think, now, to go beyond checking the boxes, because employees and potential employees and customers are starting to demand more.

They want to know, “What kind of citizen are you as it relates to this subject? How are you impacting, not only your employees, but how are you impacting the broader community? What did you say with what happened with George Floyd and all these companies started to respond? What did you say? And what are you saying now? And what have you done since you put out that statement?”

So I think companies are facing more and more pressure around this, so we’re starting to see more people getting engaged. But the people are at different levels in terms of their evolution, for a variety of reasons.

Mark: You’re working on an index. Do you want to tell me about that?

Jarik: Absolutely. We are creating an index that will give us a better sense of… provide some rigor. Oftentimes we get surveys and we try to interpret these surveys, et cetera. But we’re going to provide an index that will look at the usual suspects; pay equity, diversity at every level, and all that.

But we’re also going to think about employee sentiment. You might be an organization that are… you have the right policies in place, you’re checking the boxes, you show up. You might even get some recognition as being a great place to work or a great place for diversity. But when we interview people who work there, they say their lived experience doesn’t necessarily match what the paperwork says. Right? And so we are trying to create this index that will capture that. And we’re calling it, right now, a cohesion score.

So that’s still kind of a work in progress, but we want to make sure that whatever an organization is intending to do, the culture that they’re intending to build, is actually felt by their employees in these various demographic groups that have oftentimes found themselves marginalized. So we’re excited about the work that we’re doing on that, and stay tuned.

Mark: Let me just ask one follow-up. How is the index going to measure this information differently from the data that’s already out there that is giving you bad signals?

Jarik: Yeah. Yeah. So I think, again, we’re going to try to use that existing data and try to go a level deeper, try to bring technology to bear to try and look more deeply at what insights we can pull from that data. But, again, I think the difference is we’re going to partner, we’re going to marry this data with the employee sentiment and kind of understand how these policies translate to, “How does this make me feel?” How do these practice translate to, “How does this make me feel?” “How do these numbers translate to how I feel about myself and my future here at the organization?”

And the other thing is, we hope that, over time, we can start to build enough data that we have some clear and succinct recommendations for organizations can do something. Because, now, you might take a survey, you figure out where you are, but it’s like, “Now what?” So we want to go to next step where we want to provide some clear steps that organizations can take so that they can build the kind of cultures that they aspire to build.

Mark: Jarik, thanks for being here today.

I’ve been talking with Jarik Conrad, UKG’s vice president of human insights and HCM advisory and executive director of The Equity at Work Council.

And this has been People Tech, the podcast of the HCM technology report. We’re a member of Evergreen Podcasts. You can check out other shows at www.evergreenpodcasts.com.

And to keep up with HR technology, visit the HCM Technology Report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Feffer.

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