It’s Time to Replace “Belonging” in the Diversity and Inclusion Conversation

When the term “belonging” entered the diversity and inclusion (D&I) conversation, the media went wild. Major tech companies like LinkedIn touted how “belonging” was the missing part of the employee engagement conversation. The term even made it into job titles of many diversity leads, resulting in Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) Officers. Overnight, “belonging” became the new proxy for inclusion and engagement.

While the concept of belonging is not flawed, the execution is, and that means it needs to be replaced. Belonging is so individualistic and subjective that it’s nearly impossible to act on, putting diversity leaders and champions in a very difficult spot. What the diversity and inclusion world needs is not an esoteric (though admittedly sexy) phrase — we need a concept we can act on.

The problem with “belonging”

We’ve all heard this phrase before: diversity is being invited to the party but inclusion is being asked to dance. When “belonging” came onto the scene, this phrase got extended with “… and belonging is not being judged for the way you dance.”

The metaphor captures the goal of belonging imperfectly — you should be able to contribute with your unique skills and talents. That, after all, is what makes for more resilient companies (though admittedly, we need to stop using this metaphor — if we’re creating metaphors for inclusion, we have to use ones that aren’t inherently ableist).

The concept of belonging, though, has three core issues that make it nearly impossible to act on:

1 — Belonging is difficult to act on

When you ask someone if they feel like they belong, there are many potential issues that have very little to do with the work environment or culture. Since it’s so subjective, D&I leaders have an incredibly difficult time acting on it. When companies dig into why a particular employee feels they belong (or don’t belong), the resulting ideas, suggestions, and notes can be overwhelming — all of which you’re expected to act on in the name of “belonging.” This sets D&I leaders — and the organization as a whole — up for failure.

2 — Belonging doesn’t scale

There’s a level of humanitarianism and justice to D&I work, but at the end of the day the goal of workplace D&I is to build a working environment where everyone can contribute to the best of their ability and bring their authentic selves to work. The subjective nature of belonging could result in demands from employees not fitting in the context of business goals. While important to the individual, it’s difficult to reconcile the expense, which leads to mismatched expectations and potentially lower feelings of belonging as businesses can’t invest in everything people say they want or need.

3 — Belonging is hard to measure

The only way to measure belonging is to ask some version of this question “On a scale of 1–5, do you feel like you belong in this organization? 1 is absolutely not, 5 is definitely yes.”

When it comes to making progress with any corporate initiative, you need metrics, rubrics, and process — D&I work is no different. The issue is this belonging metric is individualistic and nearly impossible to get nuance on, which leads to the subjectivity and lack of scalability I mentioned above. Where concepts such as diversity, equity, and inclusion are concrete and measurable (see below for specific examples), belonging falls short.

From DIB to DEI

Despite implementation issues associated with “belonging,” the spirit of it is critical to organizational success. That’s why “belonging” shouldn’t be removed but instead replaced for a more measurable, action-oriented concept: equity.

In a diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB) ecosystem, each concept acts alone and is focused on individuals. Diversity is tracked and point solutions implemented to improve team diversity. Inclusion is built to accommodate the individual diversity that comes through the door. Belonging provides back-end course corrections to retain the diverse talent you were able to bring in.

With the flip to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the whole ecosystem becomes a virtuous cycle, each element strengthening the other.

Diversity becomes a baseline of analysis, enabling businesses to track demographic information such as gender, race, sexual orientation, and other identity-based features. This is not something to “optimize for,” but instead your analytical base.

Equity means analyzing diversity data for gaps and then addressing, pivoting around, or bridging them. While diversity shows you what’s going on, equity is the spark to fix issues at the system level. Unlike the subjective nature of belonging, equity has real measurements to strategize from such as pay rates, promotion rates, tenure, and attrition rates of various identity groups.

Inclusion looks at both diversity data and equity gaps, using that insight to craft inclusive systems throughout the employee journey — talent sourcing, recruiting, onboarding, performance management, promotions, and offboarding. The inclusion process builds rubrics, processes, and room for humanity to come through in each system, meaning tangible business outcomes that, when done well, reflect in revenue, engagement, and diversity data.

DEI creates belonging

With a focus on individual belonging, companies can make life fantastic for a handful of people. While great for those individuals, it can often lead to resentment on behalf of people who feel their “belonging” requirements were not met. A switch to equity directs focus from the individual to the system-level, meaning scalable impact. What’s more important, though, is that a DEI system is measurable and actionable. This means a tighter connection between diversity initiatives and business goals, resulting not only in employee engagement and productivity but also a deeper connection to other areas in the business.

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