By Jessica Friesen and Alicia Agnew, Co-Chairs of B Lab’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee
The first step to creating a more inclusive and equitable organization is to understand your status quo. Improving over time requires first setting a baseline to measure against; moreover, there’s nothing inclusive about assuming you know what’s best for your team. While it’s easy to race ahead toward solutions, you won’t get far unless you know where you’re starting from.
Of all the work B Lab has done for the Inclusive Economy Challenge, the single most important step we took was to survey our full staff on their experiences of our workplace. We conducted the survey in 2017 with the intention that survey would create opportunities for year-over-year benchmarking and to identify opportunities for staff education. We didn’t expect it to mark a major milestone in our understanding of our organization and the tactics we’re using to create change.
Here’s why we think staff surveys should be on everyone’s to-do list. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes come from anonymous interviews with B Lab staff of color.
What We Learned About B Lab
“The survey results prompted a lot of introspection, both for myself personally and at the organizational level. Having this data was really important for the organization to realize that, if we want to lead a movement that’s inclusive, we need to start in-house and realize how much work we needed to do. The survey was super helpful to put us on that path in a more intentional and direct way.”
B Lab’s staff survey asked nine open-ended questions about inclusion at B Lab, four multiple-choice questions, and nine questions about employee’s backgrounds. The survey was written by members of our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. Certain questions focused explicitly on staff’s perceptions of inclusion at B Lab, asking questions like:
- What do you think would make B Lab’s culture more inclusive in the future?
- What do you think makes B Lab’s culture inclusive today?
Staff used the survey to point out practices they wanted to continue, like the ability to work from home every week and the existence of a formal Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. They also made suggestions for policies that could be improved (more on that later).
Other questions asked more generally about staff’s experience at B Lab, with an end goal of analyzing the results by demographic to see if there were disparities.
- How do you feel about social interactions at B Lab?
- How do you feel about your team’s interpersonal dynamics and relationships?
We asked for demographic information as well, including questions on ability, age, and sexual orientation. The only factors for which we had sample sizes large enough to meaningfully test were race, gender, and seniority at B Lab. There were no statistically significant disparities in the experiences of B Lab staff based on gender or seniority. However, breaking the responses down by race revealed a major problem.
People of color feel less included at B Lab than white staffers.
On three of our questions about staff’s experience at work, people of color had statistically significantly more negative responses — you can check out the numbers below.
These were our most urgent findings to address and the ones that most meaningfully drove later decision-making by our executive team and Board of Directors. While we knew B Lab’s largely white team (68 percent) and even whiter leadership team (100 percent at the time of the survey) was a problem in theory, the way our staff was affected drove home the actual impact of our lack of racial diversity, especially at the top.
“The facts weren’t a surprise to me, but I was surprised by how much I was affected by seeing the numbers laid out. Like, wow, if I were white I’d be having a different experience working here.”
“At a personal level, it showed me how more systemic issues were also present in our organization and how those were impacting our team, either directly or indirectly.
One of our co-founders, Jay Coen Gilbert, summed up the issue: “B Lab is 68 percent white … the staff survey suggested that our culture is more like 98 percent white. More specifically, white middle-to-upper-class culture.”
B Lab is not unique among nonprofits. The Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap report by the Building Movement Project found that fewer than 20% of nonprofits in the United States are led by people of color and that workplace cultures at nonprofits often exclude and marginalize non-white staff. When people of color working at nonprofits were surveyed about what prevented them from advancing in their careers, the responses mirrored the issues we found at B Lab.
“…40% talked about a perceived inability to lead, a lack of human resources support, and/or an exclusion from important social networks. Thirty percent (30%) of the people of color respondents who commented noted negative experiences with others ranging from microaggressions to tokenizing to managing white colleagues’ guilt/emotions about race.”
Regardless of whether our situation was typical, we clearly needed to make changes.
We needed to change policies that had left staff uncomfortable or stressed.
By allowing long-form responses to some questions, we got valuable feedback on specific policies and processes. Our typical expense reimbursement process assumed a level of financial flexibility that wasn’t shared across all staff, and we had never put the option of using a company card in writing. Our policy of requiring staff to share hotel rooms for work trips — and our assumptions around who should share rooms with whom — put team members in uncomfortable positions. We’ve created more flexible options for both as a result of the survey.
- In the past: no formal documentation of the use of company cards or advances. The default expectation was that staff would purchase flights, accommodations, etc and be reimbursed later.
- Now: Process for using B Lab company cards or requesting a payment advance for travel (to be later reimbursed) now documented in our Employee Handbook.
- In the past: All B Lab staff expected to room with staffers of the same gender during work travel, with exceptions made upon request.
- Now: B Labbers who need to room alone are permitted to without disclosing the specific rationale. Staff also can specify their preferences around the genders of their assigned roommates.
Why the Data Mattered
B Lab had already committed to taking the Inclusive Economy Challenge and considered diversity and inclusion one of our guiding principles. Why did it make a difference to have survey results?
We manage what we measure. A core belief behind B Corp Certification is that good intentions should be backed up with robust measurement and benchmarking. Inclusion is a sensitive topic, and it can feel personal. That makes data more important for decision-making, not less. Tracking performance over time also allows for accountability, both internally and, if shared, with the public.
High-level data keep conversations productive. Racism, sexism, and other forms of marginalization can be wielded intentionally in conflicts between staff, but they also affect team interactions and dynamics regardless of intent. Often, talking about inequities in the workplace can be derailed by debates about individual intent and specific incidents. Looking at the disparate experiences of your team in aggregate across key dimensions of diversity can keep conversations where they belong: understanding the impact on your team and finding solutions.
Advocating for budgetary changes is easier with objective numbers. Most organizations don’t make significant changes based on guesswork, especially when money is involved. At the same time, making B Lab a more equitable workplace isn’t something that can be done on the side or for free. Having hard numbers from the staff survey made it simpler for our Executive Team and Board of Directors to approve significant spends on:
- Three new full-time hires focused on equity, diversity and inclusion, including two recently posted Director-level roles
- Official budget for our volunteer Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, which had been operating without a formal budget since 2014;
- Budget for staff-run Employee Resource Groups and Affinity Groups, such as our new Employee Resource Group on Race, Citizenship & Ethnicity;
- Inclusive leadership training and coaching for the B Lab Executive Team.
Data is especially important for leadership. In the qualitative survey responses, staff of color identified the lack of people of color in leadership roles as a major contributing factor to the differences in their experience. Diversity is the most important at the top of an organization, where decisions get made; having an all-white leadership team made the experiences of people of color invisible where it mattered most. One of our co-founders, Jay Coen Gilbert, writes about the experience of seeing the survey results in his foreword to the book Erasing Institutional Bias by Tiffany Jana of B Corp TMI Consulting:
“The quantitative and qualitative results of our staff survey were a cold-shower reminder for me to look at the data and not to trust blindly in my own personal experience, which may be quite different from the experience of others, including others whom I care about and think I know well. Despite the pain I felt learning this information, I would have been far more devastated had I and our management team remained oblivious any longer. Data — and the deeper understanding it can offer — creates opportunities. This data gave us the information we needed to begin to improve the experiences, and hopefully the success and longevity, of people of color at B Lab.” — Jay Coen Gilbert, B Lab Cofounder and Managing Partner
How to Make the Most of Your Staff Survey
Our first staff survey on inclusion was important, but it wasn’t perfect. Here’s what we’ve learned so far on how to make a survey process as valuable as possible.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Our survey was created by the Internal Stakeholders Subcommittee of our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, who also analyzed the results. While we got great information, we could have started more simply with existing industry standard surveys. Working with an existing survey like the Inclusion Survey by B Corp Culture Amp lets you get started faster, provides benchmarks against other organizations, creates comparability year-over-year, and makes sure you’re using best practices from the experts.
Make a plan for what to do with the results before you have them. The committee that created the survey had a plan for how to administer it and analyze the responses, but no strategy for what to do with the results. Because we hadn’t thought through next steps ahead of time, it took nearly nine months for the results to be presented to all of our staff. In between:
- The committee reported the results to roughly 20 members of B Lab’s management and executives;
- The committee developed recommendations to address problems raised by the survey;
- The executive team met with the committee to discuss their recommendations;
- The executive team and Board of Directors approved budget to implement the recommendations.
Translating the results of your survey into action should take just as much effort as administering the survey itself — likely more. Think in advance about who on your team will coordinate that work and who the stakeholders should be.
Empower all teams to act on the results. Because we didn’t have a plan for what to do with the survey results, B Lab’s response was siloed within the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the Executive Team. Systemic bias and lack of diversity and inclusive management practices in your organization will show up in unique ways across your entire team; your entire team should have the opportunity (and responsibility) to find ways to create a more inclusive environment. Individual teams will see solutions within their own departments that centralized decision-makers may not.
Take emotions seriously. Even though having aggregate data made B Lab’s failures on racial inclusion easier to understand and talk about, the results still — appropriately — provoked emotional responses across the team. Action plans for communicating results from surveys on workplace inclusion must account for emotional responses. Specifically, think through how different members of your staff will be affected by the information you’ll share, how their responses will in turn affect others, and how to create healthy spaces for sharing.
For B Lab and our data on disparate experiences based on race, making space for emotional responses looked like:
- Explicitly separating time spent on emotional reactions and time spent on brainstorming solutions when communicating the results to B Lab managers;
- Instructing managers (particularly white managers) not to approach any direct reports who are people of color to ask about their personal experience based on the anonymous survey results;
- Sharing the contents of the results over email the week before the all-staff presentation of the results;
- Explicitly allowing staff to work from home the day of the presentation if they felt they needed privacy and space;
- Making sure the all-staff presentation focused on communicating facts and organizational commitments to the team, not the emotional reactions of white managers and executives.
The emotional aspect can seem daunting. For B Lab, it was important to share the results of the survey with our full team, both for the sake of transparency and so we could express gratitude to our team for their honest and illuminating responses. However, we knew that sharing this information in a clumsy way would cause additional pain for our most marginalized team members. We worked with Provoc (B Corp since 2007), an outside equity and communications consultant, to ensure we had an expert perspective on the most productive way to communicate our findings and resulting actions to our whole team.
“The deepest tension is that talking about the different experiences of white staff and staff of color is crucial to changing things, but at the same time, talking about it increases the emotional tax on those of us who are most affected. No matter how thoughtful you are about presenting it, it churns up a lot. Don’t just make space for people to be sad. I’m not sad. I’m angry, frustrated, and resentful that in addition to doing my job, I have to confront my organization’s issues.”
Again, this “emotional tax” carried by people of color at B Lab is mirrored by the results of the Race to Lead report on race at nonprofits.
“Both whites and people of color are frustrated by high workloads, but people of color are significantly more frustrated by the stress of being called upon to represent a community…with 36% of people of color listing this as a frustration versus 14% of whites. As noted in focus groups, people of color often feel they have a second, unpaid job — internally and externally — to represent the interests of people of color, which is often an unrecognized part of their work.”
One thing we could have done better at B Lab was to create clearer opportunities for follow-up conversations for staff after the presentation of the results.
“People at B Lab care deeply about each other, and I think not knowing what to do with those feelings was hard. I think learning the results was a great primer to start a conversation, but I don’t know if that conversation has fully happened yet.”
One-and-done isn’t enough. Don’t stop collecting data once you’ve implemented changes; keep surveying your team to see if things are really improving. While we want to make incremental improvements to our survey (e.g. incorporating more demographic indicators and improving how we ask about gender), we’ll be administering a largely similar version by the end of 2018 to compare year-over-year results.
While we hope our next survey shows different results, we know real change takes time — and effort. While the results of our first survey troubled us, they also marked the beginning of a new stage for B Lab, in which we are more self-aware, more accountable, and more prepared to do the necessary work to become the organization we want to be.
“We’re never going to be perfect. But at least, at a personal level, I’ve seen a lot of progress. I think that different identities and experiences are becoming more visible on our team. I think by diving into this work and putting ourselves out there, we’re creating public accountability that’s important for the work to continue.”
To create that public accountability, we’re going to continue to share about our lessons and experiences as we work to make B Lab a more inclusive organization. Look for our third round of Inclusive Economy Challenge goals later this fall, as well as future posts elevating the unique perspectives of different B Lab staffers.