Woodward is a 153-year-old aerospace company that required its male employees to wear bowties into the 1990s.
So Paul Benson, the company’s chief human resources officer, knew that creating a company-wide diversity, equity and inclusion program would require a seismic shift. “Look at our org chart online and we’re a lily-white management team of old men,” he said. But the employees were eager for a more inclusive culture.
“People want to feel like they belong,” Benson said. “They want to come to work and not feel like they have to check themselves at the door.”[ads1];
Last summer, Mr. Benson began searching for a diversity consultant who was up to the task. He hoped to find a former leader “who had seen the light.”
Instead, a Google search led him to a black comedian and former media personality named Karith Foster. She is the CEO of Inversity Solutions, a consulting company that rethinks traditional diversity programming.
Foster said companies need to address racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in the workplace. But she believes an overemphasis on identity groups and a tendency to reduce people to “victims or villains” can alienate the agency and alienate everyone — including employees of color. She says her approach allows everyone “to make mistakes, say the wrong thing sometimes and be able to make amends.”
Mr. Benson was convinced. He hired Ms Foster to deliver the keynote address at the Woodward Leadership Summit last October.
Shortly after taking the stage, she asked everyone to close their eyes and raise their hands in response to a series of provocative questions: Had they ever locked their car when a black man walked by? Had they thought, yes, Jews are really good with money? Had they questioned the intelligence of someone with a thick southern accent?
People raised their hands tentatively, even fearfully. When Ms. Foster finished, nearly every hand—including her own—was up.
“Congratulations. You are certified people,” she said. “It’s not about being right or wrong, but understanding when bias comes in.”
Mr. Benson was relieved. “I was sitting at a table with someone who started it all with their arms crossed,” he recalled. “His body language said this guy is not a believer. Halfway through he laughs and claps.”
Miss Foster, he said, helped people “feel OK about themselves, like maybe you haven’t been an activist or on this journey in your past, but let’s see how we can move forward.”
In other words, she helped them feel that they belonged in the conversation.
The issue of belonging has become the latest focus in the evolving world of corporate diversity, equity and inclusion programming.
Interest in creating more inclusive workplaces exploded after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. Many companies turned their attention to systemic racism and power imbalances – the things that had kept boardrooms white and employees of color feeling excluded from office life.
Now, nearly three years since that moment, some companies are changing their approach to DEI, even renaming their departments to include “affinity.” That is the age of DEI-B.
Some critics worry that it’s about making white people comfortable rather than addressing systemic inequality, or that it simply allows companies to prioritize getting along over necessary change.
“Belonging is a way to help people who aren’t marginalized feel like they’re part of the conversation,” said Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of Business who studies corporate strategies for diversity and inclusion.
She believes that an abstract focus on belonging allows companies to avoid the tough conversations about power – and the resistance these conversations often generate. “The concern is that we’re just creating new terms like belonging as a way to deal with that resistance,” Creary said.
Mrs. Foster argues that there will be virtually no justice if the people in power—”the straight white man”—feel excluded from the conversation. The traditional DEI practitioners “most want to enlist are the people they isolate and frankly ostracize,” she said.
The nonpartisan nonprofit Business for America recently interviewed more than two dozen executives at 18 companies and found this to be a common theme. “The way they’ve rolled out DEI has exacerbated divisions even as they address valuable issues,” said Sarah Bonk, BFA’s founder and executive director. “It has created some hostility, resentment.”
That is why companies such as Woodward are now hiring consultants who specialize in ‘belonging’ and ‘bridge building’. They come to the rescue of managers who fear that national divisions are seeping into the workplace, threatening to drive a wedge between colleagues and making everyone feel anxious and defensive.
Professor Creary agrees that these are real problems. “I can see companies wanting to have a structured conversation about how allowing us all to thrive will help us all,” she said. But she worries that “belonging” provides cover for people who would rather maintain the status quo. “There’s still a large percentage of people who have a zero-sum mindset,” she said. “If I support you, I’m going to lose.”
Bring your “whole self” to work
Belonging obsession is the result of a now widespread corporate standard: Bring yourself to work. If you have the flexibility to work where you want, and the freedom to discuss social and political issues that matter to you, you’ll ideally feel like you belong at your company.
Bring your whole self to work appeared before the pandemic, but became something of a mandate at its peak, when companies were trying to stem a wave of layoffs. They also responded to concerns that many people felt excluded in the workplace. According to a 2022 report from think tank Coqual, about half of black and Asian professionals with a bachelor’s degree or more do not feel a sense of belonging at work.
Last year, the Society for Human Resource Management conducted its first survey on corporate affiliation. Seventy-six percent of respondents said their organization prioritized belonging as part of its DEI strategy, and 64 percent said they planned to invest more in belonging initiatives this year. Respondents said that identity-based communities, such as employee resource groups, helped promote belonging, while mandatory diversity training did not.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, wishes we weren’t having this conversation about identity and belonging. “In a time of increasing political polarization, many people’s whole selves don’t match the whole selves of their colleagues,” said Mr. Haidt, a self-described centrist. “I’ve heard from so many managers. They can’t stand it anymore – the constant conflict over people’s identity.”
In 2017, he and a colleague, Caroline Mehl, started the Constructive Dialogue Institute, whose main product is an educational platform called Perspectives. The tool uses online modules and workshops to help users explore where their values come from and why people from different backgrounds may have opposing values.
In 2019, CDI began licensing Perspectives to companies. Annual fees are $50 to $150 per employee license. Businesses can also order a menu of live training options for $3,500 to $15,000 for a full day.
Allegis Global Solutions, a workforce solutions company with 3,500 employees, was an early adopter.
Already, the platform has helped the company navigate some complex political situations. Last June, a 26-year-old human resources coordinator named Shakara Worrell was in a meeting when she learned that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade. “The whole meeting stopped,” Worrell said. “That’s when I realized I’m not the only one whose heart just dropped.”
Ms. Worrell, who is mixed race, said she came to Allegis in part because the company prioritized belonging. She remembers reading news stories about police brutality at her previous job and feeling like she had to suppress her emotions.
“I just remember sitting in my cube and not being able to just speak my mind,” Worrell said. She recalled thinking, “I don’t really belong.”
Not so at Allegis. There, Ms. Worrell coleads Elevate, the company’s employee resource group for women’s empowerment. After the Supreme Court decision, she and fellow members decided to hold a series of events to help employees digest the ruling. When they informed the HR and DEI teams, they were referred to Perspectives.
“Whether they were for or against, we wanted our people to feel OK and have a good time,” Worrell said.
And were they? Allegis said roughly 200 people attended the first meeting, which was held virtually. Afterwards, Mrs Worrell followed up with the one contestant who had spoken in favor of the court’s decision.
“Even though I was the one person going against it,” Worrell recalled the colleague saying, “I still felt I should share.”
An “offensive focus on group labels”
Irshad Manji, founder of consultancy Moral Courage College, says an “almost offensive focus on group brands” is a major problem with mainstream diversity, equity and inclusion work. “Everything else forces people to stereotype each other. I happen to be a Muslim and a devout Muslim,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I interpret Islam like every other Muslim out there.”
Manji believes that people now use “affiliation” as a “tacit acknowledgment that traditional DEI has not worked well.”
So which approach works? In 2018, Autodesk, a software company with 13,700 employees, began planning a culture shake-up.
Some employees were afraid of offending each other, so they defaulted to being “fake nice” and “passive aggressive,” Autodesk president and CEO Andrew Anagnost said. Others did not feel supported and did not want to speak up at meetings.
Autodesk gave a new name The “Diversity and Inclusion” team The “Diversity and Belonging” team. Leaders learned strategies to recognize – and then counteract – their own defensive thinking.
They were given poker chips to “play” each time they spoke to avoid dominating the discussion.
The company paid the managers of employee resource groups bonuses to signal their value. And Mr. Anagnost introduced himself as the executive sponsor of the Autodesk Black Network.
But the company also tackled equity. It switched the location of a new office hub from Denver to Atlanta, knowing it would have a better chance of attracting black engineering graduates there.
Autodesk regularly asks its employees about their experiences at work. After the culture shift took hold, Mr. Anagnost said belongingness scores increased for women and employees of color and decreased for white men.
“Then it normalized,” he said. “Yeah, sure, OK, there’s going to be a squeeze on opportunity in some areas when you try to increase representation in others. But the threat level goes down when you create a sense of ‘we can all rise together.’