Deb Muller is CEO of HR Acuity, the only technology company specifically created for employee relations and investigations management. It aims to help organisations to protect their reputations and build a better workplace. She explains why capturing employee relations data is key to improving diversity and inclusion.
What made you set up HR Acuity?
While working in-house as an HR professional, I saw that there was a gap in technology for employee relations for investigations. This was something that you did on your own, with your training and experience. We’re still seeing that happening today, and for me, part of the problem is that there are deviations in what’s expected from employee behaviour.
Whether it’s something as egregious as a claim of harassment or discrimination to even just a minor policy violation or a performance issue, there was no way to track it appropriately and consistently. And then look at that data to see what’s going on in the organisation. And that’s what HR Acuity does.
How does it work?
We provide the technology to help organisations better conduct best practice investigations, and when issues arise, uncover trends and patterns from data and analytics. And maybe most importantly, really focusing on the employee experience when something is going wrong in the workplace.
How many organisations do you work with and is it mainly larger companies?
We don’t release exact customer numbers but we reach well over 150 organisations and millions of employees. Our focus is on the larger, with 5,000 or more employees, although that doesn’t mean the issues don’t happen downstream.
Does HR Acuity’s software technology support diversity and inclusion practices?
You want to make sure things are done consistently, which helps with diversity and inclusion. We say that consistency of process drives consistency of results. So, if you don’t have a process, if you don’t look at it, how do you know how you’re treating people? If you’re not using technology and using the same processes, how do you know that you aren’t treating women or people of colour in a different way? You have to start looking at the data; you can’t just think that everything’s going okay. Because if you look more closely, you may find a very different picture.
We talk to our clients about employee relations in the paradigm of a traffic light. Green is everything that an organisation puts in place – policies, job descriptions, strategy, and guidelines – or how they expect their employees to behave, regardless of who they are or where they come from.
Throughout employees’ lifecycles, we know that they’re not going to hit all those targets. How we manage those things has to be done consistently. So that’s what HR Acuity helps them do. Put together consistent documentation so that they can manage it properly and have clear expectations with the employees. And then on an aggregate, they can make sure that they’re doing things consistently.
If you have a large organisation, you might not know that you’re managing things differently, and that could have an impact for employees of a certain age, gender or race. The other thing that can happen is you can start looking at trends and see that there could be an issue in a certain area, that might be problematic.
How does having a consistent process benefit employees?
The process itself is going to make people more comfortable. One thing we learned from #MeToo, is that many people were not coming forward because they didn’t know what to expect, how they’re going to be treated, how much information to share or who’s going to find out. So, they weigh the options and say they’re going to put up with it or find another job. By having that process, making sure that expectations are clear, you are much more accepting of the outcome – even if you don’t like it – because it says that the organisation cares. I think that certainly creates a culture of inclusive diversity.
We’re starting to see some of our clients and large technology corporations being more transparent with the data. The best example I can give is Microsoft and Google announced this spring that they were going to start sharing data on harassment. So, how does that drive diversity and inclusion? It means they care enough to actually know what’s going on and to share the results. Just a small act of putting that data out there is going to start to change the culture.
How do you measure and organisation’s response to the data?
We’ve recently launched in our product a way of getting a net promoter score at the end of a case. This holds HR accountable by asking the question, how likely are you to recommend that a friend or colleague comes to HR with a similar issue? That is the crux of it. It’s not, did you like the outcome? Because you may not always like the outcome. But when you came forward did it help you? Did it result in you not having to go to a plaintiff’s attorney, or be disgruntled in your job? Were they helpful in getting you to where you thought you could be productive and feel safe in the workplace? And that, from my perspective, is the measurement.
In your latest employee relations studies, have you seen a change since the #MeToo movement in how companies are engaging with women?
There’s been an increase in reporting since #MeToo, and I don’t think that’s a big surprise. But what organisations have to realise is that the harassment was happening beforehand. What #MeToo did was give people a license to speak up. And it’s going to be much broader than just harassment; it’s going to be discrimination or bullying, or wherever they feel is not being heard.
Organisations have to figure out how they’re going to manage that. Coupled with that, we have a workforce that’s grown up with speaking up on social media – when something’s not going right they can find an audience to listen to it in a way that they never could before. If you’re not giving them the avenues to speak up internally, they’re going to find other avenues, so it is vital employers prepare themselves. The good news is that that many of them are starting to take actions, whether it’s more training or better communication.
There’s been a lot of talk about hiring more women, but if you don’t have the right culture, you’re not going to be successful getting them, or they’re not going to stay.
We hear a lot about ‘gender fatigue’. Are you aware of this?
I’ve never heard it spoken that way. Whenever I see something like a woman was named CEO of this, I would love a world where that’s not the announcement. It drives me crazy. The story is their credibility, their abilities that got them to that position, but we’re not there yet. And, so we must continue to push and say that there is a disproportionate number of people of colour or females in certain positions. And if we stop talking about it, we’re not going to make any progress.
How should organisations be using data to make a meaningful impact?
They have to start gathering it and derive insights from it, correlate it with other key business indicators and spot trends. If they want to make a change, they’re going to have to be data-driven. They need to be able to show how [inclusion and diversity] drive performance; and, if leaders are not doing their part or not treating people properly, how it impacts the culture.
What tips do you have for companies who say they struggle to capture data or use it effectively?
It is not difficult. It’s just a change of behaviour, just like you capture any other data in the workplace and start looking at the trends. It might look like something’s happening. But you don’t want to jump to conclusions.
We tell people that the data gives them the questions to ask. So, if I’m an HR leader, and I start seeing a spike in activity in a particular area, or issues happening over and over with a particular person, it allows me to go to my business leader and start asking the question. Figure out what the cause is, and be honest about whether there’s an issue with a certain leader, and if there are policy issues that meet people’s needs.
For example, I don’t understand why leaders have to have their leadership team meeting at eight o’clock in the morning when a few women in the workplace will be getting their kids to school.
If you see issues with attendance, or it has to do with a particular demographic, why do we have more women that just aren’t hitting our attendance numbers? Well, maybe it’s because they can’t, as they are usually the main caregiver. How do we rethink our expectations? We’re not saying they can work less, but maybe we need to think about how they work differently.
What practical steps are companies taking on the back of that data?
I would say be courageous enough to publish what’s happening with employee relations issues and claims.
Laszlo Bock, who was the head of HR at Google wrote a book called Work Roles. There is a chapter in which he talks about the promotional process which I love sharing with clients. At Google, there was a process in which employees could self-nominate or be nominated for promotion. Men were self-nominating at a much higher rate than women. But the data showed that the women actually were being awarded the promotions at a proportionately higher rate.
Google shared that data and by doing so sent a very strong message to the women in the organization that ultimately may encourage them to self-nominate in the future. This not only builds trust but in this case, may increase the number of women in higher-level roles.
Finally, what would you like to happen in the workplace to instil diversity and inclusion?
It must be collaborative; it is not just an HR issue. But it takes both the employee and the employer to build a safe, inclusive workplace, and that has to be cross-functional.
It’s a combination of people, the process and technology. There was recently a pledge from the top 200 companies about how they’re going to change the workforce and what a corporation is. It’s not just about revenues, but it’s about their people. And they made a very strong statement about diversity and inclusion, and they’re doing the right things for the people that are there.
That is the type of bold action that’s going to be required to build that transparency, which starts with processes that use data. If we want to be diverse and inclusive, we want to get to the point where people’s gender or race isn’t what defines them. But you need to have the data to make change happen.