Equality Commission defends workplace survey that bears little resemblance to workforce

Chief commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow
Chief commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow
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The Equality Commission has defended its use of a survey about workplaces which bears little resemblance to the actual make-up of Northern Ireland’s workforce.

The commission yesterday published a survey which found that 21% of workers had experienced what it dubbed “unwanted behaviours” within the past year (though neither the press release nor the full survey document which accompanied it spelled out exactly what this means).

Commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow said the results of the survey – titled ‘A Welcoming and Inclusive Workplace’ – would be “analysed in more depth and will be used to build the evidence base for developing advice and guidance to employers”.

However, a look at the survey’s origins shows the responses are based on a self-selecting sample of people, almost the entirety of whom work in the public sector.

The News Letter has taken a closer look at how the survey was done.

In all, 3,583 people responded between November last year and March.

The way the responses were gathered was via something called ‘snowball’ sampling.

This “allowed respondents to self-select and refer onwards the surveys to other respondents”.

The commission told the paper that its survey was promoted via its online magazine, via its training sessions, and via social media.

It also said the data was gathered “completely online and respondents could choose to be anonymous”.

A whopping 96% of respondents came from the public sector.

Only 3% came from the private sector, and 2% came from the ‘third sector’ (charities and NGOs).

According to the most recent official statistics from the NI Statistics and Research Agency, 73% of people in Northern Ireland work in the private sector, and 23% in the public sector.

In addition, 11% of survey respondents were listed as LGBQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer/questioning, and more).

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics gives a figure of 1.2% of the Northern Irish population being gay, lesbian or bisexual.

In terms of what “unwanted behaviour” means, when asked, the commission told the paper that “themes emerging from the work are mainly bullying and harassment, but there’s also some evidence of unfair or inconsistent treatment”.

The News Letter asked how it could rely on such a self-selecting, anonymous survey to give an accurate picture of the Province’s workplaces or to draw up advice to employers.

It said the results were “just a snapshot of some of Northern Ireland’s workplaces from an employee’s point of view, and the responses are from people who chose to volunteer their thoughts”.

It added: “If respondents wanted us to be able to contact them for information, they could opt to do that, and some did. We have more work to do to drill down into the information we gathered.

“These are only initial findings, and we make no claim for this being a scientific survey.”