Beyond Diversity: How Firms Are Cultivating a Sense of Belonging

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In January, senior executives at Citigroup shared personal stories with the entire global organization, livestreamed in 96 countries. One told how, earlier in her career, she had routinely avoided revealing that she never went to college. She said that any time a group conversation turned to ‘what school did you go to,’ she dodged answering or changed the subject.

“You would not believe how much of a [positive] impact that [story] had on the people in the audience,” said Sam Lalanne, a senior vice president of Global Diversity and Talent Management at Citi. He noted that anecdotes — especially from high-level people —  about the struggle to fit in, or to be their authentic selves at work, can be a powerful tool to nurture a sense of belonging among an entire workforce.

Another story Lalanne re-told came from a senior executive who was of Southeast Asian descent. In an earlier job, that individual felt that he stuck out like a sore thumb among his white colleagues. His decision was to “own it,” said Lalanne: he grew a very large beard, rendering him even more noticeable. “That was reaffirmation for him that he belongs.”

Increasingly, companies are adopting the stance that diversity and inclusion isn’t enough: there must also be a sense of belonging for all employees. Lalanne referred to belonging as “the evolution of the journey.” But what is it exactly, and how can companies achieve it? At the recent “Fostering Belonging at Work” event at Wharton, which was part of the Leading Diversity lecture series, he and other panelists from prominent firms discussed their ongoing efforts.

Moderating the panel was Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary, an identity and diversity researcher. “What is this ‘belonging’ thing all about? Do we really need a new word?” she asked the speakers.

Rebekah Bastian, a vice president of culture and community at Zillow Group, said that the superior business outcomes often associated with having diverse teams can’t be achieved without  a sense of belonging. It’s not enough to simply include people at the table, she said, but to “amplify everyone’s voices, clear barriers … and appreciate each other for our unique backgrounds.” Both she and Lalanne said that 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.

To Lalanne’s point about storytelling, Bastian said Zillow uses the technique as well. “We do a lot of internal story sharing of different employees and what their experiences have been … and about different cultures, traditions and backgrounds.”

Lalanne noted that whereas diversity often gets linked to numbers and percentages, belonging “is about how you feel” when you’re at work. “Do you feel valued? Do you feel like you should be there? Do you feel that your insights, commentary and perspectives matter?”

It’s not enough to simply include people at the table, Bastian said, but to “amplify everyone’s voices, clear barriers … and appreciate each other for our unique backgrounds.”

Eric Solomon, a chief marketing officer in residence at Blackbird Global and a former executive at Google, said that in order to achieve a sense of belonging, it’s important to lay the groundwork by creating an atmosphere of compassion and acceptance. “I really focus hard — almost every time I’ve led a team — on starting off with the idea that you can teach people how to be compassionate to each other, and that you can talk about psychological safety.”

Creary remarked that Solomon, as a white male marketing executive, didn’t fit the conventional image of today’s business diversity champion. She noted that “oftentimes the face of diversity initiatives is someone who looks like me — female, [and from an] underrepresented minority group in the U.S.,” and asked Solomon how he became involved in diversity efforts.

Solomon said that while working for nearly a decade in Big Tech — companies which he said “aren’t known for warmth and compassion, necessarily” — he found himself trying to apply his softer skills. He also became determined to act if he perceived unfairness — for example, when it came to his team members’ salaries. “I made sure I was speaking up to say, listen, a woman at the same level is getting paid less than a man…. I had a big hand in going to Laszlo Bock, our head of HR [at Google] at the time, and saying, ‘This is not acceptable; I’m not going to take it.’”

The Importance of Tone

One of Solomon’s previous positions was chief marketing officer for Bonobos, a digitally native men’s clothing brand now owned by Walmart. He was asked by Creary if Bonobos had effective ways of helping its executives — in particular white male executives — feel connected with efforts toward diversity, inclusion and belonging.

Solomon said it helped to have a founder like Andy Dunn, now a senior vice president of digital consumer brands at Walmart. “Andy Dunn has been quoted as saying the world would be a better place if women ran it…. So when the core DNA of the organization has that tied into it, it makes it a lot easier for people to be on the same page.”

Solomon added that the organization had worked hard to establish core values including compassion, empathy, self-awareness, judgment and intellectual integrity. “There was already this idea that there’s going to be caring at the heart and soul of what we were doing, so I don’t think it was a challenge at all to get people on board.”

“I really focus hard — almost every time I’ve led a team — on starting off with the idea that you can teach people how to be compassionate to each other, and that you can talk about psychological safety.”–Eric Solomon

Citgroup’s Lalanne also commented on the importance of “tone at the top” toward fostering a sense of belonging. “Our CEO, Mike Corbat, has really pushed us on our diversity, inclusion and belonging agendas. And it really comes from, what does he preach, what comes out of his mouth, how does he execute against the things that we see around us.”

Lalanne went on to say that in 2017, Citi made a major shift in its diversity and inclusion strategy. Until then, all messaging had come from the chief diversity officer, “not from the CEO, not from the executive management team. Really, it was two separate organizations.” Then Citi redesigned its affinity groups (internal employee advocacy networks focused on groups including African-Americans, LGBTQ people or veterans). Under the new arrangement, each affinity group had two leaders: one who identified as part of the group, and one from the CEO’s executive management team.

The change, said Lalanne, was a way to link diversity and inclusion efforts with the organization’s top leadership. The executive management team individuals also serve as “allies” for the affinity groups.

Being an Ally

The panelists agreed that allyship can go a long way toward building a sense of belonging. An ally is someone who isn’t a member of a particular underrepresented group but serves as a supporter and advocate. Creary spoke about how allyship is increasingly championed these days and asked the panel how they are fostering it in their organizations.

Zillow has eight affinity networks, according to Bastian, and all of them have a need for sponsorship and allyship at high levels of the company. But she also emphasized having people across these networks become allies for each other. “You have some elements of privilege with your identity and you have some elements of oppression.… So everyone can be an ally for someone else.”

Some of the specific ally activities she mentioned were participating in Slack channel conversations for various networks; coming to affinity events, and providing mentorship or sponsorship. She also noted that her team invites the individual affinity networks to set their own parameters for how they would like allies to be involved.

“Our CEO Mike Corbat has really pushed us on our diversity, inclusion and belonging agendas. And it really comes from, what does he preach, what comes out of his mouth.”–Sam Lalanne

“One of my team’s big goals for this year is to create more pathways for allyship,” said Bastian. She added, “I won’t stand up here and say we have that all figured out, but it’s something that we really try to focus on.”

Lalanne noted that his team at Citigroup has actually generated a “toolkit” — a step-by-step guide — for being an ally. There were a few chuckles from the audience and Lalanne commented, “It kind of sounds backward, but it’s not.” He explained that a guide can be useful to the many employees who are open to the idea of allyship but simply don’t know how to take action.

How Belonging Translates Outside the U.S.

The panelists talked about the challenges of improving belonging at companies with workforces that extend outside the U.S. Solomon mentioned that when leading teams in organizations that are heavily Silicon Valley-based, he perceived that people working on those teams in other countries tended to feel “disconnected … [they were] not feeling included a lot of the time because of the nature of [Silicon Valley] organizations.”

Lalanne, as a diversity executive for a large multinational corporation, said he also faced roadblocks. He referenced among other things the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the EU’s sweeping data privacy law which took effect in May of last year. “It has the right intentions, but it’s severely limiting of what we can do from a diversity perspective.”  He explained that diversity professionals want “more and more data” — not less — in order to better understand the needs of, and opportunities for, various demographic groups.

Asking non-U.S. employees to even volunteer information — to self-identify on surveys — can be an issue, Lalanne said. For example, in some countries Citigroup cannot ask employees about sexual orientation and gender identity because it’s illegal for people to identify themselves as part of certain groups. He said that progress is being made, however: In the past year, the company has gone from asking those questions in only eight countries to 39 countries, including “some challenging ones such as Singapore and India.”

International limitations notwithstanding, the panelists agreed that successful belonging efforts need to include as many employees as possible.  “In order to have progress, you can’t just preach to the converted,” Lalanne noted. “You have to bring in everyone. Everyone has a role to play.” On a similar note, Bastian stated, “A lot of the barriers that we need to address are directly tied to underrepresented populations and their experiences, but the solution is tied to everybody.”

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