Employee Experience

Airbnb DEI Chief on 9 ways to create a culture of belonging

Discover practical ways to foster a culture of belonging that makes your people feel included, safe, and engaged.

How do you create a culture where all employees are not only invited to share their experiences, but feel safe to do so, knowing their feedback will be taken seriously and actioned on?

To support HR and business leaders in answering this question, we asked Melissa Thomas-Hunt, Global Head of Diversity & Belonging at Airbnb, to share how organizations can foster a culture of belonging in 2021 and beyond. She also shared her advice for HR leaders who want to drive organization-wide change when it comes to diversity and inclusion but aren’t sure where to focus or start.

Here’s a closer look at what our research has revealed regarding the importance of belonging, plus Melissa’s expert take on fostering an environment where everyone thrives.

What is belonging?

Like food and shelter, belonging is a basic human need. It represents a connection with people or places. Feeling like you can be your unique and authentic self at work – and also connected to those around you – fulfills a core need to form and maintain strong, stable interpersonal relationships with others.

Read more: Belonging: The new top driver of employee engagement in 2021

Fostering belonging starts with understanding your people

When we spoke to more than 11,800 participants as part of our global 2021 Employee Experience Trends report, we heard that belonging is the top driver of employee engagement.

Airbnb’s mission is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere – an environment of connection not only for hosts and guests but also for employees. To foster a sense of belonging in the workplace, Airbnb works to understand the challenges of its hosts, community, and employees.

“When our founders established belonging as a value of the company, they didn’t know the myriad ways biases would show up. Part of that is because of their own lived experiences,” shares Melissa. “We need to first understand our people in order to then mitigate the biases that are brought onto the platform.”

How diversity and belonging help organizations thrive

“There has been a recent shift in the language that [HR leaders] use in creating this environment,” says Melissa. “We’ve broadened the dimensions in which we engage in the conversation. First, we talked about diversity – which is focused on representation. Then, the conversation evolved to incorporate inclusion, which is about inviting people to participate.”

Most recently, there’s been a focus on belonging.

“Belonging is about creating an environment where people feel like, this is my place. A place where people feel respected, where they can contribute – and make a difference.”

“Diversity is inviting you to the dance. Inclusion says, “Come on the dance floor!” And belonging says, ‘What kind of music do you like? We want to play it because we care about you.'” - Melissa Thomas-Hunt, Global Head of Diversity & Belonging at Airbnb

When you have a diverse array of people, you’re able to tap into the varied experiences of those people. At Airbnb, belonging is defined by a series of components; among them are feeling valued and respected, as well as feeling that you’re able to make a meaningful contribution.

The organization’s goal is to create a world where innovation and creativity thrive. They do this by inviting a wide array of voices – especially those that have been underrepresented in the decision-making process – to contribute.

Learn from the experts taking action to improve DEI

How to create a culture of belonging

“Early in my career, a leader took me under his wing, introducing me to clients (and helping me understand the business in the process), fostering my relationship management skills, and giving me feedback. At some points, the feedback was difficult to hear, but it was always from a place of supportiveness and growth,” says Melissa.

“This leader demonstrated his trust in me by opening his relationships and his social capital to me, coaching and mentoring me, and giving me the feedback I needed in order to grow. Collectively, these actions made me feel like I belonged.”

Since then, Melissa has experienced first-hand what leading organizations have done to move the needle on creating a culture of belonging in the workplace.

If you want to help drive organization-wide change when it comes to diversity and inclusion but aren’t sure where to focus, here are nine ways to get started:

  1. Declare your intentions for a diverse workforce where people belong. Have clear criteria and articulate it. Establish targets for your metrics to hold your organization accountable for its declarations.
  1. Institute diversity and belonging interview questions. Every candidate interviewing with Airbnb will answer questions about their commitment, experience, and shared values related to those two initiatives. “We want to signal to anyone joining our organization – from the beginning – that diversity and belonging are priorities to us,” says Melissa.
  1. Measure diversity and belonging program success. Use dashboards to visualize survey data. For example, organizations can leverage employee engagement surveys to first measure outcomes such as a sense of belonging and psychological safety, and then slice that data to understand experience gaps by demographics.
  1. Focus on diversity on both sides of the interview. Not only do you need to proactively invite a diverse slate of candidates to your interviews, be sure those interviewing candidates represent diverse backgrounds and experiences, as well. However, be careful of creating a diversity tax, i.e., overburdening the same representatives with extra work.
  1. Aim for culture add, not culture fit. Whenever you talk about culture fit, not only is it often a poorly articulated idea of who does and doesn’t belong, you’re also allowing for bias to creep in. When you talk about culture add, you recognize that the state in which you currently exist isn’t necessarily optimal – and that a better future state can be achieved through bringing in individuals with diverse experiences and backgrounds. Culture add also invites people to be curious and to learn about individuals’ experiences that are different than their own.
  1. Expand your diversity and belonging ecosystem. Provide a roadmap to support your leaders and employees in achieving the goals the organization has set around diversity and belonging.
  1. Partner with and support your HR professionals. Business leaders should work to build relationships with their HR partners to leverage and learn from their skills in the diversity, equity, and inclusion arena.
  1. Empower managers and leaders to champion their people. Managers are the frontlines of culture: they create onboarding plans for new employees, unpack the organization’s unspoken rules and currency, and provide support. When managers take the time to get to know their employees as whole individuals – showing that they care and demonstrating empathy and authenticity – research shows that productivity increases. Managers also act as advocates and translators during situations that are difficult to navigate, such as microaggressions and macroaggressions, to help team members better understand each other.
  2. Value qualitative (experience) data. Don’t ignore the anecdotes your diverse employees are sharing about their experiences. And ask for help – there’s power in having conversations with people at all levels of the organizations as well as employee resource groups. Then, when you ask people to share their experiences, take action on them, as well.


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