Do you belong at your workplace? More importantly, do your employees feel they do? Despite a growing focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, the concept of belonging still eludes many. But here’s why it should matter to the employer: Belonging is directly linked to your retention rate. A near-record 4.4 million workers quit their jobs in February. Despite being dubbed the Great Resignation, this is not actually a mass exit from the workforce. Indeed, unemployment was just 3.6% in March. Rather, workers are rethinking their employment relationships and how they want to be treated. In other words, companies in America are missing the mark despite the nearly $8 billion they spend each year on diversity and inclusion training.
A secure environment. But what does belonging mean? I had the privilege of speaking with DeLibra Wesley, a two-time SIA DE&I Influencer and CEO at National Recruiting Consultants. She explains that belonging is about psychological safety. Does a contingent worker or employee feel able to “speak up and know that no one’s going to chop me down for my opinion or poke fun of my idea?” she asks. Employers may be spending vast amounts of energy, time and money on hiring and onboarding, but they’re not providing an environment where new hires can learn best. In an ideal environment, “they have a leader who understands what their life experience is and is able to train them where they can stay in the role and offer them a career advancement opportunity that makes sense,” Wesley says.
Instead, these workers are operating in an environment that is foreign — and not psychologically safe — for them. The staffing snapshot. While the industry has made some strides, it’s important to recognize that the lack of belonging people feel can be attributed to a lack of representation — and within our industry, that lack is staggering.
Data elaborated on by SIA from the Women Business Collaborative survey shows that women accounted for 56% of all internal staff at US staffing firms but just 46% of executive-level roles. At large firms, their representation among leadership falls to 26%. Women of color comprise an abysmal 5% of executive roles regardless of company size.
Potential missteps. Those dire numbers become a burden for the minority groups. How? Say, for example, you are the only person of color on your team. Black History Month rolls around, and you become the go-to person for answers. You suddenly are the sole representative of an entire community’s narrative. We don’t want tokenization to rear its ugly head. Expecting such marginally represented individuals to speak for an entire community or race creates the wrong kind of culture. This is just one example, but a critical one to digest as we reexamine how we do things when we go back to our offices.
Honest conversations. What can employers do to change culture? First, look at your internal staff. Ask the people in your organization about their challenges. This goes beyond doing surveys — you must be comfortable asking people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender expressions to meet and share their experiences. Then have those tough conversations. Find out what’s working for them and what’s not; do not assume you already know the answers and the best ways to improve things. Fix where you have gone wrong. This part is not outside of crafting an effective DE&I strategy.
Exit interviews can also play an important role. Ask why they are leaving and what would make them stay. Structure your questions to encourage honest responses, and take the employees’ responses seriously.
As we emerge from the pandemic, some believe that the DE&I momentum has slowed. The buzz has quieted. But many in our ecosystem continue to work very hard to place diverse candidates in the right roles — including at the executive and board levels. Your role notwithstanding, you can give this effort a boost by having those uncomfortable conversations with your colleagues and friends.
Regardless of the size of your firm, you all have a particular responsibility to place the right person in the right role. Each of you in different ways is doing just that. This naturally creates belonging and brings us closer to equity at work.
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