Feb 12, 2021

Questions to Ask Employees in Underserved Groups

As organizations realize the importance of creating inclusive workplaces, many are creating and implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. However, it’s a delicate balancing act to understand and support BIPOC and LGBTQ+ workers without making them feel uncomfortable.

How can companies ask the right questions without putting these employees on the spot—and what types of questions should they ask? 

It turns out that asking the actual questions isn’t the first step in the process. It’s important to set the right environment where these questions can be answered honestly.

Setting the Right Environment

The first step in creating an inclusive environment is a serious, organization-wide commitment that starts from the top. “Leadership should broadly communicate their organization’s value for inclusion so that all employees clearly understand the purpose of forthcoming conversations if this is a new direction for the organization,” explains Dr. Rassheedah Watts, chief diversity officer and owner of the Inclusive Action Institute. “This foundational approach mitigates possible misinterpretations from BIPOC and LGBTQ+ employees who might otherwise feel they are being negatively targeted and questioned because of their identities.”

A part of setting the right environment also includes putting the right people in charge of your inclusion efforts. For example, according to Ricklyn Woods, an SHRM-certified Human Resources Professional in Los Angeles, who is asking the questions—and why they are asking—is more important than the actual questions. In fact, Woods poses 2 questions to organizations:

  1. Do employees trust the person asking the questions (are they viewed as a person of honesty and integrity)?
  2. Do employees believe the person asking will do anything meaningful with the answers provided (are their intentions genuine and clearly communicated)?

“Throughout my 15+ year career as a Human Resources leader, the number one complaint I heard from employees was ‘management’ could not be trusted,” Woods says. “Managers also need to earn a seat at the table, the employee lunch table, where the real, meaningful dialogue takes place.”

She says she’s sat next to company leaders in employee feedback sessions. “However, the solicited feedback was met with rhetoric and defense of the status quo, with no real intent to listen to learn and implement change.”

As a result, Woods recommends identifying the right person or people who are trusted leaders or employees and have been properly trained to have these conversations. “If no one internally is qualified to facilitate diversity, equity, and inclusion dialogue, I recommend bringing in a consultant—although, I believe that should be a last resort.” 

Prevailing wisdom dictates that external consultants would be a better choice than someone in the organization, but Woods disagrees. “Employees need to see the people they work with as allies, advocates, and champions of change, rather than an external consultant who typically does not have a vested interest in the employee experience.”

Questions to Ask Underserved Groups

 Once you’ve created the right environment, Carmen Drummond, CPRW, a Washington, DC-based diversity and inclusion career strategist and the owner of Career Nerd, recommends the following questions:

As a company, have we created a safe space for you to ask questions and share ideas?

“Creating a safe space for your employees is very important, and historically, many professionals with diverse backgrounds have felt that they will not receive the credit or promotion they deserve if they share ideas and process improvements,” Drummond explains.  

Do you feel like a valued employee within our company?

“Asking this question will help company leadership determine if their culture creates an environment where people feel valued.” Drummond says companies also need to discover their employees’ definition of value. “Companies will also identify and determine what would help their employees feel valued and where the company has been falling short.”

As a company, how are we helping you grow professionally?

“This question’s feedback will help you determine whether professional development efforts across the company are enough to help your employees grow within their roles,” Drummond says. “Your company leadership can use this information to bridge the gap between education barriers and job role success.”   

What actions can we take as a company to ensure that we are increasing diversity?

“Find out if your employees feel like there are professionals at their company that are like them.” Drummond says companies may believe that hiring 1 or 2 diverse candidates out of 10 is good enough but recommends asking the existing diverse employees for their opinions. “Taking this initiative helps to reassure your employees that their voices are heard and hold weight when it comes to company growth and implementation.” 

What barriers are you facing in your current role, and how can we support you to overcome them?

“It’s no secret that diverse candidates often feel like they have to prove themselves, and this often leaves them vulnerable or leads to overextending themselves,” Drummond says. “Individuals who come from challenged backgrounds have different circumstances, and companies should look into how they can alleviate or prevent these barriers—asking your employees will teach you exactly how to do that.”

Concerning employee satisfaction, what areas do you think the company could improve on?

“This question gets straight to the point: while leadership attempts to ensure that the company performs at a satisfactory level, many employee relations areas go unnoticed or neglected altogether,” Drummond says. “It is imperative to understand where those vulnerabilities are and how to increase satisfaction and employee engagement.”

In addition, it helps if questions are answered in context to avoid making underserved employees feel awkward. “A great way to ask a question on such a sensitive topic and put employees at ease is to tee up the question with honesty, clearly communicate your intention, and be vulnerable by acknowledging that you do not have all the answers and you are listening to learn,” Woods recommends.

She provides an example: “I know that we can do a better job creating a more inclusive workplace. I value each one of you, and I really do want this to be a workplace where all employees feel included. I would love to learn from your experience. If you are comfortable sharing, what suggestions do you have for improving the way we do things so we can make our workplace more inclusive?”  

An Alternate Route

Again, the degree to which underserved employees are open and honest may depend on how they view the company’s culture and leadership team. Watts recommends using an assessment tool, like a cultural climate survey or diversity assessment tool. “These tools help measure how BIPOC and LGBTQ+ employees experience the culture of an organization, and the assessment results identify the areas within the organization that need to be addressed,” she explains.

“By taking this approach, an organization avoids putting any social identity group in an awkward situation so that no one feels singled out or forced into a discussion they weren’t prepared to have,” Watts concludes.    

About the author

Terri Williams
Terri Williams
Terri Williams is a writer based in Birmingham, AL, who specializes in business, technology, education, real estate, and personal finance – and dabbles in home improvement/décor. She has bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Bankrate, Investopedia, US News & World Report, American Bar Association Journal, Verizon, Realtor.com, Apartment Therapy, and several other clients you’ve probably heard of. Follow her adventures @Territoryone.

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