DEI + B: It’s One Thing to Promise Inclusion, but It’s Another to Create Belonging for Employees

By: | February 9, 2023

Terri L. Rhodes is CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Terri was an Absence and Disability Management Consultant for Mercer, and also served as Director of Absence and Disability for Health Net and Corporate IDM Program Manager for Abbott Laboratories.

Topics: DE&I | Risk Insider

Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) efforts influence the success of every organization, and more employers are realizing they are interrelated.

The value of creating diverse, equitable and inclusive environments is not new, and the important addition of belonging — which ties the components together — is gaining ground fast.

Adding the “B” to “DEI”

Belonging was described as a feeling, as compared to an action, by Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) board members during a 2022 DMEC Annual Conference panel discussion — the difference between being asked to the dance (inclusion) and knowing the words to the song (belonging).

Belonging taps into how people judge the meaning of their work and whether they see how their efforts contribute to an organization’s mission and vision. When employees feel like they belong in an organization, they know that what they do matters.

Belonging was listed in the Deloitte 2020 Global Human Capital Trends list, and it is defined by the Achievers Workforce Institute as an experience of connection, security and community — feeling at home in one’s place without reservation.

Those who understand its effects on retention, productivity and profitability say belonging should be on every employer’s radar.

That is not yet the case.

And in a recent podcast conversation, Nancy Dome — co-founder and CEO of Epoch Education, a firm that specializes in equity and communications — talked about why.

In addition to the fact that it’s still new terrain for a lot of people, you have to embrace feelings of discomfort to navigate issues associated with belonging, which is difficult for those who shy away from or don’t differentiate feeling uncomfortable from being confrontational.

However, the difference is real, and it’s an essential component of an employer’s ability to capitalize on the skill sets of diverse teams and to retain them.

To be successful with DEIB efforts, which set the stage for other meaningful employee interactions, employers must take an open-minded, collaborative approach and invite employees at all levels to participate in discussions — what some organizations call amplifying employee voices.

A Feeling of Family

The concept of belonging resonates personally with me on several levels.

DMEC has, for the past 30 years, been called a family by members who say we “get them.” Some of that is due to our culture, the nature of what we do, as well as the reason we do what we do.

We customize education based on feedback, create opportunities to engage with colleagues in disability and absence management on DMECommunities, and design conferences to address challenges that are unique to integrated absence management professionals.

Members feel they’re part of our family, and we seek ways to ensure staff feel that same sense of belonging.

We’ve had a remote workforce for the past 30 years, and we don’t see each other often, so nurturing a feeling of belonging is essential. Two of our tactics: designating a “water cooler” channel on Microsoft Teams to share personal stories and asking employees during staff meetings to share a personal and business “best.”

How do you create an environment in which employees feel like they belong?

A recent article about employee resource groups at Pacific Gas and Electric Company and colleague resource groups at Sedgwick shows ongoing investments that date back to the ’70s. While we’ve been working on these issues for some time, the stakes are higher today because more employees are seeking out employers that “get” them.

Studies show that 54% of workers left jobs because of a lack of empathy from their bosses about their struggles, and 49% quit because employers didn’t acknowledge pressure in their home lives.

The study notes the importance of being genuine and authentic as well as following through on promises made to employees when discussing DEIB.

Showing You Care

Employers have historically shied away from engaging in employees’ personal lives, so this is a major shift. And while more executives realize they have to know who employees are and what matters to them to build inclusive environments where they feel a sense of belonging, it takes time.

To start down that path, consider these practical steps:

  • Review processes
  • Investigate whether DEIB efforts create a minority tax, a term used for employees who are overburdened by well-intentioned requests to improve the organizational culture
  • Communicate efforts to work with employees to identify the root cause of issues that may prevent or diminish a sense of belonging; respond and act on input shared and don’t take the feedback personally

It’s important to give yourself room to make mistakes during this process and to be open and honest so employees recognize efforts to create a safe space for sharing issues and collaborating on solutions.

A common mistake is to try and solve issues without employee input and to assume all is well if there haven’t been complaints. Dome talks about this danger zone during our “Creating Cultures of Inclusivity and Belonging” podcast episode, and she encourages employers to seek input early and often.

Practical Steps

As you review forms and templates, reconsider options for prefixes.

Some organizations, including the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have added Mx, a gender-neutral or nonbinary prefix. The EEOC also allows “X” as an option for gender.

Since forms feed into databases, ask employees to include communication preferences and assess how leaves are described to ensure equity.

For example, what was once maternity leave is now parental leave, and employers should eliminate “primary” caregiver language to avoid costly gender stereotypes and bias.

Review processes to identify unconscious blind spots that alienate the employees you seek to include. Ask employees to identify issues and suggest ways to make the culture more inclusive.

Even small efforts — such as suggesting “snack breaks” or “walking breaks” instead of traditional coffee breaks or asking for alternatives that work for employees — highlight efforts to be inclusive, which fosters a sense of belonging. It also proves that you are asking for information instead of making assumptions, truly listening to input and acknowledging employee differences.

Too Much of a Good Thing

While it’s helpful to survey employees, consider how participation in focus groups or surveys affects people with personal and professional responsibilities so you can avoid the minority tax. Work with managers to identify people who are interested in helping, have the bandwidth to help assess areas for improvement and consider reassigning some of their responsibilities to ensure their volunteer efforts do not become onerous.

Embracing DEIB should be part of every organization’s long-term strategy, and there is a large volume of articles and studies to help employers put their mission, vision and values into action.

As I read through them, I started wondering: Should we be thinking of DEIB as a litmus test for whether leaders do what they say? &

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