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HR must realise the difference between fitting in and belonging

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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.”