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Deciding to publicly share data about company diversity isn’t a small decision for any organization.

First, a company has to compile data about its demographics — who is hired and who is promoted — and organize it. Some companies go so far as to do an audit looking at salaries, then comparing the pay of employees from different backgrounds.

After all the data is compiled, then the executives have to live with the results — even if the numbers reveal some larger problems.

Executive Brief

  • Publicly sharing data about company diversity can tremendously benefit employers.
  • Part of publicly sharing numbers involves acknowledging company failures, but it's also an opportunity to be held accountable for future progress.
  • Even as companies do this, however, experts say they have to commit to follow up on progress.

But publicly sharing data about company diversity can also have tremendous benefits, says Carol A. Adams, professor of accounting at Durham University Business School in England.

The company’s willingness to publish the numbers shows an openness to address diversity issues, Adams says, which incentivizes people to stay at the company.

“It affects people’s perception of the workplace and their job satisfaction,” she says. “You start seeing more women and ethnic minorities applying for promotion, for example, whereas before they may not have bothered because they thought there was no point.”

Cindy Robbins, president and chief people officer at Salesforce, admits she was nervous when she and her team first led a company-wide audit of pay. The deep-dive ultimately revealed a compensation gap between male and female employees, one the company then took action to correct.

“Sometimes to be an advocate you have to be overt,” Robbins says. “You have to show your cards.”

Face the fear

Undertaking an audit or reviewing employee demographics can be a hard sell to senior executives.

Managers may be reluctant for a number of reasons. “It can be embarrassment about how bad things are,” Adams says. “It can be about not wanting to reveal where problems are.”

But dealing with that fear is part of the process, says Courtney Seiter, director of people at Buffer, a social media management tools company.

“I think it’s a healthy fear,” she says. “I wanted that level of scrutiny. I wanted that accountability. It lights a fire under you.”

Buffer prides itself on its transparency. Every employees’ salary is shared on a public spreadsheet, and the company even goes so far as to share the salary formula it uses to calculate pay, adjusting for factors like location, years of experience and loyalty.

When it came time to assess diversity progress, Seiter says company leaders wanted to take that same transparent approach. This time, they knew they’d have to act on whatever they found.

“I definitely see a lot of room for improvement, still. Our overall numbers have improved quite a bit,” she says. “I think our next challenge will be to not look at just the company level, but on the individual area level. We still have teams where there’s only one woman or only one person of color, and beyond the company level, we want each area to feel integrated.”

Organizing the data in this more granular way is important for both employees and researchers, Adams says. Simply presenting the numbers with no context may check a box, but it isn’t showing a sustained commitment.

“Reporting is generally not as good as it should be, in my view,” she says. “I would like to see organizations reporting on different levels of the hierarchy, and also including trend reporting. People can’t see if you’re improving, as you say you’re committed to doing.”

Making the commitment

Publicly sharing numbers involves acknowledging company failures, but it’s also an opportunity to be held accountable for future progress, Seiter says.

“There is a risk of failing publicly on this, and having to write a notice,” Seiter says.

Committing to an annual audit is one way to enforce that accountability, Robbins says. Simply doing it one time and claiming the problem is fixed won’t move the needle.

“You have to be prepared to talk about what’s behind the numbers,” Robbins says.

Even now, as Salesforce has made major gains in equality, Robbins sees so much more room for progress.

“I feel like we’re so early in the journey still,” she says, referring to large companies in general. “I don’t feel confident there’s a light at the end of the tunnel yet.”