The Role of Leadership in Promoting Workplace Belonging

BY Carrie Snider | July 01, 2024

Here’s a unique twist on workplace belonging: a veterans Employee Resource Group (ERG) collaborated with a local Nashville nonprofit, where the veterans shared their personal stories, which musicians then turned into songs.

“This initiative was incredibly successful,” said Michal Alter, co-founder and CEO of, which facilitated the ERG experience. Alter spoke on a panel moderated by Lydia Dishman of Fast Company during From Day One’s Manhattan conference

The veterans’ songs resonated so deeply within their company that the CEO invited the musicians to perform at a major town hall event. “These employees were celebrated and thanked for their service. The emotional connection is what we aim to create, and we love seeing these heartwarming stories,” said Alter. partners with companies like Amazon, AT&T, KPMG, and Comcast to bring intersectional topics to life through team-based activities with local nonprofits. Alter says that ERGs provide employees with the opportunity to have meaningful conversations in safe spaces, and are an effective way to foster workplace belonging.

After conducting experiences for companies, surveys participants about the impact on their sense of belonging. In a survey involving 40,000 participants, 60% responded, with 73% of those reporting a significant positive impact on their workplace experience. “We see that 99% of respondents ask their employers for more of these types of activities,” Alter said. 

Alter emphasized that these activities help employees feel connected to their community and their colleagues, fostering a strong sense of belonging.

Help Employees Develop Empathy

Panelist Derek Gordon, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for Colgate-Palmolive, is a black man who grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods. He shared an experience that took place years ago but has stuck with him ever since.

When Gordon took his high school best friend, who is white, to a predominantly black space, his friend looked around at all the people who didn’t look like him and said to Gordon: “This is how you feel every day?”

“His empathy clearly came through. He recognized from that experience that this wasn’t about how he was feeling,” Gordon said. “He provided a real sense of understanding.” One way to cultivate inclusive culture in a company, says Gordon, is to help employees develop empathy for each other’s unique experiences.

Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, far left, moderated the panel discussion about "Fostering Workplace Belonging: Overcoming Barriers and Cultivating Inclusive Culture"

Another way companies can ensure they are being inclusive, and helping employees to develop empathy for their colleagues, is to be intentional about hiring. “Put in extra effort to make sure that you are going to where those population pools are, so that you can find the great talent that you would not otherwise consider,” he said. It’s important to lay that foundation from hiring onward to increase inclusion and representation. 

Adding to that is tracking the numbers. Senior management will want to know if what you’re doing is working, so try to quantify your efforts. “At the end of the day, if you're not showing progress, it means you are not moving forward against the path,” Gordon said. “It also provides for accountability for the leadership and the organization.”

Recognize Layered Experiences

Panelist Lukeisha Paul, head of diversity, equity and inclusion for GroupM, experienced what it feels like not to belong. Born and raised in New York with roots in Trinidad and Venezuela, the layers of her unique experience were branded as not fitting in during college. 

“I found myself at a cross section of, ‘where do I fit in?’ And it was very uncomfortable,” she said. That led to her work in DEI.

“I have a deep appreciation of intersectionality and the different layers of diverse dimensions that we all exhibit based on our unique lived experiences,” Paul said. “Today, that helps me because I understand that any individual can experience being the only one or the underrepresented.”

One way they cultivate an inclusive culture at GroupM is to waive the four-year degree requirement and add on a program called Launchpad which teaches new hires how to be successful in the company. That helps to level the playing field, no matter what the person’s background is. 

Even with a good start in a company, some may find it hard to grow if you look different than other leadership or if you don’t know how to advocate for yourself. “Once you continue up the corporate ladder, you’ll see that there’s a major decrease in disparity between people of color, the more senior that you get,” she said. 

That’s why they offer the GroupM Career Advocacy Program, which includes masterclasses to help build understanding and skills. “We focus on how to set big goals and how to move forward,” Paul said. Another focus of the program is pairing them with senior leadership who can truly advocate for them. 

From these classes, they’ve seen raises and promotions and from the advocacy program they’ve seen leadership become courageous as they speak up. “They have a greater understanding of some of the hindrances that people of color actually go through,” she added.

Pay Attention to Age Diversity

Every age group can bring unique and helpful perspectives to organization, says Heather Tinsley-Fix, senior advisor of financial resilience at AARP.

In a previous role, she was the youngest person on a big team of leadership, lawyers, and consultants looking to negotiate a big contract renewal. 

“I just felt so intimidated,” she said. “Most of them were men, and they just looked right past me.” One of her takeaways from that experience was to acknowledge everyone at the table, no matter their age or how they are different from everyone else. 

Representation is important, including age diversity. Many companies have websites with pictures of young people, which can make it hard for older people to feel like they belong. There is some messaging out there that certain ages are “too old” for companies to hire, when that is not only not true, it’s ageism. 

People of all ages want to contribute and be in a job they enjoy, and as Tinsley-Fix says, every age wants to keep learning and developing soft skills that help no matter the job you’re in. “Just paying attention to that, in addition to this sort of hard skills, can really diversify your hiring pool from a perspective of age,” she said.

The Pillars of DEI

Panelist Marie Carasco, vice president of organization development culture and diversity at Github, was one of very few black women enrolled during her doctoral degree program. It made an already challenging experience even tougher. Representation is a baseline in belonging, she says. 

Then came a full circle moment. She had the opportunity to teach at the ground level. “There were a number of students that came up to me so happy that I was there. And it made me feel that I was making a difference for them.” 

That’s why she works in the DEI space, and at GitHub, she is helping to shepherd work around organization development, culture and diversity. The company has four pillars of DEI, says Carasco, who supports each of them. 

One is understanding psychological contracts, or employee expectations. If those are broken, it’s hard for the person to reach their potential in the workplace. Second is psychological safety, because if they don’t feel safe they won’t take risks. Third, having those deliberate cross-company collaborations to foster an inclusive culture. And the fourth and final pillar is leveraging employee engagement and understanding, so they can take part in helping move DEI forward. 

“I know we have a lot of listening systems around employee engagement,” Carasco said. “But quite rarely do we even ask an employee, do you want to participate in service to drive this work?” If companies could have those conversations and bring them in, they can help drive the very programs that can help everyone.

Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.


How Employers Are Boosting Internal Mobility and Career Development

Developing talent from within a company’s ranks simply makes a lot of sense. The benefits include greater productivity because employees are motivated to reach their goals, cost savings and time savings from the job search and onboarding processes, and increased employee satisfaction as workers feel they are valued.But as with all corporate practices, how a company puts an idea into practice makes a difference. At From Day One’s Manhattan conference, a panel of leaders spoke to the topic, “Creating Opportunity Within: How Employers Are Boosting Talent and Career Development,” sharing the thoughtful and effective ways their organizations are successfully promoting employees.The executive panel discussion featured five dynamic and creative business leaders who described their own career development and the ways they support and encourage the same for others.At Visa, the message that career development is a priority comes from the very top, says Melissa Fridman, head of people and global merchant sales & acquiring at Visa, North America. Ryan McInerney ascended to CEO in February 2023, after being prepared for this transition for two years, Fridman says. And among his first actions as chief executive was to promote others into leadership roles, which reinforced the message throughout the company that there was career mobility.Fridman described the company’s efforts as driven from the top down and intentional, and relayed how as a new CEO, McInerney blocked off a few days this year with his leadership team to discuss talent across the company. “And everybody knows that, so in advance all the businesses are spending time with their HR partners and their leadership teams talking about talent. That type of intention and knowing that we’re being deliberate about succession planning because of the robustness of those conversations, [leads to a lot of] follow up action.”But a bottom-up strategy also works. Penguin Random House adopted a growth charter a decade ago that “infiltrated through our personal development conversations and put the power back in the hands of the employee,” said Joanne Mallia-Barsati, vice president of global talent management and development. This growth and development methodology was designed to create two-way coaching conversations between a manager and employee to elicit “how people really think about their careers, how they own their careers and how they are equally responsible in thinking about their development at the company,” Mallia-Barsati said.Brent Vader, VP of HR at Verizon recognized that at a company with a large frontline employee population, internal mobility and career development might look different than at other organizations. “It was very difficult to figure out how to make the right connections, you don’t just want to post and pray and hope that someone recognizes my profile. There has to be something more deliberate,” said Vader.And so over the course of a few years, Verizon created a program called Journey Forward to map out how ambitious frontline workers can get ahead. “It encompasses everything that we’ve talked about, whether it's finding a network, making sure you have a sponsor, and understanding the right skills and experiences necessary to qualify you for that next role,” he said.The panelists spoke about the topic "Creating Opportunity Within: How Employers Are Boosting Talent and Career Development," in a session moderated by journalist Jeanhee Kim The point of the Journey Forward is to give employees a systematic approach for their development plan, as well as a plan for getting training and finding a mentor, to make it easier to scale to their next opportunity.This effort to develop talent from within is a shift from the more traditional practice of attracting new talent to companies. A tell-tale sign that a company is serious about career development is when its internal career page is as sophisticated and thoughtfully designed as its external one, said Marcus Strang, lead solutions engineer of recruitment marketing platform Clinch.“We’ve started to see a shift in the market. Companies are realizing that there’s a much better ROI in investing in internal resources like career portals, talent networks programs, where employees who already work for you can get excited about their next job with you, instead of thinking they have to leave in order to grow.”The cost-benefit analysis points in favor of career development. “If you invest so much in an employee, and then they go elsewhere, and they take all the learning and all of the investment that you've made and bring it to another company, that’s really a big-time loss,” said Rose Fass, founder and chair of leadership development consulting company FassForward.Additionally, retained employees attract talent to your company: “They’re really your best advertisement, aren’t they?” said Fass.Mallia-Barsati says Penguin’s global immersion program, which adds a global dimension to its career development efforts, has created new business opportunities as well. Spending time in a new location allows the employee to get to know the team, understand the business, build connections, and really understand the culture, she says. From this program, they’ve experienced numerous business achievements, “including new imprints created, book partnerships and acquisitions,” she said.Jeanhee Kim is an independent journalist who has worked for CoinDesk, Crain’s New York Business, Money magazine and Forbes Asia.

Jeanhee Kim | July 12, 2024

Promoting Well-Being While Boosting Performance in a Changing Workforce

Who does the work and how they do it is constantly evolving. “So, how do we make our work environments still attractive? How do we still develop our employees?” asks Kami Peterson, senior director, regional HR & employee Relations, U.S., Thomson Reuters. At From Day One’s Minneapolis conference, Peterson spoke on a panel titled “Boosting Productivity in a Changing Workplace–and Workforce.”“We need to think about not just the products in which we serve our customers, but also what type of product we are delivering internally. That’s programs, that’s processes,” Peterson told moderator Megan Thompson, Special Correspondent for PBS Newshour.Whether people are working remotely or hybrid, “There’s also the high degree of reactivity that we’re seeing that pervades the workforce,” said Andrew Deutscher, founder of Regenerate. “That’s partly stemming from the overwhelming workloads that we’re all contending with.” When employees feel their workload is too big, that diminishes productivity, says Deutscher.Workers are also dealing with a digital onslaught of emails and text messages throughout the day, which distracts them from more profound work. Other factors hampering productivity are diminished resources, meaning employees are forced to do more with less, and a lack of continuity due to high turnover rates, says Deutscher.How Company Culture Impacts ProductivityCommunication is the key to creating a culture that fosters productivity, says Chad Deshler, senior VP of U.S. sales for LifeSpeak Inc. “There are two common themes that I’ve seen with organizations," he said. “One is how you communicate, and the other is how you communicate.”In today’s workplace, some employees don’t feel their employers have a sense of loyalty toward them. “If you open up that door of communication and create a level of transparency, it goes a long way, sometimes even more than what a paycheck can do for somebody,” he said.Joel Geary,  vice president of human resources, global business units & medical scientific affairs at Beckman Coulter Diagnostics, says it’s crucial for an international company to have a common culture and way of doing things that crosses borders. Beckman Coulter Diagnostics has many offices around the world, so whether you are in Dubai, Japan, India, China, Mexico, or the United States, “everyone from manufacturing to R&D to sales uses a shared language rooted in our continuous improvement business systems, a guiding force of our culture” he said.The company uses its strong culture as a recruitment tool, Geary says. “It’s a big part of how we fulfill the employee experience and deliver results,” he said.Strategies for Increasing ProductivityCarita Hibben, vice president of human resources at C.H. Robinson, says the company’s new CEO is emphasizing a new operating framework based on lean methodology. She said this means “having the discipline to hold yourself accountable to the strategy you are trying to drive.”“What we’re seeing with that from a productivity perspective is a continuous process improvement mindset, as well as elimination of waste,” she said.The executive panelists spoke about "Boosting Productivity in a Changing Workplace–and Workforce"C.H. Robinson is also going to its locations and asking desk-level employees, ‘“Where do we have the pain points in the process that we’re trying to evaluate?’” Hibben said. The company uses AI to make processes more streamlined and efficient so employees can focus on giving customers the personal attention they need.“I would encourage you as an HR individual to partner with your business to say, ‘What does this mean for your teams? And how can we think about upskilling? Or how can we think about where we shift our resources to work on things that are a value add to the customer?’” she said.Thomson Reuters recently began having learning days several times a year where employees can sign up to learn from both internal and external speakers. These skills-based sessions are where team members “gather in our new world and help move the change, or the pace of change even faster,” Peterson said. “That’s definitely made an impact on performance.”Well-being and ProductivityEmployees aren’t as productive if they try to come back to work while they are still sick, and “we also know when we’re physically healthy around our sleep, or nutrition, or movement, we’re more focused and optimized in what we’re doing,” Deutscher said.Company wellness activities that have a high impact don’t have to come with a high cost, says Geary. For example, Beckman Coulter Diagnostics’ Chaska, Minnesota, facility does a 5K walk/run annually on a workday. The production line adjusts schedule so employees who want to participate, can participate, and it’s an annual highlight.“Don’t underestimate the value of a small group of people that are very passionate about something and want to make a difference with their teams and their organization,” said Geary, referring to the program that has been valued for over 12 years now.Physical health is only part of the equation. When people are emotionally and mentally healthy, they are better equipped to deal with setbacks and challenges, not only in their personal lives but also in the workplace, says Deutscher. “We’re more creative problem solvers when we have more energy to bear,” he said.Thomson Reuters now gives employees two mental health days per year. The entire company shuts down for those two days. “Everybody asks around, ‘What are you going to do during the mental health day?’ We’re trying to create that safe space, reintroducing that it’s OK, we all need a break. And they will talk about going into the spa or spending the day with their spouse,” Peterson said.Deschler pointed out that most of the people in the room for the panel discussion were in the “sandwich generation,” meaning they care for children as well as elderly parents. In addition to their oftentimes complex caretaker duties, they are also working full-time.“So, when I talk to companies and organizations, we’re trying to think of creative ways to engage their population so that they can feel productive and healthy. When you're taking care of yourself, we all know that you’ll be more productive,” he said.Mary Pieper is a freelance writer based in Mason City, Iowa.

Mary Pieper | July 02, 2024

How Employers Are Boosting Talent and Career Development

Millennials and Gen Zers are often accused of being feckless employees, ready to jump ship at another opportunity. But this isn’t entirely true. Gen Z is loyal when there’s connection, collaboration, diversity, and growth in their jobs. To earn that loyalty, companies have to offer collaborative spaces where younger workers can grow their career.Christa Emerson, VP of talent for UnitedHealthcare Group, says that since July of 2022, turnover is trending down and retention higher. “[We often hear that] the reason an employee joins UnitedHealth Group is because they see this opportunity for a huge growth, career, and ability to grow over time. We also hear when people leave that one of the reasons that they leave is because they’re able to find more growth or broader responsibilities at another company.”During an executive panel discussion at From Day One’s Minneapolis event, Evan Ramstad of the Minneapolis Star Tribune spoke to Emerson and several other experts in the field of HR and talent acquisition (TA) on what younger workers want out of a career, and what employers can do to keep them.Internal Mobility Matters BigAt UnitedHealthcare, Emerson says they've leaned into internal hiring and mobility. “We specifically put a practice in place that required almost all positions to be exclusively internally posted first, and you have to exhaust all of that before we can go external.”According to Emerson, internal hiring is now at 55%, up from 45% the previous year.“We’ve really been clear and intentional about our key strategic priorities and how everyone sees themselves in that vision. If you want to be a contributor, if you want to be a leader, you really can see yourself through succession planning, through our executive coaching, we really invest in those key players,” said Monica Gockowski, the SVP of leadership development at U.S. Bank. They’ve also seen a decline in turnover.“I think what it always comes back to is, how do we focus on identifying the future skills? And then how do we focus on putting together the appropriate collections, pathways and programs that really look at identifying upskilling opportunities that tie back to how we’re going to deliver ROI at our organization, while also increasing retention or employee mobility," said Korie Holden, enterprise account director at Coursera.Holden says that top of mind for everyone in the industry is not how AI will automate certain roles, but, instead, how companies will need to upskill and reskill their HR organization to “move the needle forward, both from a business perspective, but also as that human-centric perspective.”SVP of Sales and Customer Success at Randstad RiseSmart, Chris Harrington says that turnover for a lot of adaptive companies has gone down since the Great Resignation of the Covid years. “Organizations are beginning to invest more and more in solutions and benefits, perquisites, whatever you want to call it, to retain people,” Harrington said.“It’s not just about your high potentials, or your executive leaders, it’s really about how you can do it for everybody within the organization. The second thing is about internal mobility. And candidly, we're still trying to figure out how to answer this one.”In a recent survey they did, Harrington says that 45% of TA professionals said that it was easier to fill roles from outside the organization. Another 55% of employees said it's easier for them to find their next job outside the organization. “So there is some sort of a trick that we need to unlock within this space,” Harrington said.There’s a lot going on in practice in bringing in new talent and retaining it, but the conversation on internal mobility is just beginning. And, for younger workers, not getting those new on-the-job skills and growing their careers “is a deal-breaker when it comes to joining an employer.”Evan Ramstad, Business Columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, moderated the executive panel discussion “I think there is a stigma that if we just focus on internal mobility, there’s no innovation. There’s not a diversity of thought or imagination,” said Gockowski. She says that to make internal mobility work, companies have to be intentional about skill development, and not just be focused on ‘the shiny new talent’ they bring in.“Think about answering that question around mobility and what’s the benefit. The benefit is the person, right? The person feels like they’re cared about, and that what matters to them in terms of how they care for their families, or their lifestyle, is important to the company. And that’s what gives you that kind of stickiness with a company where people feel like this is where I want to stay. This is where I want to grow my career,” said Chief Talent Officer for Schwan’s Company, Kari Ziemer.It’s not enough to just talk about new skills, says Holden. You have to have a way of identifying them, testing them, and measuring them. “We’ve moved away from this buffet style of learning. We’re providing learning as a benefit [and] creating it all in house. It’s very intentional learning that delivers ROI. You are consistently reporting to your executive team on how this learning is really making an impact in our organization.”Emerson pointed out that even if your company doesn't have the tech, or can’t afford to invest it, there’s still an important role to play in collecting and fostering talent. “What is your culture of mobility? What are managers looking at as their accountability for being talent stewards, instead of talent hoarders? And what are the cultural elements that you can work on, either ahead of a technology, or despite not having funding for technology.”Ziemer says that companies need to dial in to what they are trying to accomplish. “We’re trying to solve a problem, right?” After seeing a spike in supervisor turnover, Ziemer says they created a supervisory development program, and tested it to great effect. “If they’re not good leaders, and supervisors, they're not leading people in a way that’s helping us produce the product.”Opportunity for New Skills“Historically, coaching was kind of reserved for the top segment of leaders within the organization. So it wasn't the most inclusive solution out there,” said Harrington. But now, there’s a focus on scalable coaching, says Harrington.Harrington says this type of coaching is as needed, whenever the employee needs it. Some of this coaching is done through external, more generalized solutions but many other companies are creating their own internal bench of coaches for a pool of those in leadership roles and those who want to learn to mentor.“The more you can create personalized learning and development spaces, for really the most personalized thing you can have, which is a one on one interaction with a human – we think that that’s really powerful.”Gockowski says that at the end of the day, people are concerned with their career and what they can get from it. “It doesn’t matter about all those different things, but what am I doing to use these tools for the end game for me.”“What the research is actually telling us is that though it seems like we need to shift our focus to upskilling in these really technical areas, no matter what part of the business you fall in, what we really need is a focus on the human skills. Because human skills drive everything else,” Holden said.Matthew Koehler is a freelance journalist and licensed real estate agent based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in Greater Greater Washington, The Washington Post, The Southwester, and Walking Cinema, among others. 

Matthew Koehler | June 26, 2024