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Employers need to realise that ‘diversity and belonging are not the same thing’

19 Nov 2019

What does it mean to belong at work and why is it critical for staff satisfaction? BetterUp’s Dr Gabriella Kellerman explains.

Diversity and inclusion are two terms that are consistently mentioned in the same sentence, if not either side of an ampersand, when we talk about cultivating company culture and progressive, modern workplaces. But employers need to acknowledge that other elements, such as belonging, are just as important in achieving true employee satisfaction.

This is emphasised by a recent report from career coaching platform BetterUp. Called the Employee Experience Index, it suggests that creating an environment that allows people to bring their full selves to the job goes beyond just ensuring that employees are engaged.

To find out more about the critical differences between diversity, inclusion and belonging, and how these can impact employees, we spoke to BetterUp’s chief innovation officer, Dr Gabriella Kellerman.

‘Workplace exclusion can happen unintentionally, so the first step is to create awareness within your organisation around what it looks like’

What does ‘belonging’ at work really mean and why is it important?

In our research study, we define ‘belonging’ as the experience of being accepted and included by those around you at work. Recent research shows that 40pc of people feel physically and emotionally isolated in the workplace, despite the fact that companies spend nearly $8bn each year on diversity training. 

Why the disconnect? Many organisations seem to be operating under the assumption that a diverse workplace will automatically be an inclusive workplace. However, diversity and belonging are not the same thing and, in fact, diversity alone does not drive belonging or inclusion.  

While most business leaders focus on getting the diversity part right, they are failing at belonging the part that actually helps employees feel that they are accepted and included once they join a company. That’s why BetterUp conducted research to investigate the role of belonging for all employees in the workplace.

How can you help others feel like they belong at work?

Our research shows that the presence of a single ally on the team can prevent the negative consequences of exclusion. So, if you notice someone being excluded, first let them know that you acknowledge what is happening and empathise with them, and then take steps to act as an ally.  

If you see that your colleague is being ignored in group discussions or not included on the invite list to an after-hours work event, you can act as an ally by making a concerted effort to ask your colleague to share their opinions during meetings and invite them along to activities they may have been initially excluded from. 

Other techniques to increase an employee’s sense of belonging include encouraging them to share their experiences and their thoughts on how they would like to respond. It is also very helpful for employees experiencing belonging to be empowered to help solve the problem.

A woman with long dark hair is sitting outside among trees and smiling into the camera.

Gabriella Kellerman, chief innovation officer at BetterUp. Image: BetterUp

How does cultivating a sense of belonging benefit employers?

We found that belonging is a core component of the employee experience and thriving at work. Our research indicates that investing in workplace belonging is good for business because of the positive, tangible effects it can have on employee performance, which directly translate into bottom-line benefits for the company.  

Employees who feel a strong sense of belonging, versus a weak one, experience a 56pc increase in job performance, a 50pc reduction in turnover risk, and a 75pc decrease in sick days. In fact, if all workers at a 10,000-person company felt a high degree of belonging, productivity gains would top $52m a year.  

Employees who feel they belong are also 167pc more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work to others. Taking steps to increase belonging has profound impacts, making workplaces more human and more productive.

How can companies make sure they’re making staff feel like they belong?

The good news is that there are tangible ways to combat exclusion. Coaching is an effective way to cultivate belonging in the workplace. 

We know that managers tend to feel higher levels of belonging than individual contributors. Organisations can get ahead of issues with workplace belonging by coaching managers on everything from how to practice inclusive leadership, noticing when workplace exclusion is happening and understanding how to become allies, to offering opportunities for mentorship and empowerment, and learning empathy on how it feels to be excluded.

Are there any key things to avoid?

Workplace exclusion can happen unintentionally, so the first step is to create awareness within your organisation around what it looks like, and the fact that it has a detrimental impact on both employees and employers. 

Getting ahead of the problem by instilling organisational values that support a culture of inclusion, mentorship, and allyship early on can help prevent the problem from the beginning.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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