The Power of Belonging


4 min read
26 May

Sally has been leading the EY D&I agenda in the UK for seven years. She’s been with EY for nearly 20 years in various HR director roles, most recently specialising in organisational development and change.

When I asked Sally how she came to be in her current role she said, ‘I have a passion for equality and making sure that the firm represents all the talent. We see diversity and inclusiveness is about culture and change. I was asked to do the role because I know how the firm works and what levers to pull to make change happen.’

We began by discussing inclusive employer branding. I wanted to know what Sally sees other organisations doing when it comes to promoting their brand as an inclusive employer.

‘I think probably like us, many organisations go on a journey with this. They might start by acquiring external recognition and badges to build their brand. This reflects their efforts and showcases credentials in whatever area of D&I they’re particularly keen to build a brand around, whether that’s gender, race or disability. I do think these badges do provide a starting point particularly if they’re earned through completing a benchmark, which gives you some insight into the work you’re doing. Some are very good, the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index particularly.

Whilst this kind of work presents a particular view of the organisation and builds the brand, it might not necessarily be the best approach and it only gives a partial view.’

I asked Sally to explain where organisations should be aspiring to get to, if they want to create an inclusive employer brand?

‘We think it’s important to build an inclusive employer brand, creating that is the holy grail. D&I is the heart of our organisational purpose. We talk about our purpose being to build a better working world and we do work hard to live up to that. If our brand is about being a diverse and inclusive firm, it helps us attract and retain the best talent.’

Sally reiterated the danger inherent in pursuing awards to build brand on the reputation of accolades acquired.

‘Chasing those awards can lead you to having lots of shiny medals and badges, but it can lead to a gap between the rhetoric that those awards present and the reality that your employees experience. Organisations should aspire to get to a more genuine brand that closes the gap between the rhetoric that people see externally in the branding, and the reality that they hear from people working within the organisation.

Sites like Glassdoor mean people can tell their stories outside of the organisation. So we think organisations should aspire to focus on really taking the action to genuinely create the brand to live the brand internally and then start talking about it. That’s what EY does.’

We talked about the recent EY focus on belonging and the reasons for that. Sally explained that EY had looked at the D&I strategy about a year ago. Improvement was evident across various measures: representation in diversity, talent attracted into the organisation and progression. So things were changing, but it was a slow journey.

Sally told me, ‘We can recruit as much diversity as we want, but who chooses to stay with us and develop their career with us? That’s down to people feeling they belong at the firm. So we now focus a lot of effort on building a culture of belonging.

Where people feel welcome, they feel they can show up and be their true selves. They feel that their difference is valued. They can be who they genuinely are, rather than having to conform to a particular mould. The power of the sense of belonging is that it doesn’t only apply to under-represented groups, you’re including everyone in the conversation.’

The EY focus on belonging moves the conversation away from numbers and representation, like the number of women in a partnership, to a culture of inclusion. They’ve brought it to life, through a story-telling campaign that includes their most senior leaders across to the new apprentices who talk about what belonging means to them and how they’ve experienced it at EY.

From those stories, EY has built a belonging toolkit to support the inclusive environment and a culture of belonging. The toolkit includes conversation starters, links to stories and podcasts like the Inclusive Growth Show as well as self-awareness material for employees to think about everyday actions, who they work with, who they don’t and whether that disadvantages others.

Sally explained, ‘We measure it through our annual engagement surveys and on-going listening tools. We’ve got proxy measures of belonging in our business processes, and we hold the business to account on those because one thing we never fail to love in EY is a good metric! Belonging has moved from something conceptual to something that we live and talk about every day, and something that can be concretely evaluated in the business. Good progress in a year, I believe.’

I asked Sally where she would like to see the culture of belonging evolving over the next three years. She told me that ‘We’re moving to talk about a word that’s gone out of favour a bit in the D&I world, which is equality. We think that as we talk about belonging, we uncover these small everyday discrepancies. Some people arrive at work every day with a knapsack of privilege, and some people arrive with the burden of obligations. People experience EY differently as they come through the door. We’re trying to make those differences more visible as well as equalising their experiences and showing how we value difference as an organisation.’

This culture of belonging is also reflected in EY branding.

‘Whilst we’re trying to broaden the inclusiveness of the organisation, the focus is on fixing the organisation, not on fixing the individual. And that’s what we’re trying to emphasise in our branding. The aspiration is to use story-telling as a powerful way to build a genuine employer brand. Start sharing the stories within the firm and then, as appropriate, share publicly. Your people’s stories help bring your brand to life.

Women might talk about their journey to partnership and the barriers, both visible and invisible, they encountered and what they’ve done to navigate those and what the pieces were in place to support them and what wasn’t. Mental health first aiders talk about why they became a first aider. Most people have a really personal story to tell around that and what they do to help colleagues who might be struggling. We talk to people who experience a workplace with different disabilities. So we have people with hearing loss, we have people with cerebral palsy and other mobility challenges, we have people with long-term health conditions. They tell a story and talk about how they experience the firm and what’s in place for them. It gives others who may be in the same place, who perhaps haven’t accessed all of that support, or don’t know what EY’s attitude to these things is, a bit more confidence to come out and talk to us and to believe that they can stay with EY and develop their careers here. I’m proud of that campaign.’

We also talked about how diversity and inclusion enables EY to grow. Sally was clear that it helps EY not to fail. Their internal research evidences a direct link between team diversity and profitability, team member retention and better client service. Their clients expect diverse teams to be brought in, equating that with diverse thinking and broader intelligence.

‘If we show up without that diverse team and without everybody in that team having a voice, then clients soon choose not to work with us. We know that our people stay with us longer, deliver more discretionary effort, and are definitely more engaged when they feel they belong. Our research and internal benchmarks tell us that.’

Sally made it clear that diversity, inclusion and belonging help EY accelerate growth and be more agile in a fast-changing world. She stressed that they haven’t taken the foot off the pedal during the current COVID crisis either.

‘We’ve turned up the dial. It’s easy to say, “We’re all in this together.” But we know that we’re all experiencing lockdown differently. We’ve all got different home set-ups, different worries and fears, different health conditions, different responsibilities and roles. We’ve had to really tailor the support and the communication that we give to our people at this time.

I’ve been really proud of our leaders who got that from the start and said, “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution here. What do our diverse range of people need? How do we make everyone feel they belong especially in this crisis?”

The belonging story-telling campaign has continued. It feels that our culture has really shifted so that working to ensure fair and equitable outcomes from things like work allocation, performance outcomes, promotion and recruitment is just the way things get done around at EY. And it feels to me like we’re really making some great progress on that journey.’