How to Create a Culture of Belonging

We all like to feel as though we belong. Humans are social animals – and when we feel lonely or excluded, our mental and physical health starts to suffer. Work is a key source of social contact for many, and the relationships individuals form with their colleagues make a big difference to their overall experience as an employee.

Why diversity doesn’t equal belonging

It’s easy to assume that hiring people from varied backgrounds guarantees an inclusive culture in which everyone feels accepted. In reality, the picture is more complicated.

In recent years, diversity has become a hot topic in HR and recruitment. Most of us know that hiring a diverse workforce comes with a host of benefits. According to McKinsey & Company, the most diverse companies report greater financial returns than their competitors. They are more likely to retain talent and develop a loyal workforce of satisfied employees.1

However, a diverse workplace doesn’t automatically create a culture of belonging. Diversity quotas, job advertisements targeting minority groups, and other similar measures are great first steps, but they aren’t enough. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, true inclusivity is only possible when employees at all levels of an organisation make a conscious decision to embrace it.2

What does a culture of belonging look like?
  • Everyone feels empowered to put forward their ideas and perspectives, knowing they won’t be belittled or dismissed.
  • Everyone feels as though their differences are respected. Regardless of age, sex, or other characteristics, all employees feel comfortable to simply be themselves.3
  • Employees have the chance to socialise, to forge positive relationships and build trust with their colleagues.
  • Managers make a commitment to monitor company culture and take responsibility for maintaining an inclusive atmosphere. They take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment.
  • Leaders show cultural competence. They are happy to work with people of different backgrounds and are proactive in expanding their knowledge of challenges others face at work.4
8 practical steps for creating an inclusive culture:

1. Define your company’s mission

Your mission statement is a declaration of your company’s purpose – its true north. Consider your business proposition and the unique value you create for your customers. Combine this with employee survey data and what you read in your Glassdoor reviews to hone in on your mission.

Identifying your mission is the first step in building belonging for employees – and will also help attract candidates who identify with your company’s core values and are therefore more likely to feel a greater sense of belonging at your company.

2. Make managers your cultural gatekeepers

Make sure managers encourage a sense of shared purpose and are explicit in promoting company values. If two or more people share a purpose and uphold the same company ethos, they immediately have something in common, and shared values are key to a team’s success.

Encourage them to draw links between their team’s efforts and the company’s success. Employees who feel their work has a real impact on the outside world are more connected and engaged at work. Making everyone aware of how their role fits into the company as a whole will not only improve team cohesion, but also boost your bottom line.

3. Hold team events

Schedule regular meetups and activities to give employees a chance to bond. Be sensitive to everyone’s needs when planning events. For instance, if some members of your team avoid alcohol, going for drinks at a bar may not be the most inclusive choice.

4. Empower employees to form Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

ERGs provide employees of a similar background with a safe place to talk about the barriers they face in the workplace, together with social support and networking opportunities. When an employee discovers that others share their concerns, they’re more likely to feel they can raise difficult issues with managers and colleagues.

You could also assemble a diversity and inclusivity committee and try to ensure that its members represent a mix of backgrounds. A committee can formulate strategies to collect feedback from employees, improve company culture, and draw up plans to help underrepresented or historically excluded groups advance in their careers.

5. Evaluate your hiring and onboarding process

Diversity training, interventions that help HR personnel tackle unconscious biases, assembling diverse hiring panels, and ensuring that job advertisements are written with inclusivity in mind are all sensible, practical steps.

You should also look at how existing team members and managers welcome a new hire. Do all new employees have the same opportunities to ask questions, learn about policies and procedures, and socialise with their new colleagues? Put in place a set of standardised processes and checklists to ensure they are never left to just figure things out for themselves.

6. Encourage an authentic management style

A manager should not use their team members as a sounding board for their personal problems, but presenting themselves as a real person rather than “the boss” can improve team morale and a culture of acceptance.

7. Establish inclusive mentoring schemes

Mentoring schemes should be open to all eligible employees and they should be accessible to those of any background. If a mentor feels uncomfortable working with someone from a different background, they should be offered training in cultural competency.

8. Encourage transparent communication at every opportunity

Open communication is the bedrock of a transparent workplace. Encourage your employees to be open communicators and encourage your gatekeepers to lead by example. You may also wish to hold constructive feedback training sessions to help both managers and employees approach difficult conversations more honestly and openly.

Open ‘town hall’ meetings allow everyone a chance to be heard. Note that they are only valuable if team leaders and management follow up on points raised – merely holding meetings as a token gesture may only lead to resentment and frustration among employees.

Inclusion isn’t a checkbox exercise

Creating a culture of belonging isn’t a standalone project. To see the benefits, inclusion needs to be at the heart of your company’s ethos. Seek regular feedback from your employees. Diversity and workplace experience can be sensitive topics, so consider offering them the opportunity to share their thoughts anonymously. Pay close attention to your employees’ experience and you can build a healthy, inclusive environment in which everyone can thrive.

Citations

1. Hunt, V., Layton, D., & Prince, S. (2015). Why diversity matters. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters
2. Dubey, R., & Hirsch, A.S. (2018). Viewpoint: Building a Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/
global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/viewpoint-building-a-business-case-for-diversity-and-inclusion.aspx
3. Gallup Workplace. (2018). 3 Requirements for a Diverse and Inclusive Culture. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/242138/requirements-diverse-inclusive-culture.aspx
4. Staley, O. (2017). Four ways to motivate employees, according to a top behavioural economist. https://qz.com/work/875401/four-ways-to-better-motivate-your-employeesfrom-one-of-the-worlds-most-prominent-behavioral-economists/