June 3, 2023

Woodward is a 153-year-old aerospace company that required its male employees to wear bow ties until the 1990s.

So Paul Benson, the company’s chief human resources officer, knew that creating a company-wide program for diversity, equity and inclusion would require a seismic shift. “Look at our org chart online and we are a lily white leadership team of old men,” he said. But employees wanted a more inclusive culture.

“People want to feel like they belong,” said Mr. Benson. “They want to come to work and don’t feel like they have to check themselves at the door.”

Last summer, Mr. Benson looking for a diversity consultant who could handle this job. He hoped to find a recognizable former director “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 CEO of Inversity Solutions, a consulting firm that is rethinking traditional diversity programs.

Ms Foster said companies need to tackle racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in the workplace. But she believes that an overemphasis on identity groups and the tendency to reduce people to “victim or villain” can deprive and alienate everyone — including employees of color. She says her approach allows anyone to “make mistakes, sometimes say the wrong thing, and be able to correct it.”

Mr. Benson was convinced. He hired Ms. Foster to deliver 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 are really good with money? Had they questioned the intelligence of someone with a heavy southern accent?

People hesitantly, even fearfully, raised their hands. By the time Mrs. Foster was done, nearly every hand—including her own—had run out.

“Congratulations. You are graduates,” she said. “It’s not about being right or wrong, it’s about understanding when bias comes into play.”

Mr. Benson was relieved. “I sat at a table with someone who started the whole thing with his arms folded,” he recalls. His body language said this guy is not a believer. Halfway through he is laughing and applauding.”

Ms. Foster, he said, helped people “feel good about themselves, like maybe you haven’t been an activist or been on this journey in your past, but let’s see how we can move forward.”

In other words, she made them feel like they belonged to the conversation.

The issue of belonging has become the latest focus in the evolving world of corporate diversity, equality and inclusion programs.

Interest in creating more inclusive workplaces exploded after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Many companies turned their attention to addressing systemic racism and power imbalances — the things that had kept boardrooms white and black employees excluded from office life.

Now, nearly three years on from that moment, some companies are adapting their approach to DEI, even renaming their departments “belonging.” It’s the era of DEI-B.

Some critics worry that it’s about making whites comfortable rather than addressing systemic inequality, or that it simply allows companies to prioritize getting along over necessary change.

“Belonging is a way to make people who aren’t marginalized feel like they’re part of the conversation,” says Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of Business, who studies business strategies for diversity and inclusion.

She believes an abstract focus on belonging allows companies to avoid difficult conversations about power – and the resistance those conversations often generate. “The concern is that we’re just creating new terms, like belonging, as a way to deal with that resistance,” Ms Creary said.

Ms Foster argues that there will be no equity in practice if those in power – “the straight white man” – feel left out of the conversation. The people traditional DEI practitioners “want to enroll the most are the people they isolate and ostracize fairly,” she said.

The nonpartisan nonprofit Business for America recently interviewed more than two dozen executives from 18 companies and found that this was a common theme. “The way they’ve rolled out DEI has exacerbated the division, even in addressing high-value issues,” said Sarah Bonk, founder and CEO of BFA. “It has created some animosity and resentment.”

That’s why companies like Woodward are now hiring consultants who specialize in ‘fitting in’ and ‘building bridges’. They come to the rescue of executives who fear national chapters are invading the workplace, threatening to drive a wedge between colleagues and make everyone anxious and defensive.

Professor Creary agrees that these are real problems. “I see companies wanting to have a structured conversation about how it will collectively help us all thrive,” she said. But she worries that “belonging” is a cover for people who prefer to maintain the status quo. “There’s still a large percentage of people who have a zero-sum mindset,” she said. “If I support you, I’m going to lose.”

The obsession with belonging is the result of a now widespread corporate norm: 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 you will ideally feel at home in your company.

Put your whole self to work originated before the pandemic, but became something of a mandate at its peak, as companies tried to stem a wave of layoffs. They also responded to concerns that many people felt left out in the workplace. According to a 2022 report by the think tank Coqual, about half of Black and Asian professionals with a bachelor’s degree or higher degree do not feel at home at work.

Last year, the Society for Human Resource Management conducted its first survey of corporate belonging. Seventy-six percent of respondents said their organization is prioritizing connectedness as part of its DEI strategy, and 64 percent said they plan to invest more in inclusion initiatives this year. Respondents said identity-based communities, such as employee support groups, helped them to belong, while mandatory diversity training did not.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, wishes we weren’t having this conversation about identity and belonging. “In a time of increasing political polarization, many people’s whole selves don’t fit with their peers’ whole selves,” said Mr. Haidt, a self-proclaimed centrist. “I have heard from so many managers. They can’t take 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 discover where their values ​​come from and why people from different backgrounds may have opposing values.

In 2019, CDI began licensing Perspectives to companies. Annual costs 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 workforce solutions company with 3,500 employees, was one of the first.

The platform has already helped the company navigate some complex political situations. Last June, a 26-year-old HR coordinator named Shakara Worrell was in a meeting when she learned that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade. “The whole meeting stopped,” said Mrs. Worrell. “Then I realized I’m not the only one whose heart has fallen.”

Ms. Worrell, who is of mixed race, said she came to Allegis in part because the company prioritized belonging. She remembers reading news of police brutality at her previous job and feeling like she had to suppress her feelings.

“I just remember being in my cube and not being able to just express my opinion,” Ms Worrell said. She remembered thinking, “I don’t really fit in.”

Not so with Allegis. There, Ms. Worrell leads Elevate, the company’s employee group for women’s empowerment. After the Supreme Court ruling, she and her colleagues decided to hold a series of events to help employees process the ruling. When they informed human resources and DEI teams, they were directed to Perspectives.

“It doesn’t matter if they were for or against, we wanted our people to feel good and be OK,” Ms Worrell said.

And were they? Allegis said about 200 people attended the first meeting, which was held virtually. Then spoke Mrs. Worrell with the only contestant who ruled in favor of the court’s decision.

“Even though I was that one person who went against the grain,” Ms Worrell recalls the colleague who said, “I still felt like I had to share.”

Irshad Manji, founder of the consulting firm Moral Courage College, says an “almost offensive focus on group labels” is a major problem with mainstream diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. “It almost forces people to stereotype each other. I happen to be a Muslim and a staunch Muslim,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I interpret Islam like any other Muslim out there.”

Ms. Manji believes people are now using “fitting in” as a “tacit admission that traditional DEI hasn’t worked well.”

So which approach works? In 2018 Autodesk, a software company with 13,700 employees, started planning a culture shift.

Some employees were afraid of offending each other, so they defaulted to being “phony” and “passive aggressive,” Autodesk president and CEO Andrew Anagnost said. Others felt unsupported and did not speak up in meetings.

Autodesk renamed his Team “Diversity and Inclusion” The team “Diversity and Togetherness”. Managers learned strategies for recognizing and counteracting their own defensive thinking.

They were given poker chips to “play” every time they spoke to avoid dominating the discussion.

The company paid bonuses to staff group leaders to indicate their worth. And Mr. Anagnost introduced himself as the executive sponsor of the Autodesk Black Network.

But the company also tackled equity. It moved the location of a new office center from Denver to Atlanta, knowing it would have a better chance of attracting black engineering graduates.

Autodesk regularly surveys its employees about their experiences at work. After the culture shift began, Mr. Anagnostic that belongingness 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 pressure on opportunities in some areas while you try to increase representation in others. But the threat level drops when you create the feeling of ‘we can all stand up together’.”