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How HR can foster belonging

People want to be able to bring their whole selves to work and are seeking out companies that embrace the inclusion part of DEI.

There has been a paradigm shift in human resources since the onset of the pandemic. The proliferation of remote work, hybrid workplaces, compressed schedules and other trends has led companies to reconsider what it means to be a desirable workplace. 

The 2022 People at Work: A Global Workforce View study by the ADP Research Institute (ADPRI) revealed that employees’ priorities when choosing a job are much larger than just salary. Workers want the complete package: a secure job at a company that aligns with their personal values, prioritizes their well-being and offers flexibility.

People seek emotional safety at work, but not many companies offer it, says Jim Link, Head of HR at the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM). 

SHRM studies have found that more than one-quarter of U.S. workers (26%) do not feel emotionally safe at work, and 27% say their workplace does not clearly provide opportunities for employees to openly discuss issues without fear of penalty or retaliation.

But when employees feel connected to their workplace, they are more likely to be fully engaged than employees who do not feel they belong, according to ADPRI’s ConnectionXPS study

Strongly connected employees are more resilient and are more likely to stay with the organization. So what can HR do to foster belonging at work? A lot.

The HR experience

HR plays a significant role in the experiences of employees at work. The personal touch of HR can make or break the employee’s experience as well as the employer’s brand image. 

But how do you even begin to measure something as subjective as personal experience? With this in mind, ADPRI set out to determine how HR shapes the employee experience.

“People want to have a level of connectivity to the organization they’re working with, its mission and values as well as its leaders,” says Bob Lockett, ADP’s Chief Diversity & Talent Officer.

ADPRI developed the HRXPS (HR Xperience Score) Model, a tool designed to measure the effectiveness of the HR function and identify actions HR can take to increase the quality of service to employees. The study was conducted in 25 countries with more than 32,000 respondents. The resulting model comprises five psychological experiences with three items each — a total of 15 items with which HR’s effectiveness can be measured.

The HR experiences

“You give me what I NEED”
1. My HR helps me understand what I am legally entitled to, such as workplace protections and benefits.
2. The communication I receive from HR is always easy to understand.
3. My HR provides me with the resources needed to do my job. 

“You make me feel SAFE”
4. I can count on HR to help me resolve workplace issues.
5. I am confident that my HR will properly handle unethical behavior.
6. I believe I can report an incident to HR without retribution.

“You understand and VALUE me”
7. I believe HR follows through on promises made to employees.
8. I strongly believe that HR does the right things for me.
9. I felt a sense of belonging to the company when I first started.

“You want me to GROW”
10. My HR provides excellent guidance on how I can advance in my job.
11. My company provides strong incentives that encourage me to improve my performance.
12. I am encouraged by HR to seek ways to improve within my job.

“I TRUST you”
13. I feel that HR really cares about me.
14. I feel empowered by HR to help the company succeed.
15. I completely trust my HR.

The HRXPS metric showed a strong relationship between certain employee beliefs and their behaviors. Employees who believe that HR is a value-promoting function are likely to promote the organization’s talent brand. Those who believe HR is value-promoting are more likely to have no intention of leaving their jobs: 

“HR creates the infrastructure, but the execution happens from the leader,” Lockett says. “The most important thing you can do as a leader is to engage with your people, understand their motivations, their concerns, their backgrounds, and what’s important to them. When you understand your people as humans and individuals, you can appreciate their point of view.” 

How can HR foster belonging?

For human resources to create genuine value in the hearts and minds of each employee, organizations need to consider the entire HR user experience, from onboarding to the exit interview. Based on the findings of the HRXPS research, these methods of operating are likely to boost engagement and belonging:

1. Offer a single point of contact with HR.

There’s a trend of relying on HR technology, call centers and parallel centers of excellence to handle and resolve employee issues. However, the HRXPS study showed that while these methods might be cost effective, employees prefer to have their needs addressed by a person. HR must reconcile cost-saving service delivery with each employee’s need to be seen, heard and understood. As much as possible, organizations should give each employee a named individual who can be their main point of contact.

HR must create emotionally attentive and authentic experiences for employees. Rather than removing personal interaction in the name of efficiency, organizations should design each HR exchange to foster one or more of the five psychological experiences outlined above. 

“Humans, when they come to work, don’t want an invisible HR function,” Marcus Buckingham, Head of ADPRI People + Performance Research, said at ADP ReThink 2022. “They want the right humans at the right moment, and interactions with HR can be designed to make employees feel safe, valued and understood. The HR functions become one of the most powerful drivers of the employees’ experience at work.”

2. Enable managers to foster belonging.

Belonging in the workplace means that employees feel valued through positive connections with others and feel that they can bring their authentic selves to work. 

HR can make a big impact during transitional periods, such as onboarding. An employee’s first introduction to the company is through their onboarding process, and data shows that having a formal process in place will likely yield a higher rating of HR service quality. But the most important relationship is that of the employee and their direct manager.

“HR’s responsibility in most organizations is to make sure leaders have the tools to help associates achieve outstanding performance,” Lockett says. “If leaders are doing poorly, HR needs to provide tools for the leaders and follow up to ensure what they’re doing is aligned with the company’s values.”

Programs should include everyone in the workplace, Link says, such as initiatives that recognize individual contributions and underrepresented groups as well as adopting inclusive communication strategies.

“If we want to have a workplace where everyone truly belongs, we must begin at the top, with leadership,” Link says. “Leadership must be empathetic and ensure that the values they want others to embody are represented in their daily actions. Leaders must commit to being role models that others can emulate.”

3. Check in with employees regularly.

Traditionally, performance reviews are an annual endeavor tied to compensation. But that does not mean that feedback should be collected and only revealed once a year. HR can create the infrastructure for managers to have regular check-ins with their teams. 

“You need to have frequent conversations with your team about performance, where they need to get better, or if they’re doing great,” Lockett says. Feedback should always be given in a timely manner, not held until an arbitrary time of review. “Never create situations in which people are surprised. I have 1-on-1s with every member of my team every week.” That way, everyone is clear about expectations, and potential issues can be addressed proactively.

Creating a workplace where employees feel that they belong and are included is beneficial to both the company and the employees themselves. By considering the HRXPS metrics, HR can understand its role in facilitating great employee experience and accurately measure progress in the quality of employees’ experience.

“Building a workplace where everyone can feel they belong takes time and commitment. The work required in fostering belonging requires tenacity and endurance and HR must be ready to do the hard work involved,” Link says. “The world around us has changed and will keep changing, so the way we do things must change.”

Adejoke Adeboyejo

Adejoke Adeboyejo is a freelance writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria. Having worked in human resources for more than 12 years, she now writes about the workplace, women’s issues and the environment.