For many years, organizations have attempted to address equality, diversity, and inclusion, but little progress been made. Successfully attracting and appointing leaders from underrepresented groups is not enough; we also need them to want to stay. Leaders and employees need to feel a sense of belonging and be given the opportunity to thrive, not simply survive.
of people say they feel isolated at work (HBR)
When employees feel that they are being listened to, respected, valued, and included because of their individuality, rather than despite it, they are happier and more committed to the workplace – which also leads to better performance. A recent study by Harvard Business Review found that 40% of people say they feel isolated at work, quite the opposite of belonging. For those who expressed a strong sense of belonging at their workplace, it translated into a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. “For a 10,000-person company,” Harvard Business Review adds, “this would result in annual savings of more than $52 million.”
“Belonging is a personal experience that’s felt differently by different people, but it impacts everyone.”
Belonging is a personal experience that’s felt differently by different people, but it impacts everyone. It is the glue that binds disparate groups and individuals together. Without belonging, diversity is not sustainable. Creating a sense of belonging – not a culture where employees feel they belong “to” the business – through an inclusive environment should be a priority for any leader.
Together with my colleagues at Stanton Chase London, I recently hosted a roundtable discussion on this very topic. The informal online discussion brought together HR directors from different sectors to share their thoughts and stories and listen to each other’s experiences on fostering inclusion and belonging in the workplace. We talked about a wide range of ideas; here are just a few that we delved into.
No amount of D&I policies, tick-box exercises, or public declarations can achieve true belonging. Leaders instead need to create a culture where everyone on the team has a voice and is respected, and this must also include the leader themselves. By looking critically at the culture of our organizations, leaders can tune in to the significant change that is required. Instead of expecting new hires to merely fit in with the status quo of a company, they should look at what each new employee can add to the organization to encourage diversity of thought and innovation.
“To keep our culture inclusive, innovative, and thriving, we don’t hire for culture fit. We hire through the lens of “culture add.’”
Melonie D. Parker, Chief Diversity Officer at Google
Melonie D. Parker, Chief Diversity Officer at Google, confirms the necessity of this approach at a global firm. “To keep our culture inclusive, innovative, and thriving, we don’t hire for culture fit. We hire through the lens of “culture add,’” she said.
Our roundtable of leaders discussed the crucial importance of getting everyone onboard with inclusion initiatives and the role that white, male leaders must have in shouldering responsibility.
Over time, an inclusive culture, where employees feel they really belong, will lead to further diversity. To achieve this, the straight white male needs to become an ally. Positions of power are still predominantly held by white men, and without their buy-in this significant change will not happen.
Many white men are already allies but there are some who fear that minority groups and women might replace them in the workplace. They feel under threat and can be defensive and sometimes angry. Getting this group to realize that greater diversity helps businesses grow – something that has a positive impact on everyone’s careers – is a challenge. Other groups of men seem genuinely fearful of saying the wrong thing and consequently fail to say anything at all. Some are unaware of the experiences of their underrepresented colleagues and fail to understand, never mind empathize or advocate. This leads to general disengagement with the subject and results in the minority groups having to advocate for themselves.
The burden of striving for equality shouldn’t fall solely on minorities. While their campaign and action are a powerful impetus, every single person, regardless of their race or gender, needs to be taking decisive steps toward fostering a true sense of belonging at an organization.
Employee resource groups that are set up to address individual underrepresented groups by disability, ethnicity, social mobility, or sexual orientation, for example, are a great source of support for workers. However, due to budget and time constraints, companies can often only focus on a couple of these groups each year, which can sow further division as to which get priority.
What is needed is a greater drive for intersectionality within employee resource groups to avoid operating as siloes, which is not reflective of how wider society functions. Many people may also identify with more than one group, so it makes sense to combine efforts. A focus on commonalities, instead of differences, will provide the opportunity to achieve less division and greater change quicker.
To create a company culture that fosters belonging for all of its leaders and employees, organizations need to start analyzing where they rank in their inclusion maturity. Lord Simon Woolley, Life Peer and Founder/CEO of Operation Black Vote, says that companies “must recognize whether they are at minus 20 or at minus 5 but heading toward zero (which is where more companies are now placed.)”
“Businesses at zero can begin to commence a true trajectory of change,” he added.
Boards need to clearly set the vision, values, and policy for inclusion, accepting that there are both structural and behavioral elements. It is then the responsibility of leadership and employees to ensure that it is brought to life.
“Experts should then define what belonging is and what it should look like for your company, then HR Directors can interpret this.”
Sheila Synnott, HR and Talent Director of Infrastructure Products Europe (CRH Plc)
“Experts should then define what belonging is and what it should look like for your company, then HR Directors can interpret this,” says Sheila Synnott, HR and Talent Director of Infrastructure Products Europe (CRH Plc). “Business objectives should be inclusive from the very beginning and employees should be asked to do their best work and be their best.”
The vision, values, and initiatives must benefit all employees, regardless of their individuality, which should reduce resistance and increase support. Crucially, the CEO and leadership team have to model inclusive behavior and feel a sense of belonging, too. This can be achieved by confronting the difficult conversations and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“To create conscious inclusion, human leaders and systems need to come together, they need to provide the change tools such as ‘How to be effective in meetings’ and set up the rules. After this, it is then the managers who will shape the everyday employee experience of belonging,” says Revna Besler, Regional HR Director UK/EMEA for Travel Retail, Estee-Lauder.
It is important that everyone feels they can openly be themselves and share their thoughts and opinions without fear or worry. Self-awareness, kindness, and empathetic and vulnerable relationships and leadership are vital. Everyone should have a voice in meetings, not just those who talk the most or the loudest. Interrupting, dismissing another person’s opinion, or talking over colleagues should be treated as unacceptable.
Leaders must refuse to accept inappropriate behavior, and consequences must be given to anyone who violates the policies and values, regardless of their position. It is often micro-behavior – small individual acts of exclusion or inclusion – that keeps or changes culture, and therefore an understanding of micro-aggressions and micro-affirmations is key. This is often overlooked in organizations as it is difficult to spot and yet can be fundamental in that it creates a sense of “otherness” for those affected. It is likely that many of us have felt “othered” at some point in our careers due to this behavior.
The difference between micro-aggressions and overt discrimination is that people who commit micro-aggressions might not even be aware that they are doing so. Learning how to recognize micro-aggressions and change language accordingly can have a positive impact on the happiness, productivity, and retention of employees. A micro-aggression could be “You don’t sound Black” or “You don’t look autistic” or scrolling on your mobile phone while in a meeting. Micro-affirmations could include taking a genuine interest in someone’s life, asking for their opinion, or openly supporting their view in a meeting.
“Speak-up and empathy are two culture elements we expect our leaders to create alongside inclusivity,”
Burak Bakkaloglu, Vice President & Head of Talent & Analytics, Europe & Latin America for Ericsson
“Speak-up and empathy are two culture elements we expect our leaders to create alongside inclusivity. We have internal and external coaches for our leaders and their experimentations,” said Burak Bakkaloglu, Vice President & Head of Talent & Analytics, Europe & Latin America for Ericsson. “We also believe micro-behaviors, during our daily interactions and meetings, play a critical role in setting that culture. We are encouraging the right micro-behaviors for inclusivity and speak-up culture and measure the impact of those to see progress and pivot quickly if need be. Analyzing recognition patterns, meeting structures, and communication wordings, we want to increase the ability of our minority employees to express their views and de-bias our processes.”
The way that we use language is incredibly important in creating a culture of belonging. Acceptable language changes over time, so it is crucial to stay up to date. For example, it’s not acceptable to refer to women as “girls” because it is demeaning and condescending, just as you wouldn’t refer to men as “boys.” The best terms to use are “women” and “men” or “female” and “male.” HR leaders should seek gender-neutral language for job descriptions and avoid words like “strong” and “driven.” Gendered language significantly decreases the feelings of belonging and job appeal for women.
Historically, the hiring process was developed by men, for men, so it is vital that steps are taken to change this and make the process more appealing and inclusive. It’s a good idea to highlight benefits such as childcare policies, flexible working, and paternity/maternity leave as candidates may not want to ask about these for fear of judgement or exclusion.
According to recent McKinsey research, almost 40% of people reported turning down a job or deciding not to pursue a job because of “a perceived lack of inclusion at an organization.”
Inclusion must be fully integrated within the whole talent management strategy, including recruitment, employee development, and promotions. Hiring decisions should be based on culture “add” not culture “fit” and interviewers given support to interview with a genuinely open mind, free from bias (conscious or unconscious).
“Where possible, organizations should recruit for potential and be prepared to invest time in developing those individuals to achieve their full potential.”
Where possible, organizations should recruit for potential and be prepared to invest time in developing those individuals to achieve their full potential. Promotions must not be given based on the unwritten rules to success, and clear guidelines need to be shared and reviewed to assess suitability for promotion. Equal status should also be applied to employees when considering them for promotion. For example, it’s important to consider a part-time employee or remote worker for promotion as seriously as one would consider a full-time employee or office-based worker.
Remote working provides more opportunities to create a diverse workforce but, for many, online relationships may not be enough to promote a culture of belonging. This could be exacerbated when some return to the office and others remain at home. If leaders fail to address this, those at home may begin to feel they no longer belong. Leaders must seize the opportunity to create a culture that is free from micro-aggressions, encourage collaboration over competition, and reward and celebrate individuals for their contributions. Over time, this helps ensure that a feeling of “otherness” is avoided.
“What if business leaders could use this moment to increase the trust and performance of the teams they depend on by eliminating the interactions that cause some workers — whether virtual or on-site — to feel disadvantaged, excluded, minimized, or deflated?” (“Countering otherness: Fostering integration within teams” by Sabah Alam Hydari for McKinsey)
These challenges should be taken as an opportunity, especially for those companies that are building a hybrid office approach. Reverse mentoring offers such an opportunity, as it encourages collaboration and an appreciation of another perspective. It can be effective both online and in person and can also help create a sense of belonging. By empowering a more junior person to question and teach a leader, there can be gains for both parties. This can be challenging to implement in a “command and control” environment where leaders are used to “telling” but it can be invaluable for providing fresh insight and perspectives and reinforces the importance of everyone’s involvement.
Representation is critical to the success of a belonging culture, and a lack of role models can present a real problem. The more diverse the leadership group, the more inspired the talent pipeline.
“There has been a ripple effect of doubling our female leaders and an unconscious raising of their profile due to having more women in the business.”
Simon Little, Chief People Officer at Navico
Simon Little, Chief People Officer at Navico, says he’s experienced the ‘see it to be it’ concept firsthand. “There has been a ripple effect of doubling our female leaders and an unconscious raising of their profile due to having more women in the business.”
Over time, representation may move beyond the “I see me” identification and leaders should become respected regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, social background, disability, or neurodivergence. These inspirational role models can have a positive impact on the future generation of leaders. Dave Kowal, Group HR Director of The Vita Group, recognizes this. ““I am really interested in inclusion and the tangible steps required to get us to the point where we move beyond looking at how many ‘female leaders’ or ‘ethnic minority leaders’ we have, and simply look at our ‘leaders’ and consider whether they are truly representative of our society. Unfortunately, we are still a long way from this. As a society, there is a great deal more to do to ‘widen the gate,’ and to achieve truly diverse and inclusive workforces at every level, before we will have earned this next step.”
As a role model, it is important to think about the legacy you are creating and consider your contribution to a sustainable society and the communities that serve you. By actively investing capital to bring about positive societal change and leading by example with voluntary work, you can encourage all employees to be active in giving back to the community. This fosters a wider sense of belonging for all. Be vigilant and regularly ask yourself what you and your company have done for its community and question whether you have contributed to making the world a better place.
#MeToo, Gender Pay Gap Reporting, Black Lives Matter, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all raised awareness of the challenges and division we face as a society. Simply being a good person who is “not racist or sexist” is not enough. Urgent action is needed to challenge the status quo. Inclusion and diversity, like profit, must be treated as business imperatives and regularly reviewed; what gets measured gets done.
Results, rather than intention, must be rewarded and celebrated. Truly understand what is happening in your business by collaborating with experts to inform your DE&I strategy. Lead by example. Involve everyone. Let no one feel fearful, disrespected, or “othered.” Create a culture of belonging and eradicate division by increasing diverse representation. Listen, be respectful, try to understand and accept differences of opinion and circumstance, and be patient. Leaders must feel this and drive this while accepting it may take many years and the contributions of a global village to enable true systemic change to happen.
Eleri is a passionate advocate of equity, inclusion, diversity, and belonging, and she strongly believes in helping her clients build diverse leadership teams. She views diversity and inclusion as ethical imperatives that ultimately drive business performance. Eleri places C-suite leaders, divisional directors, and non-executive directors for listed companies as well as private equity, family, and privately owned businesses. She specializes in Board and ESG appointments across a wide range of sectors with a particular focus on the industrial sector.
Eleri is also a dedicated mother to three children (two boys and a girl).
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