Should Your Business Ask for Information About Gender, Race, and Ethnicity?



My husband filled out a survey the other day that was on the bottom of his receipt from the grocery store. He made a point to tell me that at the end of the questionnaire they asked him questions about his race and ethnicity. He responded “prefer not to answer.”

As he told me this story, he wondered “Why do they need this information? What are they going to do with it? Will they treat me differently, or give me different prices based upon what my ethnicity is?”

The U.S. government collects race and ethnicity data for the Census to help in making policy decisions, particularly those that impact civil rights. They also note they use the data to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health, and other environmental risks. That’s why for certain organizations that work with the government, or who receive government funding, capturing this type of information is required.

But for many other businesses, like the grocery store, it isn’t required to capture this data. My husband’s objections are valid. I’ve polled others, and have gotten similar responses when they feel brands ask them to provide information about themselves that don’t seem relevant.

As you think about building an inclusive brand, data plays an important role. But the data won’t do you much good if the experiences you deliver to your customers are off-putting.

When collecting data about race, ethnicity, gender, or other classifications are helpful

I’ve done voice of the customer interviews for a few clients this year who wanted to know how race impacted experiences for the people they were serving. Asking questions about race in the screener was necessary, because of the line of questioning we were taking during the research.

One client I worked with was able to see from the data that their brand did a poor job of supporting their African-American customers. They could see that this population spent the least amount of time on their product, and had the least amount of trust with the brand in comparison to other races.

Beauty retailer Sephora conducted a large-scale study on racial bias in retail to find out if there were differences in the experiences consumers had in retail, based upon their race. They found that disparities did exist, including in their stores and online. As a result of the findings, they developed and are implementing a detailed action plan to deliver an environment where all their customers feel like they belong.

Both my client and Sephora used demographic data to uncover that there were factors in the experiences their brands were delivering that negatively impacted certain groups of customers. Those experiences ultimately impacted their desire to engage and buy from them, and the degree of success they achieved.

In these instances, it was helpful to get demographic data, because it informed where focus and corrections were needed. And as these brands work to implement their plans, they can then use tracking surveys over time to evaluate their progress with particular groups.

When collecting demographic data isn’t helpful

If you don’t have a specific purpose for the data, a way to properly analyze, or a hypothesis you are trying to prove or disprove, then don’t collect the information. It causes more harm, than good.

A good rule of thumb is that if a customer were to ask why you need the data, you’d be able to give them a clear answer as to how the data will be used for their benefit. You can avoid customers having to ask, or be privately frustrated by the questions by proactively sharing why you’re asking for specific information.

Besides, there are often other indicators you could use that would help you better identify how to serve your customers based upon different demographic characteristics. Buying patterns, feedback, requests for certain products, observation, and even third party data can help you find the insights you need to deliver experiences that make your customers feel like they belong.

Data is a powerful tool in building an inclusive brand, but only if capturing it doesn’t push the customers you want to serve away.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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An open minded personality.. fun to be with, because of my positive vibes. God fearing, for without God I am nothing.. Moved with compassion when dealing with you, not selfish or self-centered...

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