What Is Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging?

Cultivating a diverse professional culture is a complex and worthy pursuit.  Diverse cultures position employees to thrive individually and to bring out the best in each other. Enabling diversity is no token gesture; it’s no rote filling of quotas. It means fostering a singular professional landscape that an array of professionals truly sees as their own. This requires leaders’ sensitivity, awareness and guidance.

Inclusion and belonging make diversity work. Authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy explain: “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.” 

Creating an environment where employees understand what it means to be inclusive earns your team members a sense of belonging. “Belonging is when employees truly buy into the notion that they and others are all welcome to bring their full perspectives and their true selves to the table” explains Alice H. Jones, co-founder and trainer with Inclusion Consultant Network (ICN). 

Consider these basics as you begin your diversity work. 

What Is Diversity?

Amanda L. Bonilla, co-founder and lead education developer, also with ICN, explains: “Diversity means difference. Different social identities, different ways of problem-solving and different styles of communication.” Harnessing diversity is good for business. “Having diversity on a team means companies can benefit from the multitude of ways their diverse members approach their work and, in turn, relate to diverse clientele” Bonilla shares.

Cultivating diversity requires a professional culture where all employees can feel comfortable and well-positioned to enact their best work. It demands more of leadership than just hiring stand-out employees. It also means providing them the tools and the professional climate they need to thrive.  

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What Is Inclusion?

Leaders need to understand the nuances that steering a diverse team requires of them. It demands their empathy, their openness, their deepest listening; this seeds an inclusive mindset. Bonilla points out: “Inclusion is spending time understanding those differences and being intentional about creating policies and practises that embrace that diversity. Inclusion is also being willing to listen to diverse perspectives and change the way a company does things.”

Inclusion invites employees to fully engage, knowing that their insights will be respected. Jones point out: “Often people think inclusion is about events or cultural celebrations-food, festivities and fun. That is true but that should be a tactic, not a strategy in and of itself. Inclusion means an organisation is intentional about multiple perspectives and paradigms being included in how the actual work gets done.” 

Inclusion has to be sincere and meaningful. Employees don’t benefit from events that honour their heritage, for example, if they don’t feel like they’re heard in meetings. 

What Is Belonging?

When your insights and contributions are valued, you feel a sense of belonging in your gut. A sense of belonging means that people can bring their full selves to work, and not feel like they’re a different person there than at home. It’s not enough to simply include people at the table, but it’s imperative to amplify everyone’s voices, clear barriers and appreciate each other for our unique backgrounds.

Bonilla explains: “Embracing inclusion can lead to more employees feeling a sense of belonging. This is crucial for employee engagement and creativity. When a company has done the hard work to create professional environments that consist of inclusive practises you can see it. Employees buy in and are invested in the work they’re doing, because they see themselves in the work.”

“Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.” 

Seeding Your Start

Enabling diversity requires awareness, care and preparation. Jones advises: “I think companies have to be willing to sit in the complexity of it. Creating cultures of inclusion and belonging requires intentionality, it’s not instant. Good intentions alone do not get this job done.” 

Another key: leaders have to be committed to the long game. Jones points out: “Companies need to have committed leaders that realise this is a long process.  Regardless of their own identities, leaders will often be seen in terms of their organisational titles first.  A second key is often getting the leadership team on the same page first.  Once they understand what the vision and strategy is, they can often then engage outward to other employees.  If leaders don’t buy-in, employees won’t either.” 

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Defining Your Purpose 

To be strategic and meaningful, diversity initiatives need to be genuine and purpose-driven. Figure out why you want to achieve diversity and inclusion. Is it because it’s a mandate from the top? Is it because you want to diversify your workforce to have more diverse individuals at the table? What’s the goal?” Bonilla advises. 

Defining your goal helps you shape your initiatives.  Bonilla explains: “Once you have a goal and vision, you can then strategically work towards achieving that goal. For example, if there is a lack of women in leadership positions and you want to change that, be specific about focusing on increasing the promotion of women from within and create inclusive recruitment strategies.”

Best Practises from the Pros 

Do:

  • “Spend time listening to the employees,” says Bonilla. “Get a sense of the office climate through surveys, focus groups, etc. And be very intentional about why you want this information and how it will be utilised.”
  • “I think it’s important for the leadership of companies to dig into understanding what diversity, inclusion and belonging means for them personally and how they will consciously work to create an environment that embraces all three. Learning cross-cultural communication is important too,” says Bonilla. “You can’t truly embrace diversity if you haven’t spent time learning how to talk to individuals who are different from yourself.”
  • “One key area of research looks at employees from diverse backgrounds and poses the question: are underrepresented groups ‘surviving or thriving?’ People cannot thrive if they feel undervalued, excluded or unheard.  What can you do to move diverse employees from surviving to thriving,” says Jones. “Ask. Get data.  What do employees think? Where are they at now, as a starting point? What do your numbers around diversity and retention look like?”
  •  “Companies must have good help,” says Jones. “Diversity/inclusion needs to be viewed as seriously as other business problems, issues or logjams. . . A company has to be willing to bring in a strategic solution and stick to it.” 

RELATED: Employee Satisfaction Surveys

Don’t: 

  • “Hiring diverse individuals without giving them decision making power is a check box, not inclusion, and does not lead to a sense of belonging within the company,” Bonilla said.
  • “One problem we often see is companies try to do it from within using their own diverse staff.  This actually compounds the problem and signals to diverse staff that the company is not genuine in their attempt to build a culture of belonging.  Adding extra unpaid emotional labour to your diverse staff is NOT the way to do this!” Jones said.

As you contemplate your diversity program, invite the complexity such an initiative demands. Carefully conduct your research. See what other companies are doing.  Slack, Accenture and Salesforce are all corporate leaders in the diversity space. Consider their programs as models as you shape your own. 

Pursuing diversity, inclusion and belonging stands to make your business more harmonious, humane and profitable. There’s no more worthy work than this. 

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Guide to Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace