articles Corporate /en/research-insights/articles/the-essential-podcast-episode-27-belonging-at-work-the-business-case-for-equity-inclusion content esgSubNav
In This List

The Essential Podcast, Episode 27: Belonging at Work — The Business Case for Equity & Inclusion

Why Bank of America says Scope 3 emissions biggest challenge for banks

How the largest US pension fund uses its financial power to influence corporate ESG performance

Climate disclosures are increasing in the US but still far from what the SEC has proposed

Unpacking implications of the SEC's proposed climate disclosure rule

The Essential Podcast, Episode 27: Belonging at Work — The Business Case for Equity & Inclusion

About this Episode

Who feels that they belong at work, and who feels excluded? Julia Taylor Kennedy, Executive Vice President at COQUAL, joins the Essential Podcast to discuss COQUAL’s groundbreaking global research that sought answers to these questions.

The Essential Podcast from S&P Global is dedicated to sharing essential intelligence with those working in and affected by financial markets. Host Nathan Hunt focuses on those issues of immediate importance to global financial markets – macroeconomic trends, the credit cycle, climate risk, energy transition, and global trade – in interviews with subject matter experts from around the world.

Listen and subscribe to this podcast on our Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, Deezer, and our podcast page

Show Notes
  • Companies and investors around the world are confronting unprecedented economic and social disruption by prioritizing and promoting social justice through environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors—echoing calls for more workplace diversity and greater investment in social and green bonds. Read our Social Justice as a Social Factor special report.


Nathan Hunt: This is the Essential Podcast from S&P Global. My name is Nathan Hunt. What does it mean to belong? To feel you have a place?

Julia Taylor Kennedy: Belonging at work is really rooted in four core elements. You belong when you feel seen for your unique contributions, connected to your coworkers, supported in your daily work and career development, and proud of your organization's values and purpose.

Nathan Hunt: Abraham Maslow believed that belonging was so fundamental to human beings that he placed it on his hierarchy of needs just above safety and security. It's true that all of us feel like outsiders from time to time. But what does it mean to belong at work? Who gets included and who feels left out? Are there groups who are always feeling like outsiders? That is the question I'd like to tackle with my guests today.

Julia Taylor Kennedy: I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president at Coqual, a nonprofit research think tank that studies diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Nathan Hunt: So Julia, welcome to the essential podcast. Give me some background about Coqual, about your organization.

Julia Taylor Kennedy: So Coqual is a nonprofit research think tank we're based in New York. We were formerly known as the center for talent innovation. We just rebranded a few months ago. So people may know us by that other name, but we've been around for almost 17 years now, studying issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and then we also work directly with companies to put some of our ideas into practice. So we have this great feedback loop between the ideas that we're researching and interviewing and surveying leaders and professionals on and then also practicing and learning from that as we put these ideas out into the field. We have a membership base of about 80 large companies. Uh, so that also helps us kind of keep a pulse on what companies are experimenting with what's working, and what some of the challenges are in this very nuanced field.

Nathan Hunt: What motivated the name change?

Julia Taylor Kennedy: We were getting increasingly bold and action-oriented in the research and the recommendations we were making to companies. This is a space that has evolved a lot and has moved from kind of wanting to understand work-life balance primarily for parents and for women and to understand the dynamics around gender in the workplace too very quickly, actually, we started studying people of different racial and ethnic and cultural backgrounds as part of our work. But as we got bolder in our recommendations and in our approach, we wanted to really bring in the themes of equity and equality into our core name and mission and signal to the world. We weren't merely a center sort of throwing around ideas, but that we were actually looking to drive equity and ultimately equality among all professionals in the workplace. And so that's, what's underneath our name, change to Coqual.

Nathan Hunt: What I would really like to dive into today is this work you have been doing, and you have been leading around the idea of belonging. Tell me what is belonging from a workplace perspective and why does it matter?

Julia Taylor Kennedy: Our last year of research has really focused on this topic of belonging and the reason we wanted to explore it and its relevance. Just group over the period of time, we were looking at it. We entered into the research study because we saw companies using this term belonging and we saw it in the cultural zeitgeist too. You know, Michelle Obama used the term belonging in her memoir becoming, we saw rhetoric around 'I want to find a place that I belong. I now see it all over our culture. But especially interesting to us, given the work we do is that we saw more and more companies talking about fostering a sense of belonging for their employees related to work in diversity, equity, and inclusion. And we thought that was really interesting and potentially really exciting to say. We don't want to just include those who weren't included. We don't want to kind of just expand the way workplaces are supportive of people, of all backgrounds. We want to make sure that every single employee feels they belong here, that they have a place here at this company. What we didn't see out there was a good definition of what belonging means in the workplace. At the top of the show, you talked about how belonging appears on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs that all of us as humans need a sense of belonging and purpose and connection with others in order to feel validated and to sort of contributing our all belonging has been studied in many different community contexts, whether it's your church or your neighborhood or your school. But it hasn't been studied that much or defined that well in the workplace. When you think about, well, what does it really mean to belong to my employer? Especially in a context where, you know, there is a transaction underneath working somewhere, there wasn't a lot out there. So we thought, okay, this is a perfect opportunity for research because we see companies using the term, but using it in a lot of different ways and without a great definition, And then, of course, COVID-19 happened and people suddenly lost those other communities that they use to gather where they sometimes get validation and that sense of belonging. And so a lot of the validation people are getting is from their colleagues and from their workplace, which is sometimes the primary human interaction we're getting day today. If we're privileged enough to be able to work in this time. And so the stakes went up even further on this research we were doing around belonging. We created a way to measure belonging in the workplace and use that measurement as the basis for our definition of belonging at work, based on the research we conducted, we came up with a definition that belonging at work is really rooted in four core elements. You belong when you feel seen for your unique contributions, connected to your coworkers, supported in your daily work and career development, and proud of your organization's values and purpose. So there's both this kind of intrinsic sense of belonging, an extrinsic sense of belonging, the intrinsic one you're proud to be where you are, and the extrinsic, how you're treated by others. And how others build a bridge to belonging with you.

Nathan Hunt: I find this notion of belonging fascinating. And I want to just introduce the idea here that belonging is not just a pleasant, emotional state, that the absence of belonging would actually be very very difficult. It would introduce huge amounts of stress to go to a place every day where you fundamentally felt you did not belong there. We've seen a huge amount of research, especially this year on the effects of chronic stress on the brain and the body, how large amounts of cortisol just end up pumping through your system. So this isn't just about people's feelings being hurt. This becomes fundamental to their lives.

Julia Taylor Kennedy: Absolutely. And that really do to show up in our data. And we use that scale and that definition to guide the research, we then conducted a global survey, dozens of interviews, and focus groups to really understand some of those questions you raised earlier. Also, Nathan around, who's more likely to feel they belong based on their identity and background. We saw that employees who have high belonging at work are far more likely to be engaged day to day, far more likely to recommend their company is a good place to work far more likely to intend to stay. So all kinds of these really important talent engagement outcomes when you feel you belong. And then on the flip side, I think how we talk about the dynamics and the stress that you're talking about, Nathan is a sense of othering. Almost actively being reminded that you don't belong. And there's been a lot written about microaggressions that are often rooted in systemic racism in this country, for example, or gender bias that remind someone that they are not an insider at work. In our research, we picked up on deeper feelings of stress, lack of trust with colleagues and with managers who are crucial. You know, if you're looking to innovate or pivot your business in this time of COVID having that distance between colleagues who feel they don't belong can of course be very damaging day-to-day for an individual, but also for a team and for an organization.

Nathan Hunt: It feels like belonging is something we commonly observe only in its absence. And I'm intrigued by the way, you guys have created a structure around that so that you can measure the presence of belonging when you belong. That's not noticeable, but when you don't belong, I imagine you feel it every day.

Julia Taylor Kennedy: When you feel you belong and when you do belong, I would imagine for some who have felt like outsiders over the course of their lives, maybe that's noticeable. And it's notable that if you are in spaces where you have quote-unquote fit in or belonged for much of your life, then you may not fully understand the ongoing stress and kind of grappling that people have when they are frequently reminded that they don't belong. A piece of the research that we did was on engaging majority men in diversity, equity, and inclusion work and belonging is a way to do that. Because for many of us, even if you are a straight white man who has a similar background and upbringing to the leaders at your organization, you might have more quote, unquote access to ongoing belonging, right? Because you have points of commonality with your role models and we saw that as one of the strongest drivers of belonging at work, but you can reflect on your life and say, you know, there was a time that I was passed over for a promotion or there was a time that I wasn't picked for a team. There was a time that I was teased and in belonging work, what we try to do is say that must have been painful, remember how painful that was, and then extrapolate from that. If you're experiencing those kinds of reminders, those kinds of slights and snubs continually throughout your life as well as at work, because what we found in our research was that employees who are not white, for example, especially black and Asian women have far lower median belonging scores. Because they are often given and sent messages that their ideas aren't as valuable. If their ideas are ignored, that their background is different, right? Their interests may be different. And so there are these ongoing distance building gaps for people who don't belong. It's easier to notice sometimes when you're other then when you fit in that makes it a little bit harder to build empathy for not belonging, if you're used to fitting in, in a given space. And so in the work, we try to identify for anyone. You know, we found that introverts, for example, and many straight white men are introverts or introverts, they're less likely to feel a sense of belonging. Or if you have a political disagreement, if you don't align politically with most of your colleagues that can impact your belonging score. So there are other ways that you can feel like an outsider beyond your racial or gender identity. The last thing that we tried to do with our research was rather than merely focus on ways to avoid other colleagues. We also wanted to surface ways to proactively build belonging that isn't just around small talk in your neighborhood, the school you went to, which can sometimes, you know, then exclude people who have a different background. We identified the ways that you can build belonging that is far more inclusive. And that really is rooted in the work you're doing alongside your colleague, the way you demonstrate that you value their ideas and that you appreciate them, the way you can connect on a deeper level.

Nathan Hunt: So let's dive into that for a second. What are those ways that you can indicate to other people that they are valued and that in your eyes they belong and you hope for them also to have a sense of belonging?

Julia Taylor Kennedy: The way we came to these in our research was we looked at our survey respondents. We narrowed it into two groups, one group that had really high belonging scores and one group that had particularly low belonging scores. And as part of our survey, we had asked them, you know, what do you have in your workplace environment from colleagues, managers, leaders, and company policies. So we could then compare, what did the workplace culture look like for those who had really high belonging scores to what the workplace culture looked like for those with really low belonging scores and so we identified the drivers of belonging to be the things that people with high belonging scores were far more likely to have than those with low belonging scores. And it was interesting to see what Rose to the top, because these lists included things like, you know, my colleague wishes me happy birthday, or says, hello to me in the morning. All the way up to my colleague gives me actionable feedback, or, you know, supports me in figuring out how to have a work-life balance. And it was those later deeper examples of engagement that Rose to the top as drivers of belonging, the smaller stuff is nice to have, but it's not what really drives belonging for people. That was kind of our biggest aha. And it's really instructive. So if you're a colleague and you're looking to build belonging for your peer. The things that really drive it are respecting commitments outside of work for parenting and other things as well caregiving, volunteering, social engagements, to be really thanking your colleagues for their work and for their contributions. And then also to be communicating openly and honestly with them about working relationships. So this is about depth, right? It's not just about surface-level comradery. From managers, if you're a team leader and you're looking to build belonging for the members of your team, the drivers that we identified were, you know, everyone wants to be praised for their work. They want to know that they're valued, but they also want honest feedback on how they can improve their work. And they want managers who hear them. This is part of that seen element who will respond to their concerns. Empower them to make decisions and give them some credit for the contributions they're making to the team. So not just thank them for what they're doing, but also give them credit for it. These are pretty good leadership approaches anyway, but it's interesting to see that those are the things rather than the small talk, which is important too. But these are the things that really drive that underlying need for belonging. Getting courageous about feedback, especially I think is something that intimidates a lot, a lot of us, and yet we want to know how we're doing and so do our peers. And that can be a way to really build the kind of trust and belonging for others and improve the outcome of our work by engaging in those deeper conversations.

Nathan Hunt: You've talked a little bit about who doesn't feel they necessarily along, but you've talked about Asian and black women, for example, or introverts or people with different political beliefs. Were there any surprises for you in the research about who didn't feel they belonged and why?

Julia Taylor Kennedy: One thing we were really curious about in the research was parenting. There's a lot of support in the diversity equity and inclusion space. Long-term support for parents because it is such a challenge to juggle work and life. One thing that we saw when it comes to belonging specifically, is that those with kids have higher median belonging scores than those without kids. And so we interviewed some experts to understand, you know, why is belonging higher? If you're a parent? And what we heard is, you know, in our culture, Parenthood is often a shortcut to intimacy. If you're talking to another parent, you can suddenly talk about how you're navigating work and parenting. It's a way to talk about a personal life that does cross a lot of other lines of difference. But if you're not a parent, sometimes you have to find ways to make someone feel okay. And they've asked you, do you have kids say no? Then you come up with strategies to fill in the gaps. And you know, I'm actually pregnant right now. And I'm a little bit later in life. So I went through many years of my career, not as a parent navigating those moments and I will say, you know, I've watched others build tighter bonds with those around them when they connect on this parenting question. And now that I'm pregnant, it is remarkable to see how with people, I don't know. Well, it's an instant bond to talk about the experience and what I'm going through while Parenthood is a challenge in the workplace, especially for mothers and for women. It can also give a boost to belonging.

Nathan Hunt: That makes so much sense to me. I remember when I was younger at work, talking to parents was honestly a mystifying experience because in my head it was inconceivable. How they could be so fascinated by such boring topics. And now that I have two kids of my own, I find myself frequently having a super-engaged conversation with even a distant colleague about our parenting struggles. Well, I am aware at the same time, we are boring the other participants in the conference call to tears. So I've seen that from both sides as well, and it definitely rings true.

Julia Taylor Kennedy: Yeah, it's interesting. And we saw the same boost for men and women in their belonging score. And so there is something distinct, you know, at the same time we have data that we picked up on. You know, we asked a few questions about COVID because we could not in the survey, we have data showing how much women are taking on and how much more women are taking on. At home at this time, other researchers are surfacing the same thing, which leads to a lot of questioning about how to balance work and family. So I don't mean to say that being a parent means you have a blissful easy time at work in all areas, but in this discrete area around belonging, there is this boost.

Nathan Hunt: So your research was international. I'm wondering if you saw variations in the overall sense of belonging in different cultures? Like, are the French inherently more alienated? Are the Americans rugged individualists for whom belonging is just a low priority? Did you see that difference culturally?

Julia Taylor Kennedy: We saw some cultural differences. Yes. We fielded this in six different countries. Sadly, France wasn't one of them, but we did have the UK and Germany, and Poland in Europe. And then we also looked at India, China, and Mexico. So those were our six global markets. Plus of course the U S. And by the way, the drivers that I shared earlier were specific to the U.S. The drivers of belonging vary a little bit around the globe, but in terms of belonging scores, it was really fascinating to see that in the Western cultures, us Germany, UK, especially we saw lower median belonging scores than in the other markets that we studied. And in every market. We saw that when an employee belongs, they have these far higher engagement scores, more likely to be loyal to their employer sometimes those outcomes varied a little bit, but there is a significant boost that belonging, that accompanies belonging in terms of an employee's happiness at work. So that was consistent. It's always impactful. But the baseline level of belonging does seem to be higher in cultures that are less rugged individualists. So those relationship-driven cultures like Mexico, like India, like China, where of course being part of a community is so important, part of a nation and part of a workplace so important in the Chinese culture. It was interesting that we saw that all employees were more likely to have higher belonging scores when they lived in those countries than when they lived in Western nations.

Nathan Hunt: Are there groups of people who seem to not feel like they belong in all cultures or does that vary by culture?

Julia Taylor Kennedy: Yes, the way it shows up varies by culture, and who feels most othered varies by culture. So in Poland, for example, religion is a huge marker of identity because this is a country where the majority of citizens are Roman Catholic. And so for those respondents who were not Roman Catholic to pick up on the point you made earlier, Nathan, about the negative feelings that accompany being an outsider. There was far lower trust between colleagues and managers, less optimistic feelings about their future at an organization about the impacts of COVID-19 just far more alienation if you weren't Catholic in Poland and you know when we did our qualitative research, we heard a lot of stories of feeling really alienated. If you weren't part of that majority religion. Also some interesting nuances we've picked up around LGBTQ status, especially in India, whereas as a result of COVID-19 many professionals are working from home, of course. And in our prior research, John LGBT few colleagues, we found that in India, particularly people tend to be out at work more frequently than they're out at home. There is sort of more permission at work to come out sometimes then within your family. And so as LGBTQ colleagues return to work from home and might live in multi-generational households or not be out to family members, they're living with. Well, we picked up in the data on this real grappling with authenticity, with being able to be open with colleagues if you were working from a space where you could be witnessed or overheard if you could be open about what you were experiencing in the transition. And so we flagged that as a watch out for companies to really be aware of in this time and as they think about a return to work providing safe space in a lot of ways for colleagues, including LGBTQ colleagues in India is something to keep in mind.

Nathan Hunt: And I'm assuming in the United States, we would see women of color feeling less like they belong.

Julia Taylor Kennedy: This is a classic case of the concept of intersectionality, which you're seeing in a lot of coverage about race and racism in our country. You know, intersectionality was rooted in Kimberly Crenshaw's study of black women and discrimination against black women because they carry two outsider identities in our society, gender, and race. And so there is a compounded effect when you're both female and black, two ways that you can be othered in the workplace. And so we weren't surprised to see that black women have lower median belonging scores and some of the ways that show up in the workplace

Nathan Hunt: At S&P Global, we've been looking at issues around diversity and inclusion in the markets. I know that issue is fundamental to your work. One of the things that have shocked me is the absence. Of much gender or ethnicity data within our market data. And I would say without false modesty, we are one of the premier providers of data on the markets. And yet we struggle to understand even the backgrounds of the managers in the companies we study. I'm wondering what effect you think that has, that we're mostly blind to gender and ethnicity, and financial data.

Julia Taylor Kennedy: It's a classic case that shows up in lots of ways of how consideration of identity and background truly has been siloed from another quote, unquote salient information in many spaces in our society. If you look at healthcare and studies of medical trials and all kinds of different areas where gender is an important factor, the race is an important factor to consider and analyze. And yet there's this hesitancy to go there. And that means, you know, often the work we do when we're sort of explaining to people why this is so important. It is actually more inclusive to consider these differences and understand them because they exist and acknowledge them. If we don't look and analyze how experiences differ by race and gender, we're denying that there is a difference. And so I am so happy that this is changing and I hope it continues to change because I think it is crucial to be able to drive equitable outcomes and to understand different practices that people are socialized to engage in different attitudes they have to actually know what the racial and gender and other salient identities are of the folks that are responding to surveys and contributing to the data you have and managing others. Just the representation figures to understand, you know, how many managers are female, how many managers are black around the world? There are regulatory challenges, especially when it comes to asking about race and ethnicity. And some of that is rooted in painful histories. For example, in Germany, where the Holocaust still informs, people's hesitancy to be categorized by different elements of their identity. But the challenge there then is you don't really surface the othering that happens. The exclusion that happens, the systemic barriers that exist for people to access different capital. I'm glad that this is changing and in my mind, it can't change fast enough.

Nathan Hunt: Research on belonging indicates that the sense of belonging ends up being incredibly important to the company's bottom line. The commitment that people have their likelihood to recommend a job to others, their likelihood to stay in a job. Billions, if not, trillions of dollars are lost every year of productivity because people move out of the job and the company suffers as a result. I have to wonder. If the reason why people haven't been looking at belonging is partly that we've been missing this data on gender and race. And because we aren't measuring this, we aren't thinking about the effects that gender or race or LGBTQ status or any of these things would have on someone's experience in the workplace.

Julia Taylor Kennedy: It's a point really well made. And it's so funny because it's all I think about. That's my whole job. That's our whole focus at Coqual. Well, and I think that's really illustrative of how this space has grown up and what needs to change. There are diversity equity and inclusion teams. There are organizations like ours that study just these concepts. And then there are other organizations that study other concepts that look at profitability. And, you know, we, I have been making a business case around diversity equity and inclusion for a really long time. But because this space is so siloed, we're put in a position of having to kind of stamp our feet and try to get the attention of people who are working on quote-unquote core business priorities and say, no, no, it does have a huge impact on an organization's bottom line. I am encouraged by companies and by your work, Nathan people who see this all as part of a whole, who say that the way managers and leaders are assessed on their performance has to include how aware they are of these dynamics and how they're looking to support employees of all backgrounds. And especially those who have traditionally been excluded. I'm really encouraged by some of the commitments the companies made over the summer around racial equity and other areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion to say, no, we need to embed checks on how equitable our processes are accountable for our leaders to make inclusion a piece of their business strategy. What I'm worried about is, you know, our world changes fast and that attention will shift. So I am eager to see companies keep holding themselves to those commitments, because I, I think like you do that, the benefits are not just to have a more fair world. But also to have more profitable organizations that are not only retaining workers and avoiding that turnover cost but also fully utilizing the talent of all backgrounds that could bring the full range of innovative potential ideas, capturing full market opportunities for their companies.

Nathan Hunt: Julia, thank you for stamping your feet. Thank you for the work that Coqual is doing. And thank you for joining me on the podcast today.

Julia Taylor Kennedy: Nathan, my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. This is, I knew it would be a great conversation based on listening to your other interviews, but it really lived up. So I got a couple of new ideas out of it, which I really appreciate tail.

Nathan Hunt: The Essential Podcast is produced by Molly Mintz with assistance from Kurt Burger and Lundon Lafci. At S&P Global, we accelerate progress in the world by providing intelligence that is essential for companies, governments, and individuals to make decisions with conviction.

Thank you for listening.

The Essential Podcast is edited and produced by Molly Mintz.