It’s become a truism that diverse businesses generally outperform businesses that are not diverse. Most businesses also accept that diversity is not enough – that inclusion is also essential. Recent research shows that something more is needed to turn diversity and inclusion into organisational strengths – and that is belonging.

According to an article discussing the American research in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), inclusion does not necessarily lead to a sense of belonging. A lack of belonging usually stems from what the researches call an “identity threat”, which is a situation that highlights to you that you are different to other people in your group.

Examples of these situations are not hard to find in the everyday workplace – whether it’s the assumption that a woman on the team is from marketing rather than IT, the absence of traditional African dishes in the corporate canteen, or a lack of facilities catering to disabled employees.

For some South African organisations, these problems can be compounded by a focus on tick-box compliance with empowerment and employment equity laws. All too many businesses—even now—see diversity and inclusion as a regulatory exercise rather than as an opportunity for a transformation that will build a better business.

The feeling of not belonging is as corrosive for morale and employee satisfaction as exclusion, according to the HBR article: “When employees felt like they didn’t belong in the workplace, they felt like they couldn’t be themselves at work. When employees feel they can’t be their authentic self at work, they have lower workplace satisfaction, find less meaning in their work, and have one foot out the door.”

So, what does it mean to belong, then? It’s the point where employees can bring their whole being to the business. As Bridgestone South Africa HR director Julia Modise, says in CHRO South Africa: “I recently came across a meme that said, diversity is being invited to a party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is thereafter dancing as if nobody is watching.”

Here are four tips about how an organisation gets to that point:

  1. Ensure employees know that support systems are available to them at the broader organisational level, according to HBR. They need access to environments where they feel comfortable speaking up when they see something that does not seem inclusive. “Employees need their concerns to be heard, rather than dismissed or diminished.”
  2. Treat people as individuals, not just as representatives of a group. “Inclusion efforts should be focused more on the individual than the social group they represent,” writes the HBR author.
  3. Around 87% of companies profiled in South Africa’s Top Employers 2017 said they trained specific employee groups in diversity practices to build bridges and create better employee engagement.
  4. Remember that age and education are also diversity factors. More than 40% of South Africa’s Top Employers ensure that they monitor and manage the differences in employees’ educational backgrounds.

Above all, be genuinely human. “People want their social group to be included and their individual self to belong. Managers should not only signal that a social identity is valued, but also that the individual is valued, as a person, not just on the basis of the social group they represent,” says the HBR article.


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