First there was ‘diversity.’ Then ‘inclusion.’ Now H.R. wants everyone to feel like they ‘belong’

Two hundred people were sworn in at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston where the keynote speaker was an Indian-American entrepreneur from Silicon Valley. (Photo: courtesy Indiaspora)

Move over, “diversity.” Make room, “inclusion.”

Today, the hot corporate buzzword in the diversity field is “belonging.”

The word is popping up everywhere. LinkedIn, Nordstrom, HubSpot, DoorDash and other companies all now have executives with job titles such as manager of “diversity, inclusion and belonging” or vice president of “global culture, belonging, and people growth.”

Earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School hosted its first lecture panel focused on the topic. Harvard and Yale have also been getting in on the idea, hiring faculty or staff with “belonging” in their titles after launching related task forces or campus-wide initiatives.

The latest lingo – most prevalent among Silicon Valley companies – reflects millennial and Gen Z employees’ expectations about work, diversity experts say, as well as the impression that other concepts haven’t made enough progress retaining diverse employees.

The idea suggests employers shouldn’t just focus on numbers of women and people of color – or behaviors that make people feel included. Rather, they should focus on whether workers sense they can be themselves and feel like part of a community.

The term is new enough that it’s not clear how it’s broadly viewed by women or people of color. Louis Montgomery Jr., who leads the diversity officers’ practice at executive search firm Korn Ferry, said “belonging” has a warmer and more approachable feel to it. ” ‘ Inclusion’ is a weird word, if you think about it. It’s not something we use outside of a work situation,” he said.

But others say they’ve heard skepticism. “People of color, by and large, are interested in fair workplaces. Is ‘belonging’ just another term that became about everybody but me?” said Wharton professor Stephanie Creary. “Companies may be going about it the wrong way if they’re not also focusing on equity and diversity.”

“There’s this sense of fatigue around talking about diversity and inclusion, and people are feeling frustrated about a lack of progress,” said Jessica Hyman, head of strategy and sustainability at the software firm Atlassian, which has begun describing its diversity efforts as “balance and belonging.”

Christianne Garofalo, who leads diversity and inclusion recruiting at the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, said she’s seen the word take off in job titles within the past year. “Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a behavior but belonging is the emotional outcome that people want in their organization,” she said. “What’s fueling it is a desire to have a sense of purpose at work and a sense of community.”

Yet some diversity experts worry that adopting the fuzzier word could be viewed by some as just the latest example of corporate speak.

“The complicated vocabulary around D&I makes it difficult,” said Laura Sherbin, managing director of the consultancy Culture@Work. “Senior leaders really understand diversity. Inclusion they understand, because it’s about behavior. With belonging, they’re like, ‘I don’t know what that means.’ ”

It can also be hard to measure or hold employees accountable,” Sherbin said. “At the end of the day it’s about trying to induce a feeling in someone, which is incredibly hard to do.”

Indeed, what “belonging” looks like in terms of concrete practices is still pretty fuzzy. LaFawn Davis, vice president of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Indeed.com, which started using the term in the past three months, put the distinction this way: “Inclusion is about having a voice that is heard, making sure you can voice a contrary opinion,” she said. “Belonging is about creating a sense of community.”

Others said human resources leaders have long used new labels for diversity programs to help encourage skeptical employees – often senior white men – to get on board. What started as “equity” or “equal opportunity” in the 1980s later became “diversity” and “inclusion” as companies looked to make the business case for investing in it, Creary said.

“How do we look at those who resist diversity and inclusion strategies and make them feel like they’re part of the solution? ‘Inclusion’ started that way. Now lo and behold, ‘belonging’ follows,” she said.

The idea of “belonging” in the workplace may not resonate with some of the very people it’s intended to bring in. Use of the word has proliferated at the same time executives have touted the notion of “bring your authentic self to work” – an H.R. mantra that describes being able to be yourself on the job, not hiding personal interests and being comfortable enough to show flaws.

Still, younger generations are more likely to expect that the workplace offers a social group and a community, said Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting. “They’ve been socialized to identify in different ways,” she said. “Fewer younger people have that strong boundary” between their personal and professional lives.

After learning women were often the only female employee on their individual teams, Atlassian matched up women with female peers for coffee dates and created “mentoring rings” to help create a sense of belonging. It says it has cut female attrition in half and that 20 percent of technical roles are held by women.

“You can have that one token person that allows you to say we’ve got one of each of those,” said Hyman. “But if I show up and I’m the only [woman or minority on a team], we don’t really have a sense of balance.”

Executives from the mobile coaching app BetterUp, who wrote about “belonging” in a December Harvard Business Review article, have been building the concept into online tools, trying to help managers practice inclusive behaviors, such as inviting people to drinks or giving diverse coworkers more of a voice in meetings. Still, co-founder Eddie Medina said it isn’t yet clear how to hold managers accountable to the concept. “How do you actually manage around [belonging]?” he said. “I don’t think we’re at that stage yet.”

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