How to carry out a belonging audit

It’s a sad state of affairs that lack of diversity in the higher echelons of companies is so normal that many of us fail to even recognize it anymore. Research shows that the majority of decision makers in organizations are white men over the age of 45 – the so-called ‘pale, stale and male’ brigade – and it is all-too normal.

It’s about lack of inclusion, not opportunity

However, there is one thing we must all be very clear about: often this is not necessarily down to lack of opportunity. The fact is, many women get to a certain level in the organization and then self-select out.

The big question is why? I believe the reason behind it is actually to do with something else – lack of a sense of belonging.

In my experience, the approach to inclusion that most organizations take is to give people the opportunity to progress – but with an unspoken proviso that they must then ‘include’ themselves.

The reality, however, is that female senior leaders are often lonely in their positions and find the culture in the leadership teams intolerable. They feel unheard and insignificant. And so the group-think associated with the homogeneity of leadership teams continues.

The need to audit belonging

By comparison, having a belonging culture focuses on diversity, inclusion, engagement, psychological safety and wellbeing. But how do organisations know if they’ve got one? The key is doing a ‘belonging audit’

A belonging audit combines the power of qualitative data with the lived experience of employees to understand who in the organisation has a sense of belonging and, more critically, why some people don’t. While it may uncover some ‘elephants in the room’, It should nevertheless provide insights that organisations can use to build a truly transformational plan.

So how should HRDs go about them conducting and interpreting them? Below are some key things to consider:

1) Get leaders involved

It’s important to ensure the senior leadership team is prepared to understand and ready to address any challenging insights that may present itself. If there really is no appetite for addressing anything that arises, then conducting the audit risks marginalizing people even further.

2) Engage participants

Consider asking your leadership sponsor to put his/her name to the launch message to increase engagement. After this (and as with any survey), it is important to prepare the audience for the survey itself by communicating positive messages about its purpose.

The message you want to craft should be one that signals the positive goal of wanting to understand the extent to which people feel like they belong in the organization.

It should also emphasize the anonymity of the survey and the intention of wanting to use the results to improve the employee experience for ALL. Remember, there is growing D&I/engagement survey fatigue in organizations where there appears to be few changes as a result. So your messaging must take an inclusive, no-jargon, and personal approach. This should help to drive engagement with the initiative – if only, at this early stage, out of curiosity. 

3) Create the survey

If you wish to create a bespoke questionnaire, most survey platforms have lots of guidance for dos and don’ts when doing so. These include considering things such as survey length, formulating questions, response scales and the number of open-answer questions. In larger organizations you may want to outsource delivery and analysis of the survey.

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Overall though, it is critical that any belonging survey feels different. It shouldn’t have all the same questions that are typically included in engagement or D&I surveys. If they do, all that will happen it that your survey will deliver the same responses without providing insight into the real issues and opportunities.

By all means use questions from survey banks, but add in others that feel different. Include questions that will make people sit up, and which will also convince them that this time you mean business.

Give people the ability to make real choices to – even if they sound uncomfortable to hear. Things like:

  • Being an employee here does not require me to relinquish my values or principles
  • I am often treated in a way that makes me feel ashamed, inferior, unimportant or excluded
  • I often witness behaviors or actions which appear to make somebody feel ashamed, inferior, unimportant or excluded
  • If I see someone being treated in a way I find unacceptable from a respect or moral perspective, I always feel comfortable about ‘calling it out’
  • In work I am happy more often than I experience negative emotion
  • I sometimes feel scared, sad, insecure or alone here

Engagement with the process has to ensure that the respondent feels in control, so you should make it clear that there is no obligation to answer any of the questions.

But if respondents don’t answer a question, this in itself is useful information when it comes to the analysis.

 4) Analyse the data

The data you get back should tell you where the belonging hot spots and cold spots are. Survey platforms provide extensive guidance on how to cut data and do different analyses if you are not working with a dedicated data analyst. In general though, be curious and look how the data can provide real insight. For instance:

  • Which functions/areas of the organization have the strongest and weakest sense of belonging?
  • Which demographic qualities experience strongest and weakest sense of belonging?
  • Which demographic intersections experience strongest and weakest sense of belonging?
  • What is the impact on those who feel that they don’t belong?
  • Is there a correlation between wellbeing, health, happiness and optimism responses and a sense of belonging?
  • Where is there greater confidence to speak up in defence of others who are marginalized? How is the wellbeing and happiness in these areas?
  • What are the key themes of the verbatim responses?

In short, get creative, dig deep, and keep asking questions about what the data is telling you. Even when you think you have the answers, dig deeper again.

Remember, the more curious you are, the better you will understand the lived experience of your employees. The better at this you become, the more you can tell emotionally engaging stories to get buy-in for the belonging, diversity and inclusion you want.

Helen May is founder of diversity & inclusion consultancy, Belonging@Work and author of new book Everyone Included: Improve Belonging, Diversity & Inclusion in Your Team.

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