As the concept of belonging becomes more mainstream in corporate settings, I am constantly reflecting on how powerful a single moment can be in changing someone’s life. All it takes is one inclusive or exclusionary behavior to change how someone feels about a person, team, institution or company. Whether you’re responsible for a team of people or an entire organization, it’s important to recognize the power each of us holds to create positive moments of belonging.
In thinking about a moment of belonging in my own life, I look back at the first 32 years of my career. Working in financial services, I spent the first half of my working life building an image of myself that I thought the world wanted to see. This person was an outgoing young man who loved camping, cars and travel. But that wasn’t the complete picture. I am also gay.
This one dimension of who I am doesn’t define my entire being, but it did make me fearful of how I might be treated — consciously or not. So, I decided to repress it in conversations with colleagues about weekend plans or discussions about spouses or families. There was only so far that I could take my relationships at work.
It wasn’t until my boss began openly talking about an LGBTQ+ event he attended during Halloween that all of this changed. He asked if I had ever participated in a similar event. It struck me at that moment that, gay or not, he was signaling his openness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.
That moment altered the trajectory of my entire career.
I began feeling more comfortable bringing my partner to work functions and living more openly. I created a richer connection with my colleagues and ultimately excelled professionally as a result of feeling that I could bring my whole self to work each day.
Later on, I paid that same attitude forward as I grew more senior within my roles; colleagues’ differences became the fuel to our success. The more they leaned into the things that made them unique, the more authentic they became, and the happier our customers were.
To me, this is the ultimate power that belonging can have within organizations. Although there’s a lot more to my story, today, I am so proud to help think through and implement new ways to create an inclusive culture at one of America’s largest banks.
How can a company, team or person contribute to making belonging a real and tangible inclusive experience for people at work? Although this is not exhaustive, I’ve outlined a few thought starters below.
The Quick Bottom-Line on Belonging:
Create opportunities to learn and challenge existing beliefs: A large part of building successful teams is creating opportunities for learning. Since every employee views the world differently and decisions are often influenced by personal beliefs and experiences (consciously or not), it is important that we challenge each other through education and awareness. It’s all about finding ways to experience the world through someone else’s shoes.
At Citizens, we are constantly bringing in outside perspectives to widen our understanding of various issues. For example, in the spirit of Pride Month, we recently hosted Matthew Shepard’s mother to talk about Matthew’s story. Although listening to her family’s experience was difficult for many to hear, it also ignited learning. For us, creating those “aha!” moments through our “Ignite Inclusion” program is a way we widen exposure and execute inclusion training to help our people shape their practical experiences and acquire a new body of knowledge.
Keep talking and walking the distance: There’s no singular way to fully achieve belonging, but embedding the values of your organization into the culture can come through the behaviors of senior leaders, the way we compensate and reward employees, industry alliances, written communications, town halls or even employee forums we participate in and facilitate. It’s important to keep talking and walking to hold ourselves, our colleagues and our leaders accountable to create an ecosystem that supports change and growth.
My own experience has prompted me to ensure we are building a diverse, inclusive and high-performing culture where everyone feels valued, respected and heard, and feels a strong sense of belonging. Part of this commitment includes ensuring our compensation and benefits are fair and competitive for all colleagues. To do so, we’ve implemented compensation decisions based on a blend of individual, business unit and Citizens’ overall performance — in addition to annual training for managers and engaging a third-party to annually review colleague pay to ensure equal pay is received for equal work.
Supercharge your BRGs to create commercial change: For many years, organizations have created business or employee resource groups (BRGs) as a voluntary place for individuals of common interests, backgrounds or demographic factors to connect. By leveraging the collective knowledge, resources and brainpower of these groups — while avoiding cancel culture — employees can be supercharged to constructively create programs, plans and products on behalf of the company.
For example, at Citizens, our Pride BRG was responsible for implementing inclusive language provisions. Their recommendation prompted the bank to add pronouns to emails and update the language in all corporate materials to reflect diverse family formations — using words that encompass all gender identities rather than just two.
The ways we harness our differences to create inclusive experiences can change the lives of people we’d least expect. It also has tangible power to make a lasting impact on the businesses we work for, the customers we serve and the communities we operate in.
My first moment of belonging truly changed my career. Whether you’ve had a similar moment or not, I hope we can all commit to creating similar moments for those already in our workforce — and those who soon will be. Whatever our roles or positions, it’s an exciting opportunity we all have the chance to offer, and the rewards it can bring about are virtually endless.
About the Author
Mike Sebring is based in New York and is the Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Citizens Bank, a 2021 DiversityInc Top 50 Noteworthy company.