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Belonging at work: 3 ways to improve diversity management 

This article was updated on December 8, 2023.

Claire O'Brien

Written by Claire O'Brien

Kelly Hermann

Reviewed by Kelly Hermann, MSED, Vice President, Accessibility, Equity and Inclusion

Diversity manager speaking to a group of employees in an office; image is tagged to show this is a "Contributor blog"

At a glance

  • Recently, the scope of diversity management has expanded from diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) to include belonging (DEIB).
  • DEI refers to an organization’s attempt at creating a safe environment for individuals to contribute authentically in the workplace. A sense of belonging should be the outcome of those efforts.
  • Managers can promote belonging at work by creating an inclusive culture, highlighting “collaborative teamwork” and encouraging open conversations with safe spaces.
  • University of Phoenix is committed to promoting diversity and inclusion. Learn more about our Inclusive Leadership Summit and cultural webinar series!

The role of diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Ask anyone who’s anxiously waited to be picked for the schoolyard kickball game, and you’ll know just how important it is to feel like you belong on the team.

The anxiety of not being picked for the kickball team is not so different from the insecurity employees face in a non-inclusive workplace. For example, research reveals that non-inclusive workplaces for LGBT employees specifically are linked to reduced productivity, high attrition rates and low employee morale.

On the flip side, higher levels of equality, diversity and inclusion are associated with lots of good stuff, including greater innovation, productivity and performance, talent recruitment and retention, and workforce well-being.

So, if creating inclusive workplaces is the ethical thing to do while also helping the bottom line, why did it take so long for America’s workplaces to figure it out?

While diversity management, the model organizations use to promote diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) in the workplace, has been around for more than 30 years, adding the concept of belonging (DEIB) is a recent development in this area.

After the 2020 death of George Floyd unleashed a nationwide movement on the issue of racial inequality, combined with the Great Resignation effect of the COVID pandemic, many American companies pledged their commitment to diversity initiatives. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives have been criticized as performative and failing to effect real change or lead to a true sense of belonging for employees.

Workplace culture experts believe real change can be achieved, however, and a focus on belonging is the key. Here, Dr. Kimberly Underwood, a leading expert on inclusive leadership policies, weighs in on how. 

What is DEIB?

If an organization truly values its commitment to workplace diversity, both management and employees must understand the values needed to create a truly inclusive environment. Let’s level-set quickly with a look at the terms:

Diversity: A diverse workplace recruits and hires team members who represent a range of differences in nationality, race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, and mental and physical abilities, among other factors.

Equity: An equitable place to work is one in which every employee is afforded fair treatment, access and advancement. Equity often involves issues regarding historically disadvantaged groups and how to ensure no one group has an advantage over another. This is not the same thing as “equality,” mind you. Equity attempts to balance unfair advantages. 

Inclusion: An organization that values inclusivity makes efforts for every team member to feel valued, heard and welcome, regardless of their background or identity. Examples of inclusivity may include:

  • Using gender-neutral language (and restrooms)
  • Offering flexible and remote work options
  • Rotating meeting times
  • Creating mentoring programs for employees

Belonging: Belonging in the workplace is achieved when employees have such a deep connection to each other and the organization they feel both seen and heard in their contributions.

At its essence, DEIB refers to an organization’s attempt to create an environment where individuals feel secure to bring their authentic selves; belonging is the success of those efforts.

Why is belonging so important?

While adding “B” to “DEI” may seem redundant, belonging is one of humanity’s most critical needs with powerful psychological implications. Researchers have found that when humans can’t meet their need for belonging, they suffer from profound mental and physical health problems.

At work, we’re so hardwired for connection that belonging is a crucial factor in individual and organizational success. And as our workforces grow in diversity, workplace cultures that promote belonging will become only more critical.

Underwood, who is the University research chair at the Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Research at University of Phoenix (UOPX), recently published a white paper summarizing the trend to include belonging in DEIB initiatives. In “Belonging: A New Era in Diversity Management Strategy,” she provides recommendations for organizational leaders looking to maximize the effectiveness of their diversity management efforts. Let’s take a look at her conclusions.

3 ways managers can promote belonging at work 

1.   Create an inclusive culture

An inclusive culture is the foundation: A sense of belonging within any organization can’t be built without it. However, good intentions and a party planning committee alone won’t suffice — leaders must proactively take steps to align their culture with their DEIB goals.

“Diversity management must expand beyond simply providing diversity training or relying on the ‘3 F’s’: food, fun and festivals. Diversity management involves strategies, policies and practices that are aligned with an organization’s mission and goals,” Underwood explains. 

2.   Promote collaborative teamwork

Collaborative teamwork is actually a mashup of two concepts: collaboration, or when a group of people, each with different skills, works together to produce something; and teamwork, referring to the qualities (like listening and reliability) involved when a team works together well. Put the two together, and you get a team that values each group member’s unique skill set as well as a cohesive group that can solve a problem efficiently.

Managers should encourage working relationships that foster collaborative teamwork and generously acknowledge examples when observed. “When leaders highlight collaborative teamwork, this provides an opportunity to spotlight team members willing to work together and serves as a blueprint for other team members to follow in the future,” explains Underwood.

3.   Encourage a safe space for open conversations

Having conversations that may be difficult is an essential part of promoting belonging in the workplace.

“Leaders should create a safe space for these types of conversations and be willing to act upon them, as needed,” advises Underwood. Establishing guidelines, such as listening without interrupting, allowing everyone to speak and avoiding disrespectful language, is essential to set the stage for a productive conversation about diversity in organizations.

Leaders should also expect and encourage different viewpoints. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of those in management and chief executive positions identify as white. So, it’s crucial to recognize that even if leaders have not encountered a particular experience themselves, it doesn’t mean the experience doesn’t exist for others in the same organization.

Creating a non-threatening environment where these conversations can occur is vital for any leader who wants to promote diversity and inclusion. Welcoming all contributions at a brainstorming session rather than trying to find the “right” answer may be a helpful way to present group discussions, for example.

As workforces continue to become increasingly diverse, it’s to be expected that DEIB strategies will evolve. To this end, Underwood states that “leaders must maintain the momentum gained in recent years and continue to keep DEIB as a strategic focus — specifically the emerging emphasis on the importance of belonging, which requires a commitment to humanistic and caring leadership, as well as the needs of the employees.”

Diversity management is not a “one and done” process, explains Underwood. “The role of the conductor within an orchestra is to ensure all musicians are playing in harmony. The same goes for organizational leaders.”

Claire O'Brien


Claire O’Brien has led copywriting teams for Hilton Worldwide Corporate’s creative studio and advertising agencies specializing in the real estate, hospitality, education and travel industries. In 2020, she founded More Better Words, a boutique copywriting agency that taps into her global connections. She lives in Costa Rica with her husband and six rescue dogs.

Headshot of Kelly Hermann


As Vice President, Accessibility, Equity and Inclusion, Kelly Hermann leads services to students with disabilities, digital accessibility initiatives and the Office of Educational Equity. She chairs the special interest group for online learning and distance education for the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and the accessibility task force for 1Ed Tech and frequently presents on the topic for AHEAD, OLC, WCET and other national organizations.


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.


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