You know that bad dream of showing up at work in your underwear? That’s how people who don’t have a sense of belonging at their place of work feel—all the time. They’re uncomfortable; they know something’s wrong, and they don’t fit in. They can’t wait to get out of there.
That feeling of belonging—where you’re confident in your environment and where you can trust your colleagues—is necessary for employees to perform well. It makes sense. How can anyone accomplish anything when their overriding feeling is to flee?
At InHerSight a “sense of belonging” is one of the metrics we measure when reviewing companies where women can thrive. We define it as a space where you’re comfortable bringing your whole self to work, where you feel included and welcome.
The question is: How much does “belonging” really matter? What happens when employees feel like they don’t belong, feel excluded, or unimportant? And if belonging does matter, how can businesses create cultures that foster real inclusion?
We’re hardwired to want to belong
The pandemic and the mass solitude it caused exacerbated our innate desire for belonging, career empowerment coach Melanie Denny tells InHerSight. “Millions have lost their jobs and now work from home and yearn for a sense of belonging—especially in the place they typically spend the most amount of time: work.”
It’s exactly because we spend so much time at work that it’s important to us to feel we belong there. A study by EY found that most people (62 percent) have a sense of belonging at their homes first, with the workplace coming in second at 34 percent.
Feelings of isolation at work not only matter to the worker, but also play a big part in overall business success. A sense of belonging is tied to employee productivity, engagement, and retention. In order for corporations to build a sense of community and foster collaboration in the workplace, they need to provide employees a non-judgmental space in which to share personal interests, passions, and values. If an employee feels safe opening up in the workplace, Denny says, they will feel more connected to their work and to the organization.
Warning: A diverse workplace isn’t automatically inclusive
Just because a company has a diverse hiring mandate does not mean employees enjoy a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, “only one company in five holds itself accountable for DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] in its business practices and 40 percent see diversity as primarily an issue of compliance,” writes global industry analyst Josh Bersin.
Worse, employees are often “blindsided by how different the reality inside the company is from the polished exterior they’ve been marketed,” writes Lily Zheng, diversity, equity and inclusion strategist and consultant. “It’s a classic bait-and-switch.”
What many women and underrepresented minorities find in so-called inclusive workplaces, says Zheng, is actually “no policies or practices for pregnant employees. Racist language in the office and managers who ignore it. Leadership—from middle management to the C-suite—that is overwhelming white, cisgender, heterosexual, men.”
Unsurprisingly, white employees express the feeling of belonging at work the most. This is according to the nonprofit think tank Coqual, which conducts research on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Their 2020 Power of Belonging series states that 74 percent of employees overall report having some sense of belonging at work, with the majority of those employees being white men and white women.
Employees of color do not fare nearly as well. “Nearly one in three Black employees (32%) and one in four Asian employees (23%) say they have felt out of place at work because of their race or ethnicity—more than one in seven Latinx employees (15%) say the same,” according to the report.
Of course, an inclusive workplace that really makes employees feel as though they belong, means different things to each employee. Dan Ellerman, now director of global inclusion and diversity at Mars, gives an example of when he was at Accenture. An employee with a motor impairment had trouble unlocking her mobile device through the usual method of entering a security code. Ellerman worked with that person to find a solution using biometric face recognition technology instead.
That example demonstrates that a one-size-fits-all approach can leave some employees out in the cold. It illustrates that diversity, equity, and inclusion practices must be meaningful, with employees heard and supported at all levels of the business. It means that company cultures that foster a true sense of belonging must be thoughtfully created, actively championed, and constantly evolving.
A sense of belonging should start early in the onboarding process, one key moment being transparency as to compensation. Jason Lin, a senior technical sourcer for product design at Coinbase, says that if a candidate is hired at that company, they get the same offer as any other candidate for the same role.
The reason this matters, he explains, is that people usually expect they have to negotiate for the best package they can get once they’re offered the job. “Those that do this well tend to be rewarded, and those that don’t lose out.” The problem is, he adds, that “these negotiations can disproportionately leave women and underrepresented minorities behind, and a disparity created early in someone’s career can follow them for decades.”
Everyone wins when employees feel like they belong
Some number crunching validates the importance of creating a business culture in which employees feel a sense of belonging.
A 2019 BusinessSolver report notes that “82% of employees would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization,” Scott Clark at CMSWire writes. “More importantly, from [a return on investment] viewpoint, the report also said that 78% of employees would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer. Empathy makes leaders more effective, facilitates employee productivity, loyalty and engagement and ultimately affects the bottom line.”
Companies with above-average diversity saw 19 percent higher revenue, and Gallup reports that organizations with highly engaged employees experience a 41 percent reduction in absenteeism and an increase in productivity of 17 percent. Plus, turnover is reduced by as much as 59 percent, even in organizations that don’t generally experience much turnover. All of the behaviors of engaged employees combine to see an average of 21 percent increased profitability.
When employees feel like they belong in their place of work, they benefit the company in another way too: Their sense of belonging and engagement actually helps with recruitment efforts.
A 2020 survey by business news site The Manifest found that “most job seekers (70%) value a commitment to diversity in potential employers.” Based on these findings, they advise that “hiring managers should promote their plans to create a more equitable environment in their workplace.”
That advice is backed by research by the career development and coaching firm BetterUp, which shows that employees with higher feelings of workplace belonging have a 167 percent increase in their employer promoter score, which is their willingness to recommend their company to others.
On the flip side, the BetterUp data confirms that the result of employees feeling isolated at work is “lower organizational commitment and engagement.” This translates into lost profits.
Their data also demonstrates the dollar value to the company of ensuring their employees feel like they belong. “High belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days,” they write. “For a 10,000-person company, this would result in annual savings of more than $52M.”
Even the federal government is putting a number on the benefits of inclusivity. In his executive order on advancing racial equity and support, President Biden says that “closing racial gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities, and access to higher education would amount to an additional $5 trillion in gross domestic product in the American economy over the next 5 years.”
To be successful at creating a culture of inclusion, where all employees have a sense of belonging, DEI must be part of an organization’s “business strategy, not an ‘HR initiative,” writes Bersin. He says companies can look to corporations that already successfully “define their businesses in an inclusive way” as examples of how to move forward. Some of these include Target, Chevron, Unilever, Microsoft, and Sutter Health.
Humans do better when they belong
It’s important for companies to create a safe place for employees because the reality is, we are not defined by our jobs, says Denny. We are multi-dimensional creatures with several layers. Being able to peel back some of those layers in the environment where we spend the most time can contribute to our overall happiness.
That sense of belonging goes beyond personal happiness and being good for business in terms of product innovation, employee morale and retention. Catalina Colman, Director of HR and Inclusion at online community for startups and tech companies Built In puts it this way: “I believe that if we give people the equitable opportunity to not only be employed, but to have employment with purpose and passion, our society can and will do great things. It’s a measurable good for everyone.”
About our source
Melanie Denny is a career empowerment coach, award-winning resume writer, nationally certified LinkedIn strategist, and career speaker. President of Resume-Evolution, she’s helped thousands of corporate professionals, from entry-level to executive across various industries, level up in their careers.