HR must realise the difference between fitting in and belonging


Apart from my previous boss, no one really got it when I used to say this! When I worked for a previous company (where I was made redundant from), this is how I felt, I felt that I belonged, I felt ...

Read More Kathy Hawkins
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Fitting in and belonging aren’t the same, according to Shereen Daniels, head of HR at Caffè Nero

Speaking at the 2018 HRD Summit in Birmingham, Daniels described growing up in a town that wasn’t ethnically diverse. “It’s one of those towns where there were probably two other black families there and they all assumed we were related. So I spent my formative years always conscious of being different, and I spent a lot of time wishing I could be like everybody else,” she said.

This shaped her professional interest in belonging and difference when she got into HR, she explained.

Daniels talked about her first experience of feeling like she belonged in a workplace, when she was 15 working in a local McDonald’s. “I thought I belonged, but on reflection I wonder if what I was doing was trying to fit in,” she mused. “When you belong somewhere it’s because you really want to be there and they really want you to be there.”

On the other hand, fitting in is when “you’re excited to be there and they’re not so bothered whether you’re there or not.

“Belonging is being accepted for who you are, and fitting in is trying to be like everyone else. So I get to be me if I belong, but I have to be like you to fit in,” Daniels clarified.

When HR becomes preoccupied with cultural fit the function takes a passive role and rarely questions the culture it’s operating in, Daniels said. Instead HR should be asking what it can do to help people who don’t ‘fit’ to get into the organisation and succeed.

“Belonging to me is inclusion. Diversity is one thing [but] if you cannot make people feel like they are part of something when they get within your organisation you are completely wasting your time,” she added.

Daniels said diversity and inclusion can't work if present in the frontline but not extended right to the very top decision-makers. She said she felt that leaders have a very strong role to play in helping people belong. She outlined the three things that matter most for leaders:

  • Being able to celebrate the diversity of their teams and recognise team members as individuals
  • Recognising and appreciating people for where they are but refusing to let them stay there. A leader’s role is to leave teams better than they found them, so helping their employees upskill, stretch themselves and achieve their ambitions
  • Publicly defending their views and making sure what they say externally and internally align, so their team doesn't lose trust.

Daniels concluded her session by summarising what belonging means once more. “If you belong somewhere your difference and who you are is celebrated," she said.

"You can change and grow and evolve, but you’re not fundamentally changing the version of you. You need to be able to look in the mirror and recognise the person looking back.”


Always refreshing to read someone who says it like it is. Thank you Shereen. The trust that comes from a true feeling of belonging is even more important as teams fragment geographically yet link digitally.


Really like the article by Shereen, i completely recognise what she said. Making people feel they must change who they are to fit in is wrong, a sense of belonging in which you retain your own identity in an environment which respects diversity is much more healthy. Good thought provoking article.


Apart from my previous boss, no one really got it when I used to say this! When I worked for a previous company (where I was made redundant from), this is how I felt, I felt that I belonged, I felt that I was an essential cog, that played an integral part in what was a complex business. I wanted to be there, to do a good job, to achieve everyday and that is an immensely rewarding feeling. Being accepted for who you and trusted to do the job your there to do, is an amazing feeling and enables you to develop and thrive in an envirment you want to be in.


I really enjoyed your honest and insightful article Shereen.


Thanks for your comment Claire. When you have geographically dispersed teams, it is even more important to emphasise belonging and inclusion because it's very easy to feel left out.


Thanks Katrina, I'm pleased your enjoyed it.


Kathy, you are not on your own! Everything you say I identify with and it was through my personal reflections on the different roles I've had, where I've been successful and maybe not so successful that provoked me to really think about this idea of fit. From the reaction to this piece from many people in the HR world, it is clearly something we are all grappling with - both personally and professionally. It's encouraging that there are others who have reflected on the difference between fit and belonging - it's now about how we can influence to make sure we are doing everything we can to co-create with the leadership team, truly inclusive cultures. Thanks for your comment :)


Thank you Ajun. Conformity is a dangerous thing and really should come with it's own health warning! Adapting to your environment is one thing but when you do not feel valued and that your ideas/opinions count, despite the fact you have tried to mould yourself into the type of person you think your organisation wants you to be to 'fit' in, over time it is soul destroying. In HR our role is to critically challenge base assumptions and offer different perspectives - culture fit is definitely one of those subjects that need broader discussion.

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