How to build a D&I strategy to drive belonging and deepen engagement

Posted on: February 11, 2022Updated on: April 18, 2024By: Andrea Miller

A sense of belonging at work is important. It not only makes the job more enjoyable for employees that want to connect with their teams, but high belonging in the workplace is also linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk and a 75% reduction in sick days. Cultivating friendships on the job is also a useful strategy in preventing workplace burnout, which disproportionately affects frontline associates.

Unfortunately, despite money and time being poured into Diversity & Inclusion initiatives in recent years, 40% of people still report feeling isolated at work. This means a critical opportunity for organizations to do better by their employees is being left on the table.

Two warehouse employees

During AxoniCom LIVE 2021, Dave D’Oyen, National Lead at Black Exporters and Natasha Kassim, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at RBC Financial Group, lead a session dedicated to learning about the value of implementing D&I strategies across the frontline so every employee feels like they belong. Their chat offered many insights into the inherent challenges and ultimate benefits of a strong D&I strategy.

Leveraging local nuance to shape D&I strategy

Developing and delivering a new D&I strategy can be daunting, especially for organizations starting from scratch. For large-scale, geographically-diverse businesses, driving these initiatives forward when they’re not familiar with their communities’ demographics can be a money suck—pouring resources into one-off training days and keynote speakers that don’t often make a measurable difference.

Kassim points out that moving past the complexities of kickstarting a new strategy begins with reframing how we view D&I in the workplace: are these policies really any more difficult to implement than others?

When her team at RBC wanted to answer this question, they reached out to local leaders from within the communities to get started.

“We need to understand the demographics of the communities and adjust our initiatives according to the needs of those communities,” says Kassim. “Right now, in all the jurisdictions where we operate, we also have diversity leadership councils and employee resource groups that are made up of local employee volunteers who would advise senior leaders accordingly. And because they’re local employees, they would have a pulse on the communities where we live and operate and therefore, they would bring that local community nuance or the local country nuance to the initiatives that are necessary to drive D&I strategy at that local level.”

Each community culture is inherently unique and that extends to the workforce. A truly inclusive employee culture stems from acknowledging and respecting these differences, adjusting and adapting strategies wherever necessary so every associate can feel seen, heard and accepted at work.

Hiring through the lens of diversity and inclusion

Once you understand your workforce’s specific needs, you’ll be better equipped to attract diverse candidates.

Reflect on your recruitment process: Do you take steps to eliminate bias (unconscious or otherwise), as much as possible? Where are your candidates typically sourced from and does it overlook certain diverse, qualified candidates?

It’s in the business’ best interest to ask these tough questions: organizations that employ people of different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations and education levels are 87% better at making decisions than those that don’t. Their teams are also more creative and professionally enriched.

Kassim says although many leading organizations tend to go the well-traveled route during their talent search, RBC chose to broaden their new-hire pool.

“We’ve expanded our sourcing strategies to include historically Black colleges and universities, so that we were able to reach out and attract more diverse candidates into our workforce,” says Kassim. “There is that opportunity to really stop and think about the sources or where we’re sourcing candidates from and to rethink how we can expand into non-traditional [options].”

Creating a safe space for employees to share their lived experiences

Race-based violence is undoubtedly a sensitive topic but having conversations across your organization when tragic global events happen, and addressing them in the right way, can help people feel safer and seen at work.

D’Oyen specifically points to the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and the “global wave of activism and advocacy [that highlighted] the experiences of Black folks, how deeply embedded anti-Black racism still is in society” and in Canada, “the discoveries of mass graves or unmarked graves for [Indigenous] students who attended residential schools” as incidents that necessecitated difficult dialogues.

For Kassim and RBC, that meant listening and learning.

“After the tragic death of George Floyd, we embarked on a series of uncomfortable conversations across the organization. And those have since evolved into regular listening sessions that are often led by the senior leaders of the organization as a means of hearing directly from employees about their lived experiences.”

Those discussions actually led to an organizational plan, RBC’s Action To Address Systemic Racism, which was made public on July 6th, 2020.

“They are a series of actions that as an organization that we said we were committing ourselves to—one of those being to roll out mandatory anti-racism training across the global workforce. On a more tactical level, some of the key lessons are in the areas of creating a safe, trusting space for employees to engage in a dialogue. Participants were encouraged to suspend judgment by assuming positive intent, be open and transparent, to embrace humble listening and to commit to learning and growing further.”

“It was very important for the leaders that are hosting these listening sessions and uncomfortable conversations to demonstrate empathy by listening and asking questions to understand, not necessarily to respond.”

Taking action shows your employees that you’re committed to making greater inclusion and elimination of discriminatory behaviors a priority. It also helps to address and acknowledge the internal and external barriers that exist beyond the workplace.

Starting from a place of empathy and being open to the varied stories of lived experiences—humbly listening and learning—while creating space for all people is the first step toward creating a culture of belonging and deepened engagement propelled by investing in D&I.

Andrea Miller