By Michael Slepian
Diversity brings many benefits to organizations — but it is not enough on its own. An organization with a diverse workforce is not necessarily an inclusive one. Diversity efforts now often fall under the banner of “Diversity and Inclusion” for this reason, but new research in a forthcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that inclusion may also fall short because it does not necessarily lead to a sense of belonging.
Employees may feel they don’t belong for any number of reasons, but in each case the result is the same: what researchers term an “identity threat.” Defined as any situation that makes salient that one is different from others, identity threats can range from trivial to troubling. Consider the manager who talks to her low-wage employees about upcoming international travel plans, or the co-worker who expresses surprise that a Black colleague doesn’t conform to a stereotype. My colleague, Drew Jacoby-Senghor, and I set out to understand the impacts of identity-threatening situations like these that people experience on a regular basis.
We recruited 1,500 individuals who spanned a range of identities, including women working in male-dominated fields, people from multiple racial groups, LGBTQ-identifying individuals, as well as people with a range of ideologies, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, family environments, and current hardships. The extent of diversity that we examined is rare for research in the diversity space, which typically focuses on a limited set of identities, and often one at a time. Instead, we examined experiences with identity threat that transcend specific identities and contexts, allowing us to make conclusions about diversity issues, in general, rather than just particular kinds of diversity.
We asked our participants whether they recently experienced identity-threatening situations, and they reported that they had many such experiences, an average of 11 in a week. When we probed further, we found that encountering identity-threatening situations was associated with feeling less included, and also reduced belonging, but importantly these were two very different experiences. We found that across a very diverse set of identities and situations, a sense of exclusion was associated with negative emotion, but it was feeling like one did not belong that had a more pernicious effect. When employees felt like they didn’t belong in the workplace, they felt like they couldn’t be themselves at work. When employees feel they can’t be their authentic self at work, they have lower workplace satisfaction, find less meaning in their work, and have one foot out the door.
With good reason, organizations often focus on inclusion in their diversity initiatives, but efforts toward inclusion that do not foster belonging can backfire. In a follow-up study, we asked employees about their interactions with their teammates and supervisors. Whether interacting with their teammates or their supervisor, our participants made a distinction between what we call real inclusion versus surface inclusion.
When employees felt included, involved, and accepted (real inclusion), they felt like they belonged in the workplace. When employees felt like others asked for their input only because they were supposed to, or sought their opinion as someone who can represent their social group (surface inclusion), they felt like they belonged less. When being included for surface-level reasons, such as seeking a minority opinion, people can feel singled out on the basis of their demographics. This reduced sense of belonging works directly against inclusion efforts.
What can managers do? First, recognize but don’t overemphasize differences. It is now clear that a colorblind approach does not effectively manage diversity in the workplace. Colorblind policies can leave employees feeling ignored. On the other side of the spectrum, a multicultural approach that focuses on emphasizing and celebrating people’s differences can too easily slide into unintentional endorsement of stereotypes and expectancies for specific differences between groups. Organizations must strike a middle ground that allows minority members to feel included while not feeling singled out. This middle ground recognizes that people want their social groups to be included in the conversation, but they do not want to be individually included solely on the basis of their category memberships.
Second, managers should focus on the creation of identity-safe environments. Addressing underrepresentation at different leadership levels takes time, but managers today can focus on creating environments that demonstrate a value for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds and demographics. Managers should survey their employee’s experiences to best understand what this should look like in their workplace, and how this might be implemented (e.g., in a team-based core values exercise), but critically, the burden of this task must not be placed on minority members as this would only serve to single them out. What is acceptable behavior in the workplace? How can the organization speak to diverse audiences and consumers? Do not only look to minorities to answer these questions. Instead, include everyone in the conversation. The solution is to make all employees’ concerns feel heard, and not single out only minority individuals, or expect them to always take the lead on diversity questions.
Third, feelings of support and being valued are critical. Our study found that employees regarded organizational inclusion efforts as more surface level than real when they did not feel respected, valued, or supported by the organization. And so, it is important that employees feel that support systems are available to them at the broader organizational level. Leaders must create environments where employees feel comfortable speaking up when they see something that does not seem inclusive. Formal channels should allow employees to connect with leaders and mentors, and managers would be wise to listen to recommendations from HR and employee relations representatives for best practices when it comes to reporting concerns. Employees need their concerns to feel heard, rather than dismissed or diminished.
Finally, the framing of inclusion attempts influences perceptions of sincerity. When it comes to the organization as a whole, inclusion should absolutely focus on different social groups and increasing representation. But when it comes to the day-to-day, inclusion efforts should be focused more on the individual than the social group they represent. Managers should include and reach out to employees from underrepresented backgrounds, but the framing of these appeals and communications is critical. Rather than treating an employee as a representative of people like them, instead consider their unique experiences and frame requests for input along these lines. Perhaps an employee has been in a different industry, has a unique job history, or currently has a project that requires unique forms of support.
The secret to making employees feel included is getting to know the people on your team as individuals. A leftover vestige from colorblind approaches to diversity management is a tendency to value homogeny and to seek sameness. A team with a homogenous set of viewpoints will come to a decision smoothly, but often too smoothly, overemphasizing shared perspectives and overlooking critical details or opportunities for innovation. Sameness is not an asset. Learning about individuals’ unique strengths and unique experiences, and showing recognition for these, is what leads employees to feel valued and respected. This is what enables going beyond surface-level inclusion in favor of real, individual-based inclusion. Inclusion efforts may be well meaning, but without a backbone of support and respect, they may seem less than genuine.
Originally posted on Harvard Business Review