Inclusion at Work Starts with Creating Pathways to Belonging

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek March 21, 2019

Our basic need for belonging can lead us to "demonize" people who we see as being different from ourselves and to create divisiveness. For that reason, it's important for organizations that want to foster diverse and inclusive workplaces to create opportunities for dialogue—not debate—in the workplace, said Howard J. Ross.

Ross is the author of Our Search for Belonging (Berrett-Koehler, 2018) and the best-selling book Everyday Bias (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and partner at Udarta Consulting in Silver Spring, Md.

He looked at the science behind unconscious bias during his session, "Our Search for Belonging: Creating Inclusion at Work in a Time of Separation," at the 2019 Society for Human Resource Management Employment Law & Legislative Conference.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Develop a Diversity and Inclusion Initiative

"We see the world through the lens of our background and experience," he explained. When "in-groups" and "out-groups" exist, "the in-group [figuratively] gets the halo and the outgroup gets the horns."

This feeling of organizational isolation among employees "has a direct impact on people's performance" and retention, he noted. But when there is a sense of belonging in the workplace, people have a shared identity, destiny, values and interdependence and feel comfortable being their true selves.

Ross suggested that employers create pathways to belonging by:

  • Creating a clear organizationwide mission so there is a shared sense of purpose among employees. This helps to feed that innate sense of belonging. "The more people feel they are the same, the more they see their experiences as collective," Ross said.
  • Creating a clear set of expectations of behavior that promotes inclusion.
  • Encouraging employees to share who they are by making personal connections and creating an environment where it is safe for them to show their vulnerabilities.
  • Including people in the organization who have different points of view.
  • Cultivating open-minded thinking that encourages respectfully listening to others' point of view. The retailer Target, for example, sponsors "Courageous Conversations" workshops, in which employees of all backgrounds talk about difficult issues, such as travel bans affecting people from predominantly Muslim countries.
  • Developing shared forms of communication to reach everyone in the organization. Ross recalled a CEO who pooh-poohed younger generations' preference for social media over more traditional modes of communication. "When you go fishing," Ross said he asked him, "do you bait the hook with what you like to eat or what the fish like to eat?"
  • Providing tools for negotiation. That might include a lunch date with someone with an opposing view on a subject to better understand each other's stance. Ground rules would include a set amount of time—five or 10 minutes each—for participants to explain their viewpoint, such as sharing a life experience that influenced their thinking. It should be made clear that the purpose of the talk is not to debate but to learn—and that is accomplished by genuinely listening to each other.
  • Asking at the end of the lunch date if there is any behavior that participants will change after having the conversation. The dialogue may lead a person to no longer remaining silent when derisive comments are made at work about people with a different viewpoint or from a different background.

Ross's presentation offered a good foundation for starting a dialogue at organizations that want to be more intentional about inclusion, said Jennifer Beck, SHRM-SCP, director of HR at Hospice of the Chesapeake in Pasadena, Md.

"Often, as the drivers of culture and change management, HR leaders are looking for relatable ways to explain the 'why' behind the need to move away from what has been normalized" and the biological and physiological need for belonging, she said.

"People need to be able to make the mental leap from diversity—which can be almost an accidental or unintentional characteristic of your workforce—to an invested, emotional connection with inclusion."

She said she looked forward to sharing what she learned with her organization, whose workforce is rapidly aging, mostly made up of women, and includes immigrants and people from racial minorities that serve clients in both upper-class and very poor neighborhoods.

"Often the hardest part is starting the conversation, and I think he gave some practical tips at the end for starting that conversation."



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Are you a department of one?

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.