Belongingness at work: DE&I experts share how to create a culture that promotes acceptance, inclusion & belonging

As humans, we all want to be accepted, feel included and know that we belong. This human need is often referred to as seeking a ‘sense of belonging’. And it’s something we look for in every aspect of our lives. After all, to feel like we belong gives us a sense of purpose, and helps us to feel connected to the world around us.

In the workplace, it’s important that your employees achieve a sense of belonging. Without it, staff can feel unhappy, and lack motivation. In fact, a strong sense of belonging at work results in a 56% increase in performance

To achieve belonging, companies must make sure their culture promotes acceptance, inclusion and belonging - for everyone.

In our latest roundtable discussion we met with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion experts to talk about DE&I through the lens of hidden disabilities and neurodiverse talent. From our chat, we took away 7 key thoughts. Read on to discover what key areas to focus on to encourage belonging at work.

1. Equity, not equality

In achieving a sense of belonging we must first feel accepted. As an organisation that means understanding that everyone is different. And making sure your policies and processes reflect this.

That’s where the term equity comes in.

In the world of work, it’s important to promote equal opportunities for all. But to achieve this is about more than displaying equality. Equality means to give everyone the same resources. But at work, our different circumstances and needs can mean that we need different support and resources from our colleagues. Equity takes this into account. Displaying equity involves trying to understand your people. And in turn giving them personalised support to help each person reach an equal outcome.

“Diversity is about bringing in all those different perspectives on so many multitude of layers and actually can't give everyone the same resource and expect for them to be performing at the same level. We're not robots, we're human beings. We all have our individual differences that we bring. We're all rich with information. So equity for me is bringing in those circumstances. Giving all those different voices and circumstances a voice”

Dr Shamsun Islam, Clinical Psychologist, NELFT

Equity is a vital factor in diversity and inclusion. And something that must be in the center of your D&I processes.

2. Recruitment must be bias free

More and more companies are realising the benefits of hiring a diverse workforce. But what is often missed is that recruitment processes are often biased. And this affects diversity in hiring. 

“For me, thinking about the recruitment process is looking at it through the lens of difference and people who have different needs. A lot of the organisations that we're working with now are challenging the very traditional recruitment process of CV's followed by interviews because CV's give you historical information about the privilege that somebody has had. So if you're disabled and you've been discriminated against previously you won't have had the work opportunities that will make your CV look good. Not because you don't have the talent, but because you've been discriminated against. Interviews also then show you how good people are at blagging interviews, not how good they are doing the job”

Jane Hatton, CEO & Founder, Evenbreak

When it comes to the recruitment process, we must reflect and remove any barriers that might be there. Some tips our panelists suggested include:

  • Rather than relying on CV and interview alone, encourage candidates to demonstrate their talents in other ways. For example, ask candidates to complete a work task or carry out a role play scenario. 
  • Be mindful of the job specification. Often job specs are written with a focus on how the job should be done. Instead, focus on finding someone that will give you the outcomes needed, even if it’s done in a way you wouldn’t expect.
  • Use language that’s inclusive. A lot of the time job requirements list that candidates must have ‘excellent communication skills’. This alone could exclude a lot of people from applying. So ask yourself, is this really needed for the role?
  • Make sure that the job site you’re advertising with doesn’t automatically screen out people with a gap in their CV. And that they’re accessible to someone using a screen reader, for example.

A bias free recruitment process will help you to open up your job roles for a diverse audience. But that’s just the beginning...

3. Diversity recruiting isn't enough

When recruiting, organisations must show that they’re dedicated to cultivating a sense of belonging. That means not just telling candidates that you’re an ‘equal opportunities employer’, but demonstrating your commitment. And showing them why they can trust you. 

“ You definitely need to have integrity about what you do as an organisation. So therefore to demonstrate that what you're showing is what you are doing is important. So things like having developed like an employee resource group or network group, so when you start to talk about what your organisation does in terms of support for disabled people it's true.”

Byron Batten, Head of Inclusion-Improvement, Communications & Engagement, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust

Advice from our panelists included:

  • Don’t assume that if people want jobs they’ll apply for them. Help candidates to trust you by being transparent about how you support your employees. Partnering with organisations or schemes that can help you to improve company-wide can help. For example the Business Disability Forum, and the Disability Confident scheme
  • Share case studies about your diverse people on your careers page. Hearing the story of those that work with you helps to demonstrate what you’re putting into practice, you’re not just preaching
  • Advertise on specialist job boards. For example a disability job board like Evenbreak. It demonstrates proactiveness. And that’s appreciated. It shows candidates that you’re serious about finding talent like theirs

Speaking from her own personal experience as a candidate with a Acquired Brain Injury, our panelist Nikki Goode said;

“What would make me apply for a job in terms of what would give me the confidence in going to an employer is that trust know they're saying they're disability confident, but are they? What's that gonna look like for me? Am I going to be supported? You can tell me in the interview or when you've offered me the job you're going to support me but what's that going to look like? You know that to me is what's really important”

As Customer Relationship Champion at Texthelp, Nikki shared with us how her team helped her to feel comfortable and confident at work. And we created a case study to help inspire other organisations. It also allows future candidates to see how we support our staff.

4. Supports shouldn’t be ‘hidden’ 

As we mentioned before, equity has an important role in D&I. But if you bring in support for an individual, don’t assume that they won’t benefit others in your organisation. 

Make sure that your employees know what’s available to them. And make sure they know how to use the tools.

“ From my own personal experience, Read&Write was installed on my machine a couple of years ago. But I didn't even know how to use it. It's only when the training came I thought, this has changed my life. We can't just put these supports in place and then leave it. It has to be something that's ongoing. There needs to be training so people can access it. Awareness even, you know that the technology or the other tools are there and available at your fingertips for everyone.” 

Dr Shamsun Islam, Clinical Psychologist with Dyslexia and RSI, NELFT

5. Company culture must be inclusive

One of the biggest challenges for organisations is to embed good practice consistently company-wide. But a good place to start is changing how you talk to your people. And that means instilling confidence in your people managers.

“I often say you know you can have the best policies in the world but they kind of live or die on the experience of an individual employee and their line manager. Very often line managers are really afraid and they're so worried about saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing they do nothing and then their employee is really worried about raising something with them. Training to give confidence to managers is absolutely vital and just getting across to managers that you don't have to be an expert you just need to be willing to to start a conversation”

Diane Lightfoot, CEO, Business Disability Forum

An example of a Cultural Change program includes Barclay’s This is Me campaign.

6. DE&I is everyone’s responsibility

Part of building an inclusive company culture is making it everyone’s responsibility. You may have a D&I team, but they can’t make cultural changes alone. As the saying goes, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

“Nobody on the planet is an expert in every disability and how it will affect every individual because you get 10 people with Autism they'll experience it in 10 different ways and each of them will experience it in different ways on different days...Middle managers and Senior Leaders aren't expected to be experts in this, but what they are expected to do is to own the issue and have conversations about it...Often we see diversity as oh you know, we have a team of people that's our D&I team, they look after that...but actually it's the responsibility of every leader, every manager to embed this into the everyday work they do.”

Jane Hatton, CEO & Founder, Evenbreak

As a tip for incentivising everyone to do their part, Jane shared how some companies are making it part of key performance indicators. By putting the responsibility in the context of an employee's own job role can help embed inclusive practices across the company.

7. It’s in the head, heart and hands

Continuing on from the last point, you might be wondering how to get departmental buy-in too. This idea of context comes into play here too. Let each department in on the benefits of diversity and inclusion for them.

“There's a great model out there called ‘Head, heart and hands’. The head, that's kind of the intellectual bit. So you know, the legal case, the business case. That's just not finite, that's kind of what the intrinsic values that we are losing or not bringing in if we haven't got that coming from a leadership perspective. The other is about that emotional and moral case, you know that thing about social justice, you know that all these resources should be free and fair for everybody. And that last bit is about the behavior, you know the actions for better engagement. So I think when we're coming to do this work and I think it's a hard piece of work for D&I leads, you've got to think which bits of that are going to tap into which bits of the leadership. So if it's your Finance Director it's going to be about actually what's the business case here? And if it's your HR, it's maybe about the behavior or the emotional bits”.

Byron Batten, Head of Inclusion-Improvement, Communications & Engagement, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust

We hope you’ve learned a lot by hearing our 7 key takeaways from our roundtable discussion. Our panelists had so much more to share, and these 7 takeaways are only tip of the iceberg. If you’d like to hear the one hour conversation, register for free and receive the recording - and more!