Woodward is a 153-year-old aerospace company that required its male employees to wear bow ties into the 1990s.
So Paul Benson, the company’s chief human resources officer, knew that creating a companywide diversity, equity and inclusion program would require a seismic shift. “Look at our org chart online, and we’re a lily-white leadership team of old males,” he said. But employees were eager for a more inclusive culture.
“People want to feel like they belong,” Mr. Benson said. “They want to come to work and not feel like they have to check themselves at the door.”
Last summer, Mr. Benson started searching for a diversity consultant who was up to the task. He hoped to find a relatable former executive “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 chief executive of Inversity Solutions, a consultancy that rethinks traditional diversity programming.
Ms. Foster said companies must address racism, sexism, homophobia and antisemitism in the workplace. But she believes that an overemphasis on identity groups and a tendency to reduce people to “victim or villain” can strip agency from 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 correct it.”
Mr. Benson was convinced. He hired Ms. Foster to give the keynote address at Woodward’s 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 the car when a Black man walked by? Had they thought, yes, Jewish people really are good with money? Had they questioned the intelligence of someone with a thick Southern accent?
People raised their hands tentatively, even fearfully. By the time Ms. Foster finished, nearly every hand — including her own — was up.
“Congratulations. You’re certified human beings,” she said. “It’s not about being right or wrong but understanding when bias comes into play.”
Mr. Benson was relieved. “I was at a table with somebody who started the whole thing with his arms folded,” he recalled. “His body language said this dude’s not a believer. Halfway through, he’s laughing and clapping.”
Ms. Foster, he said, helped people “feel OK with 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 question 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 George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Many corporations turned their attention to addressing 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 amending their approach to D.E.I., even renaming their departments to include “belonging.” It’s the age of D.E.I.-B.
Some critics worry 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, assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of Business who studies corporate strategies for diversity and inclusion.
She believes an abstract focus on belonging allows companies to avoid the tough conversations about power — and the resistance those conversations often generate. “The concern is that we are just creating new terms like belonging as a way to manage that resistance,” Ms. Creary said.
Ms. Foster contends that as a practical matter, there will be no equity if the people in power — “the straight white male”— feel excluded from the conversation. The people traditional D.E.I. practitioners “most want to enroll are the people they’re isolating and honestly ostracizing,” 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 D.E.I. has exacerbated divides even while addressing valuable issues,” said Sarah Bonk, BFA’s founder and chief executive. “It has created some hostility, resentment.”
It’s why companies like Woodward are now hiring consultants who specialize in “belonging” and “bridge building.” They are coming to the aid of executives who fear that national divisions are penetrating the workplace, threatening to drive a wedge between colleagues and making everyone feel anxious and defensive.
Professor Creary agrees these are real problems. “I can see that corporations want to have a structured conversation around how allowing all of us to thrive will help us all collectively,” she said. But she worries “belonging” gives cover to people who would rather maintain the status quo. “There’s still a large percentage of people who have a zero sum mind-set,” she said. “If I support you, I am going to lose.”
Bring your ‘whole self’ to work
The belonging obsession is the result of a now-widespread corporate standard: Bring your whole self to work. If you have the flexibility to work wherever you want, and the freedom to discuss the social and political issues that matter to you, then ideally, you’ll feel that you belong at your company.
Bring your whole self to work emerged before the pandemic but became something of a mandate at its height, as companies tried to stanch a wave of resignations. They were also responding to concerns that many people felt excluded in the workplace. According to a 2022 report by the think tank Coqual, roughly half of Black and Asian professionals with a bachelor’s or more advanced degree don’t feel a sense of belonging at work.
Last year, the Society for Human Resource Management conducted its first survey on corporate belonging. Seventy-six percent of respondents said their organization prioritized belonging as part of its D.E.I. strategy and 64 percent said they planned to invest more in belonging initiatives this year. Respondents said that identity-based communities, like employee resource groups, helped foster belonging, while mandatory diversity training did not.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, wishes we weren’t having this conversation about identity and belonging. “At a time of rising political polarization, many people’s whole selves don’t fit with the whole selves of their colleagues,” Mr. Haidt, a self-described centrist, said. “I’ve heard from so many managers. They can’t stand it anymore — the constant conflict over people’s identities.”
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 might have opposing values.
In 2019, CDI began licensing Perspectives to corporations. Annual fees are $50 to $150 per employee license. Companies can also book a menu of live training options for $3,500 to $15,000 for a full day.
Allegis Global Solutions, a work force 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 entire meeting stopped,” Ms. 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 partly because the company prioritized belonging. She recalls reading news of police brutality at her previous job and feeling that she had to suppress her feelings.
“I just remember sitting in my cube and not being able to just voice my opinions,” Ms. Worrell said. She remembered 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 an event series to help employees digest the ruling. When they informed the human resources and D.E.I. teams, they were directed to Perspectives.
“No matter if they were for or against, we wanted our people to feel OK and be OK,” Ms. Worrell said.
And were they? Allegis said roughly 200 people attended the first meeting, which was held virtually. Afterward, Ms. Worrell followed up with the one attendee who had spoken in favor of the court’s decision.
“Even though I was that one person going against the grain,” Ms. Worrell recalled the colleague saying, “I still felt like I should share.”
An ‘Offensive Focus on Group Labels’
Irshad Manji, founder of the consultancy Moral Courage College, says an “almost offensive focus on group labels” is a big problem with mainstream diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. “It all but compels people to stereotype each other. I happen to be Muslim and a faithful Muslim,” she said. “But that does not mean I interpret Islam like every other Muslim out there.”
Ms. Manji believes that people now use “belonging” as a “tacit acknowledgment that traditional D.E.I. hasn’t worked well.”
So what approach does work? In 2018, Autodesk, a software company with 13,700 employees, began planning a culture shake-up.
Some employees were afraid to offend one another, so they defaulted to being “fake nice” and “passive aggressive,” said Autodesk’s president and chief executive, Andrew Anagnost. Others felt unsupported and would not speak up in meetings.
Autodesk renamed its “Diversity and Inclusion” team the “Diversity and Belonging” team. Managers learned strategies for recognizing — and then counteracting — their own defensive thinking.
They were given poker chips to “play” each time they spoke to avoid dominating the discussion.
The company paid the leaders of employee resource groups bonuses to signal their value. And Mr. Anagnost put himself forward 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 shot at attracting Black engineering graduates there.
Autodesk regularly polls its employees about their experiences at work. After the culture shift took hold, Mr. Anagnost said that belonging scores increased for women and employees of color and decreased for white men.
“Then that normalized,” he said. “Yeah, sure, OK, there’s going to be some squeeze on opportunity in some areas as you try to increase representation in others. But the threat level goes down when you create a sense of ‘we can all rise together.’”