Creating an Environment of Belonging: Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Creating an Environment of Belonging: Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

With workplaces in some areas starting to reopen after the loosening or lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, health experts are claiming that workers will return to a different type of workplace than which they had previously known. While social distancing and other factors will impact how organizations function, recent protests regarding race and equality may also play a role in shaping how organizations move forward.

Diversity and inclusion training is not new. Nearly 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies have some form of diversity and inclusion practices. What may be new in some companies is how to address these concerns and move forward in a way that allows all employees to feel valued for their unique talents and who they are.

How as business owners and managers do we do this? How do we build environments where employees feel like they belong?

We know that “belonging” is not only good for people, it’s also good for business. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Value of Belonging at Work,” noted that a high sense of “belonging” among employees – meaning they feel like they mattered and had a social connection to their peers – was linked to a 56 percent increase in job performance, a 50 percent drop in turnover risk, and a 75 percent reduction in sick days. By contrast, exclusion leads to team and self-sabotage.

How do we create an inclusive environment where 40 percent of people say they feel isolated at work?

The biggest step is the first one – start somewhere. Invite employee feedback and take it seriously. Start having the difficult conversations and be really willing to listen to the answers.

Melissa Donaldson, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Wintrust Financial Corporation recently shared her insights and strategies for “Intentional Diversity and Inclusion Practices.”

Melissa outlines five practices:

1. Diversity and Inclusion is an “everybody” issue. We are all diverse and it’s a shared responsibility among everyone within an organization to work toward an inclusive environment. She notes that civility does not equal inclusion; inclusion is more intentional. It can be very personal for many people. Words matter and we all need to be allies on some level. In the article “To Retain Employees, Focus on Inclusion – Not Just Diversity” author Karen Brown notes that employees who differ from most of their colleagues in religion, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, or generation often hide important parts of themselves at work for fear of negative consequences. That makes it more difficult to know how they feel or what they want, which makes them vulnerable to leaving.

2. Develop an agile diversity and inclusion strategy that begins with understanding the as-is and the to-be conditions. You can understand where you are with tools such as survey assessments, focus groups, and one-on-one conversations. In the article “Are You Giving Your Employees an Equal Chance to Succeed” by Nicole Stephens, Nicole encourages organizations to look at the data that comes from these conversations and surveys, as well as from data at every level of the process from where an employee joins the company to where they ascend (or stall). This can be a result of processes and procedures that are either missing or that reinforce the “norm.” Look to identify biases in your hiring and promotion practices that may cause unintentional biases. This can be from looking to recruit from a specific list of universities, to asking what is preventing people from pursuing specific assignments or promotions.

For example, the “glass ceiling” is often cited as being a barrier to higher, c-suite positions for women. In reality, the bigger challenge to women is what’s called the “broken rung” – the first step up to manager. Because fewer women are promoted to managers in the first place, fewer are available at the higher levels for promotions.

Melissa points out that, “We can get so tied to a certain formula that we miss opportunities to do something different and to be more innovative.”

Karen Brown also encourages organizations to look at employee responses to surveys and focus groups broken down by gender, ethnicity, generation, geography, tenure and role. She warns that looking at the responses “in general” or “as a whole” threatens to have the majority overpower the minority within the responses.

3. Find advocates at the top, middle and frontline. Melissa notes that these individuals then become channels to promote good things. They become talent and brand ambassadors and showcase how the commitment to diversity and inclusion is working its way through the organization. These individuals may also work as mentors to other employees, further giving employees the feeling that they have someone in the organization who is looking out for them and listens to their concerns. It’s important to have these advocates at every level, as well as reinforces the idea that diversity and inclusion is an “everybody” issue.

4. Be prepared to have numerous, courageous conversations. This involves asking better questions such as: what challenges do they (the employee) face every day? What are the biggest barriers to their success? What can I do to remove them?

This also involves active listening and suspending judgment. Melissa admits that these can be hard talks to have. “You have to take a deep breath often,” notes Melissa. The fear of having difficult discussions should not replace curiosity or a genuine desire to create a better culture of inclusivity for employees.

Melissa also points out that courageous conversations also involve calling out “microaggressions” when they happen. Microaggressions are slights caused by bias – they can be indirect, subtle or unintentional acts of discrimination. For example, are women mostly left to organize or clean up after meetings? Are men more often given challenging assignments and women more often assigned the “housekeeping” tasks of the office? Over time, microaggressions can be as Melissa terms it “a death by a 1,000 cuts.”

5. All bias is not unconscious. Melissa points out that “everyone has an emotional reaction to difference.” It’s how we deal with that reaction and whether or not we let it influence our actions that can make a difference in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Melissa explains, “That means being willing to take a mirror and hold it up to ourselves and take stock of our own biases that influence our decisions.”

According to “The ‘Broken Rung’ Is the Biggest Obstacle Women Face” on, opportunity and fairness are the strongest predictors of employee satisfaction. It can take time to create a diverse and inclusive workplace. Strategies will be different depending on the type of organization, client base, employee makeup, etc. Recognizing that diversity and inclusivity are everyone’s responsibility, and taking the first step (whatever that may be depending on your situation), will go a long way to creating an environment where people can be who they truly are, feel their unique talents are valued, and will want to stay and work for the greater good of the organization.