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  • Conducting Effective Equity Audits Requires Asking Hard Questions, Planning to Address Findings

    February 17, 2023 | By Kevin Gray

    Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
    A group of professionals evaluate their organization's equity efforts.

    TAGS: best practices, operations, diversity and inclusion, surveys, nace insights, talent acquisition

    Recent research conducted by NACE and The Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University underscores how important it is for companies to conduct audits and analyses of their own data periodically to assess gaps, inequities, trends, and unintended consequences in their recruiting efforts.

    The research revealed that some organizations are in a good position to do so. According to Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, professor at Illinois State University and visiting scholar in the School of Education at Virginia Union University, where he serves as director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs, these well-positioned organizations regularly:

    • Collect data;
    • Warehouse it for analysis on a weekly, monthly, or biannual basis;
    • Monitor issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and identity-based equities; and
    • Ask hard questions.

    Coming Soon

    Experts from the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University and NACE will detail results of their yearlong research study Recruiting for Equity at HBCUs and Beyond: Current Practices and Pitfalls and the implications of those findings during NACE’s 3rd Annual HBCU Summit on March 2, 2023.

    “Then,” Dr. Strayhorn says, “some have started to use information from these internal analyses to develop plans and/or scale effective practices for fixing the issues and addressing the gaps. That said, there are many more companies that don’t have these data, don’t have an infrastructure for collecting and analyzing such data points, and are a great distance away from putting research into practice.”

    There are several critical components of an audit that can effectively identify, assess (or profile), and root out weak spots, gaps, and inequities in recruiting procedures and processes. As mentioned above, the first refers to structural elements of the employing organization:

    • Does the company collect data?
    • Where is it housed?
    • What are the metrics?
    • Who’s responsible for tracking, analyzing, reporting such information?

    “Effective audits include quantitative [e.g., survey, pulse poll], qualitative, and even mixed forms of data,” explains Dr. Strayhorn, who co-authored a report based on the research titled Recruiting for Equity at HBCUs and Beyond: Current Practices and Pitfalls.

    “It’s not just perceptual data—that is, how employees feel and think—although that’s incredibly important. Effective audits combine, integrate, or merge employee information system data with such insights, which enables closer examination of procedures and processes.”

    For instance, this may reveal if:

    • There are patterns to varying “wait times” for internship/job candidates between application, hiring, and onboarding.
    • If interns hired through certain sites, institutions, or efforts tend to have similar experiences, challenges, or productivity levels once onboarded.

    Lastly, effective audits include clear indicators of demographics and identity, which allow employers to identify, address, and track the impact of specific course corrections for segments of their intern and employee base.

    “What works well for one organization won’t likely work the same for another, so disaggregating audits and paying attention to demographic trends in this way is critical,” Dr. Strayhorn points out.

    “Equity audits can be effective as they provide leadership and employers with much-needed data and information that empowers them to address and reduce, if not remove, programmatic, policy, and process-related barriers that prevent the full participation, access, and involvement of interns and staff in the workplace.”

    In his consulting work with colleges and businesses, Dr. Strayhorn urges clients to think of the equity audit as a holding up a mirror to the organization.

    “Mirrors don’t lie, so we shouldn’t try to fool ourselves,” he says.

    “They should ask the hard questions now internally, so they are not forced to answer them in the public square, which nowadays includes social media, the daily news, and front-page headlines. For equity audits to work, employers must ask the hard questions, report the answers, and lean in for deeper understanding without feeling the need to deflect, dismiss, or defend against what’s revealed. If they don’t trust themself to do this objectively, they should hire a firm, consultant, or team to come in and lead the effort.”

    Examples of hard questions they should be asking are:

    • What are the experiences of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ staff, and those who live with disabilities or at the intersection of all of these?
    • Where are they positioned within the organization? Do they feel significant, valued, and a sense of belonging?
    • What is the representation for women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ staff?
    • What is their pay and compensation and is it equitable across groups?
    • What is the leadership trajectory for such staff as they go and grow with the company?
    • What is the rate of systemic bias and/or discrimination in the company? How is it reported, when, where, and who’s responsible for the response?
    • Have the organization’s policies and procedures been subjected to systematic review by legal counsel or an outside firm, paying attention to issues of discrimination, compliance, and current state-of-law?
    • To what extent are company values reflected in the culture through recruiting efforts, training, promotions, investments, supplier contracting, and even social media messages?

    “These are the kinds of questions that occupy effective equity audits,” Dr. Strayhorn says.  

    “You’ll still need to exercise empathy, acceptance, and understanding when the results are presented. Finding gaps, inequities, or even instances of systemic DEI problems is an inevitable reality in a world marked by serious social problems like racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and the like.

    “Inequities exist everywhere, and employers are well-advised to embrace this reality and, thus, the likelihood that a well-designed audit will reveal gaps, barriers, and issues. In most cases, this is good news, as it demonstrates the efficacy of the audit and auditors, but also points to aspects of the business that can be addressed, improved, and better supported.”

    The best first step is to develop a plan of action—think and plan before you act, he advises. For instance, if an audit turns up gaps in pay among middle managers of color and their white counterparts, employers could work with HR and the chief financial officer to calculate the “gap analysis” and how much money is needed to remove the gaps bringing everyone to the level of equity.

    “Then, taking into account the company’s financial position—that is, revenue minus expenditures in light of any savings—they can ‘cost out’ the raises, promotions, and incentives that will need to be awarded over a time period to achieve equity, while ensuring business continuity, that the company has what it needs to stay afloat and open in the long run,” Dr. Strayhorn says.

    If another employer finds sizeable gaps in the race/ethnicity of its intern pool, it might consider building relationships with HBCUs, Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs), and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), locally or at a distance via technology.

    Some ways to build these key relationships might include:

    • Appointing an HBCU or MSI leader to the company’s advisory board;
    • Hosting a virtual brainstorming huddle that leads to action;
    • Contacting HBCU instructors about visiting classrooms; or
    • Intentionally marketing opportunities through available listservs, websites, and social media groups. 

    “Conducting audits, reporting results, and charting a plan to take action on these findings to create equity, celebrate diversity, foster inclusion, and ensure belonging is not just good for business—although it is—it’s the right thing to do,” Dr. Strayhorn says.

    “Remember, too, that inequities can take time to emerge and show up on data grids; eliminating inequities might also take time, money, effort, leadership, and incremental progress. But the hardest of these to manufacture is will—a will to ask hard questions, a will to answer them, a will to set a plan, and a will to act. But where there’s a will, there’s a way forward to achieving equity for all.”