3 ways HR can use data and tech to drive equity

From talent acquisition to succession management, talent processes lay the groundwork for placing people in the right roles throughout any organization. The consequences of poorly designed talent processes are significant: homogeneous leadership benches, stagnant innovation and a failure to compete in a tight labor market.

Talent processes can be especially susceptible to bias as they typically rely on leader and manager judgment—and underrepresented talent often bears the brunt. A 2021 Gartner survey found that 42% of employees report that underrepresented employees were not equally considered for progression at their organizations.

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As organizations face sustained pressure to deliver on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals, HR leaders must play an active role in helping their organizations navigate this challenge. Data and technology can help, and organizations are increasingly incorporating data into talent processes to maximize decision-making objectivity, which is among the topics being discussed at this week’s HR Tech Virtual (the free, online event runs through March 4). While most HR leaders (62%) report using DEI data as an input to talent processes, few are using it effectively to influence leaders’ talent decisions. Yet there are numerous opportunities to more closely integrate data into talent processes to ensure equitable consideration of all talent.

HR leaders looking to improve talent process equity can leverage technology and data solutions to do three things:

  1. Understand group-specific barriers, especially those affecting underrepresented talent segments
  2. Inject additional transparency into decision-making
  3. Mitigate leader and manager bias in talent decisions

Understanding group-specific barriers

Creating more equitable talent processes requires organizations to understand the barriers different underrepresented talent groups face throughout the employee life cycle. Unfortunately, according to a 2020 Gartner survey, only 20% of HR leaders say they are satisfied with HR’s understanding of the experience of underrepresented employees.

See also: 9 things to learn this week at the virtual HR Tech Conference

This undifferentiated view of employees’ experience leads organizations to take a one-size-fits-all approach to talent management and presumes all employees face the same or similar barriers. The reality is different talent segments often face unique challenges, which requires organizations to design or refine talent processes with these unique challenges in mind.

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Leading organizations are taking a different approach, assessing employees’ experiences with an eye to spotting the biases and barriers specific talent segments face.  Many are using employee journey mapping, a process that involves targeted data collection and analysis, to provide all stakeholders—HR, business leaders, DEI teams and employees themselves—with deep insights and a trove of data to inform corresponding inclusion strategies. HR can then evaluate whether and how to redesign processes for the highest impact, considering scalability, resourcing and potential return on investment, and can implement process interventions to ensure the identified pain points are effectively addressed. Taking an employee-centric approach to understanding key inflection points for different groups of employees enables HR leaders to pinpoint the tensions that perpetuate inequities in career progression.

Inject additional transparency into decision-making

Many talent processes are opaque to employees—discussions are often conducted behind closed doors among a select group of leaders. Employers are increasingly paying attention to this transparency problem; according to a 2021 Gartner survey, more than half of HR leaders say increasing the transparency of talent processes is a high priority over the next 12 months.

Organizations have an opportunity to use data to increase visibility into leaders’ and managers’ talent decisions. This strategy is not about sharing information on performance ratings or succession plans throughout the organization; instead, it centers around adding a quality check to talent decision-making via HR or peer reviews of leaders’ and managers’ decision outcomes.

A practice organizations can implement is requiring multiple individuals to provide performance ratings for each employee to limit the impact of individual biases. Additionally, HR could also analyze the performance ratings proposed by managers to identify any significant skews in the distribution of performance ratings based on gender, race, salary grade, nationality or age. If the data show differences in the distributions based on demographic characteristics such as gender or race, HR would be able to engage the relevant leaders or managers in a discussion around their decision outcomes. For example, if women in a particular business unit are disproportionately ranked in the bottom half of the performance distribution compared to men, HR would facilitate a conversation with the group’s leaders and managers to identify biases that may have caused the imbalance.

Related: Here’s what hiring in 2022 is expected to look like

Mitigate leader and manager bias in talent decisions

Leaders and managers are at the center of most talent decisions. They determine how to rate employees’ performance, as well as who gets promoted, hired and included on succession slates. To mitigate the impact of bias on these talent decisions, many organizations rely on event-based training. For instance, a 2021 Gartner survey found that 79% of HR leaders reported they provide unconscious bias training. Though important, awareness alone is insufficient for sustained progress.

HR must lead their organizations in moving beyond bias training as the primary mechanism to address manager and leader bias in talent processes. Coupling bias training with data can help address subjectivity in key talent decisions. Organizations are increasingly embedding artificial intelligence (AI) technology into their talent processes to highlight potential biases. For example, some organizations are adopting technology that analyzes recruiting managers’ interview notes to identify biased language, such as “quiet” or “presence”. Similar technologies can be applied to other talent processes, such as performance evaluations and calibration discussions, where high-potential employees and successors are identified.

Organizations trust their talent processes to enable them to hire the right candidates, identify and select the right leaders, and promote the right talent to critical roles. But the human element—central to many talent processes—can pose equity challenges. HR leaders can help their organizations overcome these challenges by leveraging data and technology-enabled solutions to build a more just and equitable organization.

Stessy Mezeu and Jeanine Prime
Jeanine Prime, Ph.D., is a vice president in the Gartner HR Practice. She has more than 19 years of experience leading research teams on a broad swath of HR topics, including talent management, leadership, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Stessy Mezeu is a senior research specialist in the Gartner HR practice. In this role, Stessy conducts research to identify best practice solutions to HR leaders’ and professionals' biggest challenges, including leader and manager effectiveness, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and culture in a hybrid work environment.