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In Pursuit of Belonging

Experts weigh in on the conversation about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Feeling awash in the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) lately?

Recent events and social movements from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter have galvanized DEI efforts—and it’s a moment to seize, say BYU Marriott faculty members and experts from Microsoft, Qualtrics, and beyond. Numerous entities are professing new (or redoubled) dedication to the conversation and to change, broaching topics they had previously left untouched. Awareness has never been higher.

“The worst course a company can take is inaction,” says BYU Law alumna Sara Jones, CEO of InclusionPro. The costs of dodging DEI potentially include expensive lawsuits, employee turnover, and loss of customers.

As for action items, these experts have a few ideas on all things diversity, equity, and inclusion, plus a fourth pillar: belonging, which may be the holy grail of DEI. Create belonging, they say, and your organization can unlock the fruits promised in what is now a mountain of DEI research: gains in profit, innovation, customer loyalty, employee retention—the list goes on. Put simply in McKinsey’s 2020 report Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, “The business case for inclusion and diversity is stronger than ever.”

All of this is surpassed by the moral imperative, says BYU Marriott dean Brigitte Madrian: “The most important reason for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is to create a society where people are treated fairly. These are things we should be doing as disciples of Jesus Christ whether or not they impact the profitability of our organizations.”

Making the Investment

Identifying trends when it comes to DEI is difficult, says Shaun Boyle, a senior DEI program manager at Microsoft and a BYU Marriott MBA alum, because “every company—and every individual at every company—is in their own place in their DEI journey. What works for one may not work for all.”

But one thing he is seeing across the board is that companies are making the outlay. Clear evidence: the hiring of chief inclusion officers. According to LinkedIn, the job of the moment is one with a head-of-diversity title. DEI is becoming a C-suite staple. Furthermore, the last five years saw a 71 percent increase in DEI roles—jobs such as Boyle’s—and a survey of S&P 500 diversity professionals showed that the majority are recent hires filling brand-new positions.

“I can always tell if a company is ready to make real change by who contacts me,” Jones says of her clients. Diversity and inclusion strategies, she says, were once largely volunteer assignments added to the plate of an underling. But hearing from a senior leader or a chief diversity officer “shows they understand DEI as a true strategy versus a nice have,” Jones observes.

The existence of consulting groups such as Jones’s is another tell; McKinsey estimates companies spend a combined $8 billion on diversity and inclusion training annually, and budgets are expanding to include social justice marketing campaigns (think Nike’s “Don’t Do It”) and philanthropic contributions to social causes.

Company investments don’t have to be huge to be relevant. From his talks with employees in similar roles at other organizations, Boyle says what he is seeing most is new and increased investment in employee-led communities, often referred to as employee resource groups (ERGs). This grassroots type of investment gives employees the autonomy and resources to create internal solutions.

“When I think about progress in the work-place, I think about people across all levels of the company intentionally changing their behaviors for the betterment of others,” says Boyle.

Beyond Trainings: Getting Proximate

ERGs are one of the most ubiquitous and longstanding approaches companies have taken to help employees assemble in noncompulsory ways (you know, gatherings that don’t look like the perfunctory annual training). And ERGs are multiplying.

There are ERGs for every kind of affinity group. Qualtrics calls them Q groups, such as Q Pride, Q Race, and Q Gender. Some entities create these groups for veterans, some for different faith groups.

“These are not just a room where we can all go and complain,” says Ramon Zabriskie, the BYU Marriott professor who created a BYU Marriott class focused on diversity and belonging. He invites ERG leaders to the class, where they share how ERGs marshal campaigns and give crucial feedback to company leaders.

While ERGs support marginalized groups, the task of educating and enlisting the majority in DEI conversations remains. By and large, organizations still rely on things such as unconscious bias training or data-filled presentations, but the Harvard Business Review reports several studies that find that such trainings are often ineffective, especially when they’re mandatory. In fact, Zabriskie calls obligatory trainings “the anti-trend” of DEI. If there’s a lesson he’d share, it’s that the carrot is more effective than the stick.

In lieu of trainings, Zabriskie sees many companies designing experiences to combat unconscious bias. An example: the premeeting gathering. “What usually happens?” he asks. “Maybe the males in the room start talking about the big game, and plenty of folks in the room are not included, just by nature of that space and male privilege.” But, he says, “we can intentionally redesign that experience.”

He has seen organizations plan a gathering activity, such as a questionnaire, for people to jump right into as they arrive. “You can intentionally change even that tiny piece, those first five minutes, in a simple way to make a 1 percent change,” he says.

For Boyle, the most powerful lever is story-telling. “It’s one thing to learn about the concepts in DEI or to see the data,” he says, “but what often resonates deeply with people is when they hear real-life stories of their colleagues and friends, the ways they have experienced the world differently.”

Platforms for this kind of sharing range from smaller team meetings to online Zoom gatherings, and from in-house talent to guest speakers. General Mills, for example, brings in guest speakers from the community for this purpose in their ongoing Courageous Conversations. “We must recognize,” Boyle adds, “that no one is obligated to tell their story. We should ensure we are creating space for storytelling and not demanding it.”

It’s all about finding ways to “get proximate to people who aren’t like you,” says Ben Schilaty, a gay BYU Honor Code administrator who also teaches a university general-ed diversity and belonging class. He proposes ideas such as giving employees a few hours to interview and get to know someone, rotating lunch groups, or—to take the pressure off minority employees to be the educators—hosting an institutional book club with reads from varied walks of life. “It’s about walking into the discomfort together,” he says.

What Schilaty is seeing is more willingness than ever from individuals to be explicit in their allyship, and companies and organizations are providing visible ways to do so, be it pins to wear or a flag to display or a campaign to share. “Some might call it performative,” he says, “but it’s a way for people to show each other they are seen.”

Power in Accountability

Now more than ever, companies are setting and tracking DEI goals—and not just for the makeup of their staff. “People often think, ‘If we hire diversity, we’ll be inclusive.’ And that’s absolutely not true,” Jones says. “It requires engagement, being clear on the meaningful change you’re wanting to see. Is inclusion showing up in how our employees feel? Is it showing up in how we do business?”

The inclusion experience is inherently measurable, says Farren Roper, head of DEI at Qualtrics. The company’s survey software serves up a DEI snapshot, collecting real-time feedback from employees, breaking out the “employee feeling” by team, and aggregating the terms that come up most as concerns or strengths (compensation, environment, colleagues, etc.). “Using the right experience-management tools, companies can get a pulse on whether their employees feel a sense of belonging—and then act on that data,” says Roper, who notes that it’s the most effective idea he’s seen employed in DEI.

There’s a growing trend of transparency too, with an increasing number of companies publishing their DEI data publicly, including not only ethnicity and gender numbers but also retention, time before advancement, pay gaps, and representation in leadership. Fortune and others are ranking those who are sharing—a ranking that may matter more to younger employees and customers.

Perhaps the most stringent sign of DEI accountability: a zero-tolerance policy. “Companies have become much less forgiving of bad behavior from those in very visible positions,” says Madrian. A long list of casualties supports that statement, with recent NFL and Jeopardy! dismissals among the most publicized. Offensive comments, emails, or actions—even from years past—are no longer brushed under the rug. Madrian adds, “It’s a new trend that sends a strong signal.”

From Culture Fit to Culture Add

Artificial intelligence could remove humans from the hiring process altogether, or at least from the applicant screening, to prevent people’s gravitation to candidates most like themselves.

One approach, dubbed chunking, cuts applications up into sections, pasting alike sections for all candidates side by side, stripped of identifying information such as names, which could reveal gender or ethnicity. “It’s another strategy to remove the bias that just inherently creeps in,” says Madrian.

That bias even creeps into job descriptions. “One of the biggest obstacles in getting people in the door is how your job advertisements and expectations are written,” says Taeya Howell, a BYU Marriott assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources whose research focuses on gender.

Take the number of qualifications listed: a Hewlett Packard report shows that men will apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, while women tend to assume they need to meet 100 percent. There are even studies documenting how gendered words reduce the number of women who apply. “There are all sorts of specific words that send messages,” says Howell. Words such as challenge, compete, and direct create a more masculine expectation than collaborate, listen, and communicate. Being aware of even these small differences can make a significant impact on a company’s DEI efforts.

Companies are also reevaluating where they advertise jobs and recruit talent. Madrian can attest to that. “We’ve seen companies change the schools they’re recruiting at,” she says, skipping BYU in favor of, say, a historically Black college, or halving their BYU-grad hires in an effort to meet their diversity goals. (Other recruiters, she adds, have shared that they value the diversity BYU students bring in faith, second languages, and global experience.)

Companies are doing this, says Zabriskie, with the goal of broadening the hiring pool as much as possible, to cast the net wider so it is more likely to include individuals of different genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations—to “open the funnel,” he explains. “And then you hire for the best candidate. It’s as simple as that.”

As for the best candidate, there’s a new line of thinking in DEI, says Roper: it’s no longer about the best culture fit. “Fit” has long been used to reject a job applicant, a nebulous conclusion that could be masking a subconscious bias, he says. People may say things such as “They came across weird” or “I can’t see myself going to lunch with this person.”

Zabriskie says that we need to stop asking if a potential hire is a good fit and start asking questions that lead to building better teams. An example might be “What skills or perspectives are currently missing from my team?”

The new focus? Culture add. “Culture add enhances our culture,” says Roper.

Belonging Is a Process

The experts also acknowledge that this is an inflection point; there is momentum, yes, but for some, there is fatigue and terminology saturation.

“I am often working with leaders who have seen many different versions of DEI over their lifetime,” says Jones. “They think I’m here to tell them how bad they are and to make them employ unqualified people purely on a diversity basis when really what I specialize in is the humanizing process.”

For Jones, the goal of DEI is “to build relationships as a human being and to want to see others get opportunities, just like I would any human being.” If you get there, she says, coined terms such as mentor, sponsor, and ally fade. Leaders already know how to sponsor, she says; they do it all the time. They just need to open their apertures to spot and cultivate talent across the spectrum. The terms serve to acknowledge the gaps.

“The trick,” says Howell, “is to get people to think about how their unconscious bias might affect them without triggering defense mechanisms.” It’s easy for people to not care about things they have never known people personally to experience, she says. “It comes down to personalizing it, to focusing on the relationships and then getting people to think about these questions and come up with their own answers and solutions. That kind of individual autonomy is so important for change and motivation.”

Which brings up the newest DEI term: belonging. This fourth pillar, as Zabriskie calls it, involves making sure everyone “can bring their authentic self to work.

“The biggest trend right now,” he says, “is truly understanding the sense of belonging and realizing this is a process, that all four of these things—diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging—work together.”

Diversity, he explains, is the start: having multiple identities present. Equity is recognizing not everyone got the same start and identifying and dismantling barriers. Inclusion is ensuring all individuals are involved, that everyone’s ideas matter. And belonging engages the full potential of every person because, with a sense of belonging, individuals are no longer “wearing masks, exerting energy trying to blend in,” says Zabriskie.

“Until you establish a real, meaningful culture of belonging,” he says, “of truly caring about individuals—not what they do, not their expertise, but who they are—until you do that, you won’t have the sense of belonging that fosters exponential benefits for your organization.”

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Written by Brittany Rogers
Artwork by Alex Williamson


About the Author
Brittany Rogers worked as an editor at BYU Magazine for 13 years and is now a freelance writer in American Fork, Utah, where she lives with her husband and three children. Three ACL surgeries later, she still hasn’t given up skiing or soccer.

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Belonging at BYU Marriott

It had to be a priority. That was the overwhelming sense Brigitte Madrian had about diversity, equity, and belonging (DEB) when she stepped in as the new dean of BYU Marriott. Efforts had long taken place via committee, and the topic was touched on in various classes. But the effort needed a champion.

“If you want to change the culture, you need a champion at the top, a champion in leadership,” says Madrian. “I felt like I could do it. And frankly, it’s something I think people would be surprised if, as the first female dean, I didn’t do.”

Her first step: putting DEB on the agenda of every meeting. With increased conversation, new ideas and initiatives have unfurled, including a new student association, a new class, and a brand-new administrative position, BYU Marriott’s first-ever manager of inclusion and diversity.

Here’s a list of the efforts underway:

A “Caretaker” of DEB. That’s how Madrian describes the role of Staci Carroll, BYU Marriott’s inclusion and diversity manager. Carroll began in March 2020 with two charges: (1) to create and support a new inclusion student association and (2) to lead the school’s longstanding DEB Committee, made up of rotating faculty and staff, in identifying the best next steps.

Inclusion Association. BYU Marriott already had several student associations for women, and the university has a palette of clubs for students of varying backgrounds and identities. But the new Marriott Inclusion in Business Society ensures a Marriott home and “targeted support,” says Carroll, for students in any minority. These students work closely with Carroll to plan campaigns and events.

DEI Class. Experience design and management (ExDM) professor Ramon Zabriskie created an all-DEI class to be offered not only at BYU Marriott but to all BYU students. “The need has always been there,” says Zabriskie, who was motivated by more than a decade of working with populations with disabilities or mental health challenges, in addition to having a gay brother and a transgender child. With rave student ratings, the popular and transformative course is now an ExDM major requirement, and Madrian thinks it’s wonderful for BYU Marriott students to have such a course available to them.

Speaker Series. They had to be virtual—thanks, pandemic—but BYU Marriott hosted three speaker series on diversity and unity in the last year, including one featuring a diverse student panel that provided feedback to an audience of faculty members. “Faculty members are the ones who really have influence here in creating a sense of belonging or not belonging,” says Carroll.

Mental Health for Minority Students. In conjunction with the push for DEB, Madrian has prioritized mental health awareness at BYU Marriott and has hired a wellness professional, Shannon Tappana, just for the school. Tappana has led a series of events discussing the extra stresses minority students carry.

Tracking Metrics. BYU is not known for its diversity, but the BYU Marriott DEB Committee is tracking numbers for the student body, following things such as admittance and graduation rates, how long students take to graduate, and how many classes they retake.

Pervasive Accountability. This is the initiative Madrian says she is most excited about, “having every single full- and part-time employee take responsibility for what they can do within their domain.” In their annual one-on-one performance evaluations with managers, all BYU Marriott employees are now asked to share what they’ve done for DEB and what they are planning to do. The DEB Committee shared a three-page list with things employees could do.

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