HR professionals might say belonging at work is a key pillar of their D&I strategy, but some may underestimate the complexity of bringing it to life.
How do you know if you belong somewhere? It can be hard to identify, and even harder to measure, because it’s a feeling you get. And like most elements of workplace culture, it’s most obvious when it’s lacking.
This can make it a difficult concept for the privileged majority to grasp. Just as a fish doesn’t realise it’s in water, these people spend most of their lives atop a solid belonging foundation. They can walk into unfamiliar situations – a networking event, for example – and immediately become one with the space. This is usually because they look, sound and act like the dominant portion of the group.
Others, however, experience belonging only in small pockets of their lives. They might come home from work and breathe a sigh of relief as they sink back into their true selves – a self revealed only to those in the inner sanctum of their lives.
When employers try to facilitate frameworks to create a sense of belonging for all employees, it’s usually easier said than done.
Rhonda Brighton-Hall, founding CEO of Mwah (Making Work Absolutely Human), and her colleagues know this well. They’ve poured hundreds of hours into learning how to research, map, track and dissect employers’ and individuals’ belonging journeys, which has culminated in the creation of their Belonging Index.
“This is based on a lifetime of work for us,” says Brighton-Hall, who is also chair of AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) advisory panel. “Without belonging, we feel like invited guests at work,” she adds.
While few people would argue against the importance of belonging at work, it’s not always at the top of their agenda – a survey of 180 HRM readers found that 48 per cent said their organisations weren’t actively addressing belonging at work – but that’s a mistake. Here’s why.
Not got time to read the whole article? We’ve included the key points at the end.
Why should belonging at work be on your agenda?
More than 1.2 million Australians experience deep feelings of social exclusion, according to the Social Exclusion Monitor from the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research.
Being excluded can cause ‘social pain’, which, research suggests, activates the same part of our brain that processes physical pain, which is why emotional pain is often experienced as a visceral physical sensation. If you’ve ever had your heart broken, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Social exclusion can cause personal and organisational deviance, low self-esteem, dishonesty, job withdrawal, high stress, greater intention to quit and poor physical health, according to a research paper by associate professor Jane O’Reilly, University of Ottawa, Canada, and Sara Banki, Sharif University of Technology, Iran.
“Employees have a strong need to belong in their organisations, and there’s persuasive evidence in our study that social exclusion can be more threatening to that than [overt] harassment,” says O’Reilly in a media statement about the research.
Their research also found ostracism was a stronger predictor of employee turnover than harassment. All of this isn’t to undermine the seriousness of workplace harassment, O’Reilly adds, but to clarify the severity of social exclusion.
Socially excluded employees can also become aggressive, not only towards those who exclude them, but also towards “unperturbed and passive bystanders”. They are also more likely to engage in team sabotage, such as not working hard on purpose, even when it disadvantages them financially.
These behaviours stem from employees trying to regain a threatened sense of control, O’Reilly and Banki suggest. But when employers succeed in creating an environment conducive to belonging, it can alleviate these risks.
In 2019, people experience platform BetterUp surveyed nearly 2000 employees in the United States and found that those who felt a strong sense of belonging demonstrated a 50 per cent reduction in turnover risk, a 56 per cent increase in performance and a 75 per cent decrease in sick days taken.
Hear from leading D&I experts, such as former Socceroos’ caption Craig Foster and sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins on topics such as belonging at work at AHRI’s Diveristy and Inclusion Conference on 21 May in Sydney.
Where to start?
Employers often invest time and money in progressive diversity initiatives which inevitably fall short because they have neglected to address the inclusion aspects that underpin them.
For example, you might invest in sophisticated engagement software to get a better sense of your diverse employees’ experiences. But without doing the groundwork to allow for a transparent speak-up culture, these employees are unlikely to feel safe enough to provide honest, valuable data, effectively rendering an expensive investment useless because it’s only pumping out vanity metrics.
When leaders realise they’ve been neglecting the I in D&I, they often go in guns blazing with solutions or new platforms, desperately trying to plug the holes allowing belonging to leak out.
First, they should seek to deeply understand employee sentiment, says Jasleen Kaur, HR principal, advisory at Gartner. Gather input from the entire organisation to get a true sense of how they view belonging. Next, ask yourself some tough questions, such as: “Are we currently meeting those expectations?” With this information in hand, it’s time to collect data on your employees’ experiences.
“We can easily map how diverse our workforce is, but measuring their experience is a whole other story,” says Kaur. “The closest proxy most organisations have is an engagement survey, but that’s only giving you employee satisfaction rates. It’s not telling you about their actual experience.”
“That’s the real value of diversity – a person who walks into a room with a whole bunch of things that no one else has and feels they belong there.” – Rhonda Brighton-Hall, founder Mwah.
The remedy to this depends on an organisation’s appetite and budget, says Kaur. It might be a continuous listening tool that provides leaders with constant feedback in real time. Or it might be creating a trustworthy culture whereby you can have continuous feedback discussions in teams, with the expectation that the information will filter back to the decision-makers.
“These conversations need to include employees’ experiences of things like fair treatment, integrating differences, trust, belonging and psychological safety,” says Kaur. “Diversity should be an element of that, but not viewed as separate. None of the elements can exist without the other.”
Part of this means helping leaders to think differently about D&I and belonging at work – take it from D&I to DIEB (diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging).
“If we think about how the D&I space evolved over the years, most organisations started talking about diversity in terms of representation,” says Kaur. “We started to increase those numbers [of diverse employees], but realised we were losing them quicker than we brought them on because we didn’t have an environment to support them. That’s where the evolution started to happen.”
Our experience of work isn’t static which is why responding to employees’ belonging needs can be challenging, says Brighton-Hall – it ebbs and flows.
Keeping this in mind, an employer shouldn’t create a one-size-fits-all belonging strategy and hope it will resonate with everyone.
In a 2016 article, The Guardian asked its readers to share their stories of feeling like they didn’t belong at work. One response in particular demonstrated the individualised context of belonging. A UK-based employee said: “I get paid well to do something I enjoy, and… [I’m] surrounded by clever, funny, like-minded people. And for 45 or 50 hours every week, I feel isolated.”
This simple anecdote shows how employers often miss the mark when trying to create environments that people love working in– a good salary and passion for work aren’t always enough.
“You need to know why your people love working for you,” says Brighton-Hall.
“One of our clients had their whole [employee value proposition] built around unlimited annual leave and great bonuses. When we did the Belonging Index with them, we found that very few people were actually taking three weeks of leave, let alone the statutory requirements [of four weeks].
“The real reason people were coming to work for them was for development and growth. We told them they could throw away the unlimited annual leave policy and no one would care.”
Once you understand exactly what your people value, you are able to craft a truly valuable offering for employees.
Brighton-Hall and her team also looked at First Nation’s culture when developing the Index, namely, the concept of collective accountability to the group.
This means employees would take joint responsibility for an organisation’s culture, rather than lumping it onto the HR team. Employees would understand there’s an expectation that they turn up to work with their own unique perspectives, experiences and ways of thinking.
“That’s the real value of diversity – a person who walks into a room with a whole bunch of things that no one else has and feels they belong there,” says Brighton-Hall.
Another example of building collective accountability is to have leaders empower mid-level managers to make decisions about their teams’ diverse needs (such as using accessibility software or flexible work hours) without all the red tape. Because, says Brighton-Hall, the HR presence often allows managers to abdicate employee requests.
“A manager might say, ‘I’m not sure if that’s a reasonable request. I’ll ask someone in HR’ and it ends up going into HR’s den of overwork for the next six weeks.
“Then that manager has to face that employee for the next six weeks without having helped them and their relationship suffers. HR needs to make it clear that it’s up to leaders, in that moment, to make reasonable adjustments [for employees].”
It’s also important to note that there are different types of belonging, says Kaur.
“There’s the emotional connection level, and then there’s a more practical sense of belonging, which is more organisational and within HR’s control.”
Kaur uses the example of a manager who might not gel with half of the people on their team. They might gain their emotional sense of belonging from those they get along with, but from an organisational perspective, they have a duty to ensure they’re not creating any disparities for the other half.
If the people the manager doesn’t feel close to aren’t speaking up in meetings, for example, organisational belonging kicks in and that manager is obliged to make an extra effort to include those voices in the wider discussion.
“I get paid well to do something I enjoy, and… [I’m] surrounded by clever, funny, like-minded people. And for 45 or 50 hours every week, I feel isolated.”
You also need to take time to understand how individuals perceive their own belonging.
“I am a woman of colour, so I’m what we call in the HR world a ‘double minority’,” says Kaur. “My need for belonging is twofold. I want to be treated as fairly and equitably as both the men and the white employees in my organisation.
“Being able to recognise and appreciate people’s uniqueness and being curious about your [unknown] similarities helps to make the uncomfortable comfortable.”
Bring outsiders in
Learning to identify and eliminate ‘otherness’ is critical to ensuring that a belonging strategy takes flight.
“Something like this has to be very action-orientated,” says Kaur. “It’s about eliminating those in-group/out-group dynamics. One thing leaders can do here is ensure inclusive decision-making is occurring. We too often default to the opinions of people we trust. [Employers] need to create a more structured process to make decision-making more inclusive.”
Kaur says managers should also look at resource allocation to make sure development opportunities and feedback are shared equally.
HR managers and leaders also need to question the assumptions they make.
“For example, an employer might assume a woman who has just returned from maternity leave might not want to travel for work and, therefore, doesn’t give her certain assignments,” says Kaur. “There are no ill-intentions, right? But they’ve made a decision based on their unfounded assumptions.
“Right there, they’ve killed the sense of belonging for that person because they’ve taken away her opportunity to grow and develop. Her opinion wasn’t asked for. That’s a recipe for creating outsiderness.
“This is a really good example of D&I in real life,” says Kaur. “We often have the best of intentions that don’t end up favouring the employee we’re trying to support.”
Not only is there a strong financial case for fostering a sense of belonging in your workplace, culturally it could set you leaps and bounds above your competitors. Also, it helps to foster an environment that people love walking into each day.
“Belonging comes to life not just when you feel you yourself belong, but when you help others to feel they belong,” says Brighton-Hall. “When you do that, there’s a generous energy that flows out of that team.”
- 48 per cent of HRM readers say belonging at work isn’t on their organisation’s agenda.
- Some research suggests social exclusion is more harmful than overt harassment. It’s also a stronger predictor of turnover.
- In an effort to help people feel they belong, ensure you encourage inclusive decision making and avoid defaulting to the opinions of the same people.
- Encourage leaders to reassess resource allocation to ensuring fairness.
- Avoid making assumptions about the things people need to feel they belong; ask employees what they need.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the April 2021 edition of HRM magazine.