How to Create a Culture of Belonging in the Workplace

Summary of our call on creating a workplace environment that’s not only diverse and inclusive, but creates a true sense of belonging, with expert Jennifer Brown, Founder & CEO of JBC.

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If you lead diversity, equity and inclusion work in your organization, you’ll know that this work can be both rewarding and difficult. It can often come with a limited workplace foundation, a steep learning curve, and few resources to work with. Hopefully there’s and equal “pull” from leadership, but not always. 

So, how can we further build upon the concepts of diversity and inclusion, and be more strategic about creating a workplace culture of belonging?

We sat down with Jennifer Brown, Founder and CEO of JBC, to discuss how DEI professionals can do just that. During the call, we discussed:

  • The changing conversation around D&I (or I&D).
  • Increasing organizational and leadership appetite for diversity and inclusion.
  • Covering and allyship in the workplace.
  • Encouraging internal conversation around D&I (or I&D).
  • The dangers of “compassion fatigue and the importance of self-care for advocates. 

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If you lead diversity, equity and inclusion work in your organization, you’ll know that this work can be both rewarding and difficult. It can often come with a limited workplace foundation, a steep learning curve, and few resources to work with. Hopefully there’s and equal “pull” from leadership, but not always. 

So, how can we further build upon the concepts of diversity and inclusion, and be more strategic about creating a workplace culture of belonging?

We sat down with Jennifer Brown, Founder and CEO of JBC, to discuss how DEI professionals can do just that. During the call, we discussed:

  • The changing conversation around D&I (or I&D).
  • Increasing organizational and leadership appetite for diversity and inclusion.
  • Covering and allyship in the workplace.
  • Encouraging internal conversation around D&I (or I&D).
  • The dangers of “compassion fatigue and the importance of self-care for advocates. 



Women 2.0: Jennifer could you please introduce yourself?

Jennifer: Hi everyone, thanks so much for having me, I’m super excited about this discussion. 

I’ve been my own boss and CEO of consulting company for the last 13 years, and we focus on guiding typically large employers through the diversity, equity and inclusion journey, with a focus on strategy and training. 

I cut my teeth as a trainer doing a lot of leadership programs, and I pivoted to D&I at some point in the course of owning the company and growing it. Obviously it’s a huge passion for me. 

I’m also a member of the LGBTQ community, so I’ve been out for a few decades, but who’s counting <laugh>. This has very much informed my commitment to bringing change to the workplace, in particular because it was a place where I didn’t feel like I could bring  my whole self to work. There were also many other ways I felt disconnected  and disengaged from the workplace in terms of bringing my own work style, my passions and my orientation towards bringing purpose etc. 

It’s been a really great journey for me to move into that third-party expert role, trying influence the system around who drives change, how they drive it, why now, what are the particular nuances around this topic that we’re going to talk about – and there are many. This is a change on top of us and is happening and has been happening. There’s a fair amount fo resistance that I know about and deal with on a regular basis on the part of certain folks in organizations, and my second book addresses that head on.

Women 2.0: Let’s start by talking about the letters involved here. Your firm, and presumably some of your clients, use“DEI”, some use “D&I”, “I&D” and there are many other versions of this. How should people in the industry be thinking about these words, and how did we get here?

Jennifer: It’s important to go backwards to understand where we’re really going. “Diversity”, if it existed at all as a focus in a company,  was on underrepresented groups, and was driven because of affirmative action. It really originated because of protected classes. There was legal action, and many of the companies we work with now were dealing with the compliance aspect of this topic. Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s where we started with this topic, and it was how it was first introduced into the workplace.

Fast forward, and “inclusion” was added. If you think of diversity as the “who” – the representation around the table, counting the heads – the inclusion is really the “how” – how do we go about that, how do we create a culture of belonging where that diversity can thrive, where people not only want to come, but want to stay and build their carers. 

So you saw “D&I” evolve. I don’t know if I can put a time on that… many companies still call it that. And some flip the order and put inclusion first, and sometimes call it “Big I, little d”. The reason for that is because people are now starting to understand that inclusion is crucial as the circumstances that are present in order for us to get the most out of our diverse talent, broadly defined. 

Some companies have dropped the “d” and added the word “collaboration”. Some companies use the words “diversity and belonging”, and “belonging” is a relatively new word in terms of what to call the function. I actually love the concept of belonging, it has a real energy to it and it’s universal, so it’s something we can all get behind. Whereas perhaps some of us – no one on this called – may have a mixed history with the word diversity. We shouldn’t, but in the minds of some, the word has echoes of compliance to it – that we might be hiring this type of candidate, not this kind of candidate. There are some branding challenges behind the word, which is unfortunate. A word is just a word, and it’s what we put behind it. I think it’s a beautiful word.

Now we have the addition of “equity”, which brings a sharp focus to what’s inequitable in the workplace systems, our policies and practices. Equity is where it gets real, whereas some of these other words can be seen as platitudes, something again I don’t agree with. Equity focuses on things like pay gaps, or promotion and advancement practices that aren’t enabling a pipeline of non-traditional talent and underrepresented employees to flow. Equity makes it real. 

I see more of that word being used on the West Coast, interestingly than the East Coast. I think it’ more prevalent in younger companies and in the tech world – you probably hear it a lot Kate, because you have such a focus in that industry. I work a lot on big construction companies, and media companies and manufacturing companies, and I don’t see those companies quite ready to put those words in the official, public title of their efforts, but they’re talking about it behind the sciences. It may be a delayed focus. 

It’s fascinating to see which cultures are talking about it and adopting it. I’m making gross generalizations, but these are some ways the language is changing. Personally I think it’s great, I think some companies are going to focus on different things. What’s most important is that we as architects of these conversations are pushing these concepts, but we’re also taking into account what our employer is ready for in terms of change, and how radical can that change really be. We want to make sure we’re really pushing this, but we also want to make sure we’re bringing the vast majority of workers along for the journey.

Women 2.0: Getting into the leadership function a bit. D&I comes into companies at different levels. Sometimes it’s grassroots up, sometimes it’s straight from the top down, but when a company gets serious, they have to think about their leadership structure and how that’s going to support their efforts. What have you seen at the leadership level as being some of the key skills necessary to lead that charge and be an effective diversity and inclusion leader?

Jennifer: We often say all this work needs to have support and buy in from the top. So we as leaders are very obsessed with literally where does the CEO stand on this, where does the board stand on this, where does the executive team stand on this. What’s their attitude, and also what’s their own composition. 

We know that most boards and leadership teams aren’t reflective of the world, or even the diversity of the employee base. So we have a noticeable imbalance at the top of these companies. What this means is that that group of people needs to almost try harder sometimes, because they’re supporting a conversation that they may not always actually feel or relate to on a personal level from an identity perspective. To me, that’s a call out for their own energy and effort to support it, drive it, and acknowledge what they don’t know. 

If they need to be imperfect in the way they support it – which is inevitable, because there is no right answer in how they support these things. Everything leaders do gets scrutinized in microscopic ways, we’re always watching leaders. This leads to a particularly challenging confluence of factors for senior leaders – their potential lack of understanding or knowledge about other people’s experiences coupled with the outsized impact of their decisions. The way, with one signature or meeting, they can shape processes and culture from their position. So they’re a really critical group in shifting the organization, and the bigger the organization, the more critical they are.

They’re also often going to know the least about diversity of all the tiers within an organization, as opposed to, for example, early-in-career employees, who are going to be the most diverse from an ethnic perspective, sexual orientation, gender identify and expression as well. It’s a really interesting inversion of who at the experts are, and it requires a lot of humility at the top. 

It also requires that leaders use their seniority to visibly and publicly push the organization and hold everyone accountable. That’s a skill – leaders are people too and they’re on their own timeline in terms of learning about these topics. It’s a critical group and I see the passionate CEO who’s trying to push their management in the right direction, I see Boards who are trying to push their CEO and leadership team to be better. I see these top leaders setting goals or targets for things like gender parity or pay gap analysis. 

Some companies’ leadership teams are really going for it, and they’re talking about all the work they need to do, and they know they’re not where they need to be. But I would say many, many more are just trying to get their feet under them, and figure out how to measure, and what success looks like, what do I need to learn, I’m scared of saying the wrong thing. I would say the vast majority are scrambling around, trying to up their cultural competency, trying to figure out how to lead on this. It’s made doubly difficult when you don’t have a primary experience that doesn’t reflect your employee base. 

There’s a lot of humility, a lot of learning, a lot question-asking, a lot of experimentation. But no matter what, when you’re at the top of the organizational chart, you have a huge job to do in terms of pushing this conversation consistently, repeating it over and over and holding leadership accountable for change, even at the same time that you’re scrambling to learn all the things you need to learn.

Women 2.0: You’re reminding me, we had one senior people leader in a large bank, and they’d been doing a lot of work in this space. And he said it was one of the most exhausting, emotional processes his company has gone through, but he knows it’s completely necessary.

Jennifer: That sums it up!

Women 2.0: They were doing the work, so it’s almost like that acknowledgment helped the cause. Ok, let’s get specific for a moment. You speak often about covering. What’s the cost to organizations when employees spend energy downplaying, de-emphazing or hiding certain aspects of their identity?

Jennifer: I always start with my own story, the effort of either being closeted, or not being closeted but not talking about it very much. And I always think that’s an important distinction, because covering is defined as the downplaying or minimizing of a known stigmatized identity. It was defined in a report out of Deloitte by Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith called Uncovering Talent (PDF).

It’s the dance we do to downplay we know to be stigmatized that we know we may be harmfully stereotyped because of. It’s our choice to conceal things when we sense our workplace culture sin’t going to be accepting of it.

It’s interesting because some of these companies can talk a big game and do this well at the top, but remember that people leave managers, much more than they leave companies or jobs. So that direct manager we all have has everything to do with whether we truly connect with that culture, and whether or not we feel like we can bring our whole selves to work.

The covering research shows that a lot of us are not bringing our whole selves to work, and on a daily basis we’re modifying our appearance, or we’re distancing ourselves from certain conversations because we don’t want to highlight our differences, we don’t ask for what we need in terms of balance or flexibility or accommodations, if you’re someone with a disability for instance. We don’t challenge jokes that are offensive to us or worrisome to us because we don’t want to be known or synonymous wit our identity group when we’re in the workplace.

It takes really valuable energy away from our performance, our energy level and our sense of ourselves, and our confidence. That’s the really heartbreaking part of this. If you think about it, you can get really good at your job the more time you spend on it, but you’ve got particularly underrepresented groups covering disproportionately more than others. When you look around and you don’t see many people that look like you, or anyone that looks like you. Or you suspect your diversity dimensions that really influence who you are aren’t visible. There’s so much invisible diversity that people can hide. What do we do about the fact that’s getting in the way of our belief in ourselves, in our confidence, in us feeling smaller. It leads to more work making other people comfortable.

We’ve got to step forward and normalize what it means to bring our whole selves to work, this means that, particularly on the part of leaders, we need to set a different tone, and we don’t expect of others to lower their water line about all of their diversity dimensions without doing it ourselves first. This is a really helpful concept to introduce to senior leaders, that everyone is covering, it’s not just people who are in underrepresented groups.

The study says that 45% of straight-identifying white men cover as well, along many of the same dimensions, things like socioeconomic background, religion and spirituality, health issues, disabilities issues, issues of mental health, addiction, caregiving disabilities, or educational background. When you can make people feel that they can connect into the diversity and inclusion conversation, that it’s not so much someone else’s experience, and, as Kenji Yoshino says, not go into the Pain Olympics discussion of comparative marginalization and difficulty.

We do need to keep our eye on particular challenges and particular identifies that are severely underrepresented, at the same time opening up the door to say we all cover about something, and some of us cover about many things. What can we all do to ameliorate that and make sure others don’t feel they pay that tax on being different.

Women 2.0: Almost on the flip side of that, you talk a lot about allyship, which is a concept you’ve been focused on for quite sometime. I think I remember from our past discussions that it’s one of the main beginning points on your journey as well. Let’s get into that concept, and how leaders can encourage allyship amongst their employees. It’s not meant to fix issues of covering, been can offer something of a support system and really bring the inclusion piece together, and bring an employee group to have fuller sense of belonging?

Jennifer: I really think this is one of the next big areas, if not the sole area, that can really make an impact. When we talk about allies, originally it was straight allies. That’s where I was first exposed to the concept, in the LGBTQ community.

Straight allies would stand up, stand behind, stand next to, stand in front of, to be on someone’s side who may not be able to use their voice, who may be in a riskier situation professionally or career wise. Allies in the gay community, because of the heterosexuality, everything that they do is more “in the norm”. The concept is using that voice because of where you sit, and the privilege and exposure you have, the rooms you can get into, the way you can use your voice without triggering stigma in others.

As a diversity and inclusion practitioner, where I came to was allyship can be broadly applied outside the LGBTQ community. Indeed it’s so needed across the board, and now I’m really pushing the conversation around how do you step forward and use whatever privilege you have. And that can mean you may be a gay, white, cis-gender man and you have a ton of privileges you can use on behalf of voices that aren’t represented, that aren’t heard or aren’t comfortable, and aren’t bringing their whole self to the workplace or don’t feel comfortable doing so. Whereas you may have a level of male privilege or may have a level of white privilege or gender expression privilege. Whatever that is, that combo of things, those come with the opportunity to give your voice to others because there are things you might feel more comfortable or safer doing.

This is where I came to personally. As a member of the LGBTQ community and woman in business, I was focused for a long time on where is my voice not heard, where am I not bringing myself, where am I not getting opportunities because of these things? And then coming to understand the additional identify that I have, through no hard work of my own, but literally asked myself, given the family I was born into, how can I use my voice for others who are more marginalized and struggling to be authentic, and the headwinds that others face. This really switched for me, and is why I wrote the second book on being an inclusive leader and inviting people who don’t think diversity is their issue, or don’t think they have anything the can use alongside others to say that’s never true. There’s always something that we can take on, we can say, we can articulate, we can speak the truth about, that we can challenge. There’s always something we can be doing, our work is never done.

Remembering that you’re an ally only when others call you that, or when they give you that designation, but for all of us, allyship is a destination. It’s not something that’s ever done, and it’s not something we should ever call ourselves. Our allyship is defined by others, in the form of a heartfelt thank you, but sometimes the work doesn’t get a thank you and it doesn’t matter. It’s what I’ve dedicated my second life to, and if I can be heard on these things differently by people who look like me, and if senior leadership can say “I don’t know what to do” or “I have daughters” I always say it’s not enough. Good intentions aren’t enough, and you need to use your voice all the time, and it should be uncomfortable for you. If it’s uncomfortable for you, that means you’re in the right place.

Women 2.0: You’re reminding me of our joint friend and colleague in the space Wade Davis, who really explains his work that you as an ally are on a contract that renews every day. What that means is that you don’t get to be called an ally just once. You have to wake up every day with the same redone commitment on a daily basis to be an ally on that day. It’s a really interesting concept, your work is never really done.

Jennifer: I don’t want to discourage people, it sounds like a lot, but it is.

Women 2.0: It’s little things, it’s a mental state and it’s a set of daily actions that can really make an impact. It’s saying “you know what, this daily action that happened today, there’s going to be another one that happens tomorrow, and I need to be vigilant.” It’s about being vigilant rather than being an exhaustive set of work, is how he explains it. An important level of consciousness.

Jennifer: It’s being hard on yourself, but not to the extent to where you tuck your tail behind your legs. It’s going to be hard, and you’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to probably get feedback that’s not comfortable. We’ve all been there.

The important thing is that resilience to come back the next day, like Wade says. Every day, it’s a muscle you’re building, your muscles are going to get sore if you’re really doing the work, right? It’s going to painful, and uncomfortable…. many people can’t choose when to be tired and when not to – it’s a constant state for them. So what I tell myself is what’s relatively easier as I go throughout my day, my work or the work of someone less privileged?

My privilege is that I came out as a member of the LGBTQ community when I was 22, but because of all of my other life circumstances, I didn’t fall far, I fell on a plush carpet. So what’s easier for me, even coming from a marginalized community, or several, wasn’t necessarily easier for members of my same community. That felt actionable to me, I can understand that, and maybe other leaders can understand that. We’re not trying to shame anyone, but we are saying that this is an opportunity to grow, not only as an inclusive leader, but as a leader in general. 

Women 2.0: Let’s end with one specific question. It could be meaningful for the audience – whether they’re in a leadership position or whether they’re trying to impact a leadership team or working within leadership, could you identify a few ways on how leadership can be a lot more effectively and engaged in this work? 

Jennifer: If you’re lucky enough to work for a company whose leadership is gung-ho on this stuff, that’s great. You may still have a lot of work to do if you’re in the middle of the leadership. There’s a reason we call it the “Frozen middle” in the consulting world, it’s where all change efforts go to die. I’m not ragging on middle management, but it’s sort of a known thing for those of us that do this work that things get very watered down as we travel from often times the top down.

Often times the top really gets this, which is interesting. When it travels down from the top, it gets watered down, the message gets lost, the business imperative gets lost, and things get buried in the day-to-day business of execution, execution, execution, which is so critical for the middle level. So, really the work we can all do at that level really matters.

You can strive to be an ally for inclusive behavior every day with your colleagues in every meeting you’re in, you can watch out for interruption, who’s ideas are being taken and passed off as someone else’s, who’s even sitting at the table and who wasn’t invited, where’s the diversity and how is it being managed.

We can all have someone’s back in meetings, meetings are one of those laboratories for inclusiveness, it’s where a lot of the worst behaviors happen, but it’s also where each of us can show courage in terms of monitoring for inclusion and using our voice, to make sure everyone feels welcome and included, and everyone is able to contribute and people’s ideas are valued. That process needs to be managed inclusively, and you don’t need to be the one with the most stripes in the room to raise the issues. You don’t have to do it in the room necessarily, but you can do things before and after – you can give feedback, you can ask someone to step up, you can give feedback to someone and say “Hey, here’s what I heard you do in that meeting, did you notice you did that?” so we can really be those inclusive leaders at all levels and make an impact on language, choices etc. Meetings is one place.

Recruitment is another space that’s important, where a lot of bias occurs. Whether it’s resumes getting passed over because someone’s name isn’t pronounceable, whether it’s people getting screened out because of their educational background, not having the right schools, whether there are salary histories being asked for that anchors them to the bottom part of a range of possible salaries. This is why we’re seeing the ruling state-by-state making it illegal to ask for salary history, because who does that hurt? It hurts those of us who don’t know how to negotiate salaries, and those of us who’ve been paid less historically through no fault of our own. Companies will take what they can get, sadly, when they can pay someone less.

So recruitment is a place where you can show you’re an inclusive leader, where you can advocate for certain best-practices relating to language used in job descriptions, which can be gendered. When the words “ninja” or “rockstar” show up, those have been shown to repel female talent, while words like collaborative have actually been shown to repel male talent. There are a lot of tools for this, just as Textio.

The third places that’s dastardly for inclusion is promotion and advancement. Who’s being looked at for promotion or a raise, who’s getting talked about and consider for stretch assignments, who’s being mentored or sponsored intentionally so someone is looking out for their career, and someone with power. This is why ERGs are really important because they’re an unofficial pipeline for talent. That’s talent that isn’t necessarily getting onto those plates, getting talked about, not necessarily being mentored in terms of using social capital, and are falling out of the funnel as they strive to move forward.

If you’re in those rooms, you can bring those things up, you can say “I don’t see this in the room, I don’t see that in the room. Why are we talking about her in that way, and et this other candidate with the same qualifications, we talk about hi differently.” There are a lot of opportunities to interrupt bias and use your voice for those who aren’t even in that room to begin with. That, to me, that’s what using your voice really looks like. If we can interrupt bias at all those places, I think we have a shot to shift those demographic in the workplaces.

But shifting demographics is a lagging indicator. Inclusion needs to come first, and we need to practice it consistently and in every process within the organization, and all of us need to be doing it so we can see a shift eventually in the demographic mix of the workforce. But it’s not the other way around. We really need to see that these circumstances are present, and that people know we have their back, and they’ll not only come but they’ll want to stay. That’s really the game, you want your talent to stay. To lose your talent is incredibly costly, and it’s also reputation ally a disaster.

Women 2.0: We always talk about how the numbers coming in don’t matter unless they’re still around in a couple of years. If you can’t support the numbers, it becomes wasted effort.


Question: You mentioned that leadership is extremely crucial. What if leadership isn’t fully bought in, and diversity and inclusion is largely built from the ground up, and sits on the minorities shoulders’ in the company?

Women 2.0: Ugh, that’s a common situation too! 

Jennifer: In small companies, this often will be the case. You’re in early stage, you’re drowning fast, everyone’s bailing water because you’re hiring, hiring, hiring. It can be a time when this topic is sort of to the side and not primarily or on the to do list.

The problem is that these types of companies are hiring and setting culture every day, and that really matters. Everything you do on a daily basis becomes magnified the bigger you get. When you’re not mindful of the talent you’re bringing in, and of the diversity you’re bringing in, it becomes harder to correct later on, the bigger you get. So in a way, it’s especially crucial. Your ability to attract more diverse culture across the board is set in these early days, when you’re still small and nimble and shaping yourself. And that’s hard to address when people aren’t paying attention.

I personally would find some champions that are in senior leadership. They’re there, but sometimes not vocal, or social enough. Sometimes they need to be asked to step forward, or told what to do in terms of what would make the biggest difference. So if you can find even one or two champions – and my guess is that you could find more – who would be willing to be executive champions, willing to be part of a diversity & inclusion council, the purpose of which is to drive this from the top and really ensure it stays on peoples’ radar screens – especially leaders’ radar screens.

They can start to push their peers to understand why this is a business imperative. They can speak that leadership language, which can sometimes be more risk management-focused, whereas other employees think of it as the right thing to do, and it’s a passion point, they just get it more viscerally. So line up potential allies, to really galvanize them, to equip them with the language, to approach them with the reasons why this is important and to create structures like councils made up of senior leaders – even if there are three or four or five people on it. Those are your sponsors your drivers from the top, so they can magnify everything you’re driving from the bottom up. They can take some of that some of that labor and translate it to the top of the house and then peer-to-peer influencing.

And, oh by the way, this has everything to do with our ability to attract and retain a workforce that looks like our customer base. If we don’t do that, we’re at major risk of being out of step from a perception perspective and from a reality perspective.

Definitely leverage those senior leaders, find them wherever you can, give them something to do, enlist them to leverage their positions and voice. What happens often with senior people is that they feel a level of peer pressure, and they feel like they need to get on board, or learn more about it, or want to see what their competitors are you doing. That’s often an effective lever to pull for senior leaders. Love them, they never want to fall behind from a competitive standpoint.

Question: You suggested leadership to join the Leadership Council. I always thought of that as the people of my company kind of group. Do you think it’s harmful to invite leadership to that group, or would that be a separate group? Our company is 1000 people and we have a few Employee Resource Groups, not a ton, but a few.

Jennifer: When I say “Diversity Council”, I mean a group of senior, cross-functional leaders. Some companies define it differently, and it’s multi-seniority. But I think as you grow, the ERGs have executive sponsors – and they should – dedicated to helping those groups be successful, remove obstacles for them, and brining their voice to the company. Those executive sponsors can also sit on a Diversity Council, which is a council ideally of their peers, in my definition.

The quality of help you need from the senior level is pretty different. Yes, they can be a part of the grassroots effort, and they should as a listener who steps forward when they’re invited to do so, but also continuing their own learning in that context.

But the senior council should be meeting separately, and should have their own strategy that they own, develop and drive together. And that’s holding leaders accountable, holding their directs accountable, and driving the metrics, whatever they are, to the middle of the organization. So you have a top-down energy and accountability, and you have a bottom-up energy around creating change and conversation. That’s the gold. Those executive leaders in a Diversity Council should be able to sit at their table and say “here’s what our community of this group feels about this”.

These D&I Councils are senior, peer-to-peer, cross-functional, and ideally they’re early-adopters. I’ve seen entire executive teams be appointed to this leadership council, and they’re just expected to be there.

Women 2.0: Thank you Jennifer! It was a pleasure having you and your expertise with us today.

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