Do You Belong At Work? By Debra Nelson

A white store manager’s 9-1-1 call to police about two black men sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop implied that they did not belong. The subsequent arrest of the pair set off a nationwide discussion about implicit bias, giving the world a birds-eye view of what many people of color experience in the U.S.

While many corporations focus on creating workplaces that attract and promote diverse people and talents, others are still slow to recognize that people with different perspectives and experiences expand the wealth of ideas and problem-solving capabilities available to them. In addition, studies show that companies with diverse leadership at the board and executive levels outperform those that don’t. But still, corporate diversity and inclusion practices alone might not be enough to retain the most talented and skilled employees, especially if workers feel as though they don’t belong.

Belonging feels differently for different people. Consider, James, a 36-year-old African American production manager who joined a majority white male work team. He was the first black male ever to hold the position in the company. With impeccable credentials and skills, there was not any reason to think that James would not be successful. However barely two months on the job, he quit.

James said he was turned off by the team’s unspoken culture of socializing during weekend hunting trips. As a result, he felt excluded during the Monday morning huddles when his teammates shared their hunting pursuits. He felt like a misfit. James’ manager never knew the team’s culture influenced his decision to leave the company.

Then there is Doris. She joined a startup, performing various jobs during the company’s early days. As new employees joined the team, she began training, mentoring and supporting their development. She felt as though she belonged. In time, she gained confidence in her abilities and began to pursue promotion opportunities with the growing company.

Unfortunately, her efforts did not yield favorable outcomes, and she was not advised about how to enhance her performance or improve her chances for promotion. Undeterred, she continued to make meaningful contributions until those that she trained began to move into positions above her. She mentally started to check out and eventually left the company.

Had Doris teammates been skilled at driving a culture of belonging, they might have been inclined to support her ambitions by reaching out and offering to help her. Alternatively, if James’ employer had known that its ‘good ole boy’ culture was a turn-off, it might have found other ways to counter that perception without thwarting the camaraderie experienced by the other team members.


Despite the best intentions of formal corporate diversity programs, minority and diverse employees may experience corporate cultures differently than their white counterparts. They report difficulty finding sponsors and mentors, and they say inclusion is often a program rather than a practice.

Fortunately, belonging is evolving as a strategy to engage all employees more meaningfully at work. In recent years, companies like LinkedIn and Accenture have become champions of this effort. What is belonging? Some describe it as an expansion of diversity and inclusion work that encourages organizations to become more intentional about helping employees feel that their contributions matter.

For others, it is the missing link in diversity and inclusion. Simply put, belonging is defined as having a positive emotional attachment to an organization or mission. It can be a critical factor that may determine whether a person joins, stays or leaves an organization. Because it does not occur automatically in organizations, the ability to impart a sense of belonging is a skill that most organizations and leaders need to learn.

One of my most exhilarating experiences with belonging was with Mercedes-Benz U.S. International. During the start-up phase for the new company, the leaders were very intentional about engaging me and other employees in business matters related to the enterprise.

The goal was to deepen our understanding of the global automotive industry and enable us to represent the company’s interests in a new country and state. This level of inclusion was brand new to me. I’d had great jobs and responsibilities previously, but not one at which I had responsibility for helping shape a company’s culture and operations at the ground-floor level. I felt totally vested in the outcome, which was the opening of a global manufacturing facility that would mass produce world-class automotive vehicles and employ thousands of people.

At the outset, Mercedes-Benz was intentional about creating a unified work environment that was culturally and racially diverse. It developed a team mantra “Nothing but the best for our customers. Let’s do our best together” to highlight the importance of quality, productivity and teamwork. This strategy helped bridge cultural gaps between American and German workers. It also instilled a sense of connection and belonging among employees.


As a practice, belonging is not particularly difficult to implement. That’s because human beings are hard-wired to belong. This is evident in how we engage with our churches, sports teams, social organizations, and communities. We take pride in our tribes and build allegiances to people and perspectives that align with our worldview.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow describes belonging as a basic human need. In the Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow said social needs such as love, acceptance and belonging drive the need for emotional relationships, which in turn, drive human behavior. According to research conducted by psychologists Geoff McDonald at the University of Toronto and Mark R. Leary at Duke University, individuals who have a sense of belonging feel accepted, welcomed and included.

Consequently, they are more likely to experience positive emotions such as happiness, satisfaction and productivity at work.

Successful belonging is aided by the skills and personalities of the people involved. However, a single act by a biased supervisor or unaware employee could derail the best-laid plans for inclusion and engagement.


As I’ve moved about in my career, I’ve found a universal truth: It takes time to acclimate to a new corporate culture. Managers can be crucial partners in this phase. While onboarding programs are key, it is important for the manager to assume a hands-on approach at the onset of a new employee’s career. This includes making informal and formal introductions on behalf of the employee. In my coaching practice, I once worked with a client who was experiencing issues with her internal clients. It became apparent that her role and scope had not been properly communicated in her new organization. No one understood why she needed information from them. This was problematic because she depended on others to get her job done.

It should be noted that it is not the manager’s responsibility alone to create a sense of belonging. Everyone in the organization can support a belonging culture. For example, belonging is fostered when you reach out by phone or email to welcome a new team member. Within a few days, you could follow-up to see how the employee is transitioning, set up a lunch appointment or invite them to a meeting. For new executives, these gestures can be extremely helpful and welcoming.

During my corporate career, I would sometimes place handwritten welcome notes on the desks of new employees. Their fellow team members would co-sign the note. These actions created goodwill and fostered belonging.

It is not uncommon for people of color and other minorities to privately say that they feel like outsiders at work. Though functioning successfully in their roles, they don’t necessarily experience a sense of total belonging. This may be revealed in responses to the question: Do you bring your whole self to work?

It is common to hear about the proliferation of organizational silos. To mitigate these invisible corporate structures, employees could participate in formal and informal mentoring programs. People of color are encouraged to take on these opportunities. In addition, teams should set aside time to get to know each other. While group luncheons, dinners, and birthday celebrations are appropriate, these activities work best when initiated by an individual, rather than dictated by management.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to others who look, sound, speak or have different experiences and opinions from yours. You could make an invaluable connection and even learn something new. In my experience, the beneficiaries of your outreach will pay it forward, and before you know it, you will have created a culture of belonging for yourself and others.


Debra Nelson is President of Elevate Communications, a professional development and communication services firm. She is a coach and certified facilitator of Korn Ferry’s Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI), and she consults and speaks on topics related to diversity and inclusion, leadership, personal branding, and women’s empowerment.


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