Belonging at Work: How Employers can Strengthen DE&I
June 21, 2023
Companies can enhance their DE&I efforts — and gain better returns — by creating a culture that enables their employees to feel a sense of belonging at work.
- Many employees in today’s workforce value a healthy company culture more than traditional job perks.
- To enhance employees’ sense of belonging in the workplace, companies must build and communicate a strategy, then hold themselves accountable.
- Companies that embed their DE&I strategies within their culture can drive sustainable business growth.
As more companies build out their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts to reflect the needs of their workforce, employers have found that setting standards and creating programs isn’t enough. For employees to feel comfortable and welcome at work, they also need to feel a sense of belonging. Suzanne Courtney, associate partner within Aon’s Human Capital Solutions department for the EMEA region, discusses how building a sense of belonging for employees at work helps companies prosper in the long run, and how businesses can best drive these efforts.
This is part of a series of The One Brief articles on workforce resilience. Hear more from our experts in the On Aon Insights podcast series on workforce resilience. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
While companies are increasingly focused on DE&I efforts, they may not be thinking about belonging. How would you describe “belonging?”
Suzanne Courtney: Belonging is all about the individual: no matter who you are, what characteristics you have, or what stage of life you’re in, you should feel included, valued, heard and important in a workplace. As our workforces are expanding, we have multi-generational teams and people with highly diverse experiences and backgrounds. As a result, there’s a focus and acceptance by businesses to serve their people differently.
Businesses can’t assume they know what employees want. They have to listen to their needs and meet them, which brings an individual-level understanding of their workforce. This gives the organization the ability to update policies, support mechanisms and processes to change the culture. Then people can feel accepted and included in the workplace.
How has this understanding of DE&I – and now B — evolved over time?
Suzanne Courtney: If you look in the market, everyone’s incorporating belonging into their DE&I strategies in inconsistent ways. Some businesses evaluate a sense of belonging by asking employees one question in an engagement survey; others might ask multiple questions. Over the next few years, we hope to learn how to measure belonging in a consistent and accurate way.
Belonging is tied tightly to physical and mental health outcomes. If someone is experiencing a lack of belonging through bad organizational behaviors like sexism or ostracization, there’s a higher risk for poor physical or mental health. We’re thinking more about how to develop this concept since it links to wellbeing and creating an overall better culture and environment for everyone to thrive and be happy, healthy and productive.
What is the correlation between a sense of belonging and workforce resilience?
Suzanne Courtney: There’s a bit of a debate about what “belonging” is. Is it a state, or is it a trait? A state is how we are feeling at a point in time. A small thing could lower my sense of belonging today but not always. A trait is something that is inherent to each of us — it is part of our personality. If we measure belonging in terms of this trait, it gives us further insight into someone’s threshold of tolerance to the adversity and challenges in the workplace and the extent to which we need to support them. If we know whether people are wired for belonging, it can help us build more resilience in the workplace, and it can help the business understand what it needs to do to help people deal with situations, complexity and ambiguity.
One of the core skills that is linked to belonging is the ability to problem solve. It makes sense, because people who can cut through complexity, be a good negotiator and deal well with office politics can more easily develop a sense of belonging or bounce back from negative experiences.
How does a focus on belonging help with recruitment and retention?
Suzanne Courtney: When people search for jobs, they generally look online to learn about other people’s experiences. What do employees experience day to day? What is the culture like? Is it inclusive or not? In many cases, a positive culture is more important than pay. Companies can present one version of themselves online to try and attract people, but what is the true sentiment? Knowing how people feel about the company gives it a sense for what it might need to change to make sure that the perception of the organization and employees’ lived experiences are aligned so people don’t turn down job opportunities.
What challenges could a company face in trying to create a culture of belonging?
Suzanne Courtney: Often challenges are driven by regulation. Some stakeholders find they have to wait until the regulation has improved before the business actually buys into a concept or idea. Recently, for instance, regulation around pay transparency passed within the European Union, which drives a sense of belonging because it encourages paying people in an equitable way. It will help to close the pay gap and create a more equitable workforce and society.
One challenge is that businesses have three years to implement this initiative, and often the regulation tells them what the outcome needs to be or what they need to do, but it doesn’t necessarily tell them how to get there. Many companies are trying to determine what their three-year plan will look like, where they will start, whether they will be ready in time, what the key milestones along the way are, and how to build this into part of their overall inclusive culture. It’s not only a regulation; it should be embedded within the culture, and the culture is often the hardest thing to change in a business.
Another challenge is that ESG reports are more linked to regulation and factors that companies have to report on. They often have engagement scores, but they don’t necessarily have belonging scores or a gauge for how people are feeling in terms of the diversity and inclusion initiatives that the business has. Getting more clarity from businesses on what they’re doing at different stages of their employees’ lives or understanding how people are feeling would also give more transparency and help people make better decisions.
What should companies consider as they build this culture?
Suzanne Courtney: Doing the bare minimum is a risk. Shareholders hold the business accountable for the promises they make or challenge businesses to do more. Our emerging workforce also asks us questions about DE&I and belonging to see if we have a fundamental and good response, so we’re being held more accountable by new employees as well. If you’re going to put a mission statement out there, you have to live up to it. And if you only do the bare minimum, you’re not going to make an impact.
Another consideration is how to use data in a more holistic way. If we use wellbeing as the baseline, for example, we can track how wellbeing enables diversity, retention and business performance and growth. This data helps us understand the role of wellbeing in enabling a sense of belonging and creates a business case for DE&I. We can see firsthand the diversity of the workforce and how people drive more sustainable business growth.
The new On Aon Insights podcast series explores workforce resilience further. Listen now!
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