DEI and data governance: maintaining a fairer work environment

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Debates involving data governance typically center around issues of privacy. What user data can be shared? Who should it be shared with? How do we keep our private data secure? These are uniquely human concerns — ethical problems no machine was designed to solve.

Like all of us, the humans who design data systems are biased in some way. It’s easy to overlook the role of bias in digital data collection, but academics have been calling attention to the issue for decades. In 2022, experts in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) serve a critical function: uncovering systemic biases and offering practical solutions for promoting and maintaining a fairer work environment.

The concerns of DEI and data governance rarely overlap on a practical level. Yet the disciplines have become intertwined, drawn together by various forces of a changing society. As technological advances freed organizations from the geographical constraints that historically limited their labor pools, offices became more diverse than ever. E-commerce tools connected producers and consumers around the globe. Simultaneously, the digitization of data systems accelerated. Privately held user data became more robust. The data needed to serve a wider range of people — people who increasingly spoke a different native language, practiced a different religion, or lived in a different country from the original architects of the data system.

Now more than ever, applying DEI principles to data governance is paramount to an organization’s success. Here are a few basic best practices.

Get to know your customer

The more demographic identifiers you can attach to your customers, the better chance you have at identifying potential areas of bias. This is particularly true for a B2C company that does most of its business online, where shopping takes place in relative anonymity. How are you supposed to know the gender, age, race and socioeconomic factors of your customer base?

The easiest way is to ask. Customer demographic surveys can be as short or as long as you like. When a survey is executed properly, its results can transform the user experience for the better.

Be skeptical of your own intuition. A demographic factor (Religion? Occupation? Education level?) that doesn’t readily occur to you might be the key to unlocking a vexing pattern of consumer behavior. The more demographic categories you include in your survey, the more you’ll learn about how different groups experience your organization differently.

Some will be wary of the survey itself. A customer who is unfamiliar with your brand might wonder why they’re being asked to reveal personal information. He or she might insist on specifying which of their data can be shared, who it might be shared with and how you keep their private data secure. Be prepared to defend your data request and security practices.

This is the first step toward ensuring customers of all backgrounds have the best experience possible.

Hire employees who represent your customer base

Use the same data points to paint a demographic portrait of your organization’s staff. This will add perspective to your customer survey responses.

If your Spanish-speaking customers, for example, consistently offer lower satisfaction scores than other groups, investigate why. Is it because you have no Spanish-speaking employees? If not, why not? Can you, as the employer, sponsor Spanish lessons for your non-fluent employees, or hire Spanish speakers into your company?

Generally speaking, the closer your staff demographics match those of the customers you currently serve and aspire to serve, the less likely your customers are to feel excluded from your brand.

Hire vendors who represent your community too

This point is not as obvious, as it requires some outside knowledge that might be less easily attained. Put simply, if you know the demographics of your community and your customer base, you can take steps to compare and contrast the two groups.

When hiring vendors from your community, particularly if your company operates in the B2B space, you’ll want the demographics of your vendors and community to line up. Hiring organizations that are represented by individuals from minority groups — women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and veteran-owned businesses ― seems like an obvious place to start. Are you giving all parties involved fair access to the bid? Track your vendor expenses against their demographic information.

Addressing such biases in the system improves organizational outcomes and individual outcomes, reinforcing your organization’s commitment to effectively serving people from all backgrounds.

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