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Updated: May 27, 2021

The Sofrito of the Workplace

As a self-proclaimed foodie, many of my fondest memories and experiences are tied to food. Food is an instant connector; it evokes positive feelings and lends itself to sharing with others. I believe it fundamentally creates a sense of belonging. One of my most recent memories of belonging and food took place in the early days of our expat experience living in Spain.

We arrived in Spain the Summer of 2017and settled into our new apartment. We began to explore our surroundings, becoming acquainted with the necessities: supermarket, hospital, pharmacy, school, etc. After orienting ourselves, I set out in search of the ingredients that would make our new abode “home.” Being Latina and growing up in a house where Puerto Rican food helped form part of my identity, I set out in search of ingredients to make “sofrito.” Sofrito is a staple in every Puerto Rican home; it is an aromatic blend of onions, garlic, red and green peppers, aji dulce peppers, cilantro and culantro. It is the foundation of many traditional Puerto Rican dishes: guisados (stews), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), habichuelas (beans), to name a few. While most of the ingredients are readily available; there are two key ingredients, aji dulce (sweet pepper) and culantro (broadleaf cilantro), that we couldn’t find at our local Mercadona or Supercor (supermarket). So, we set out on a family adventure to the famed Algeciras Mercado Torroja in search of the key ingredients. Finding our key ingredients would put us a substantial step closer to making us feel like we belonged, that despite our 4,000+ mile journey across the ocean we could call Spain “home.” In the end, our mission was a success, all the ingredients to make sofrito were in the bag, and we were on our way to creating a sense of belonging in Spain.

A Recipe for Belonging

In an organization, belonging, like sofrito, is made up of critical ingredients that must coalesce before yielding favorable results. Ingredients that an employer intentionally adds to the mix to create an inclusive environment. Ideally, many of the ingredients are in the mix prior to the employee walking through the door for the very first time. The following foundational ingredients set the tone and significantly contribute to an employee’s sense of belonging.

Company Values: A company should be driven by a set of North Star values that include: respect, integrity, innovation, teamwork, and commitment to customers, employees and community. These values are fundamental to a culture of belonging.

Leadership Commitment to DEI: Belonging in the workplace is improbable without leadership commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Considering approximately 37%[1] of the U.S. workforce is diverse, 47%[2] are women, and 44%[3] of millennials belong to a minority or ethnic group, Belonging can only occur for these traditionally marginalized groups if there is a commitment to DEI at the top. How can a leader show his/her commitment to DEI? By ensuring that:

a.) the dimensions of diversity found within the marketplace are reflected throughout the employee hierarchy;

b.) policies and practices are equally applied to all regardless of race, age, religion, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, or sexual orientation; and

c.) the seats at the decision-maker table are occupied by individuals that reflect diversity.

Brand Positioning: How is the brand showing up? Marketers refer to this as ‘Brand Positioning” defined as “the place that a brand occupies in the minds of the customers and how it is distinguished from the products of the competitors.” Brand positioning is just as relevant to prospective employees when the brand aligns with their values. So, how does the brand “show up”: on campus in the make-up of its recruiting team; in its selection of universities to recruit talent (HBCUs/HSIs); in the visuals on its recruiting material; and in its corporate communications? These are just a few examples of brand positioning to create a culture of belonging.

Allyship – Intentional Inclusion

Managers and colleagues add the final key ingredients, which are intentional inclusion. No one wants to be excluded. Ultimately belonging in the workplace is about “feeling” welcome, accepted, valued, connected and part of the company-family. Feelings that are “owned” by the employee, but hinge on the ongoing interactions between the employee and his/her manager and colleagues.

Employees want to be valued and recognized for their unique characteristics and contributions to the organization; they do not want to be invisible. Employees want to be seen for who they are, authentically. They also want to have a voice, be heard when they speak up and share an idea, perspective or even a personal matter, without fear of judgment or reprisal. This is referred to as psychological safety, “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”[4]

The average American spends 90,000 hours[5] at work during their lifetime. Shouldn’t that time be spent in an environment that is at a minimum welcoming?

The Gains of Belonging

According to the Better Up 2018 study, employees who feel a sense of belonging have a 56% increase in job performance. Increased job performance typically means greater output and more engagement. Employees who feel a sense of belonging are also more inclined to bring their new ideas/creativity to work. 59% of engaged employees say their job “brings out their most creative ideas.”[6] Creativity leads to innovation, which is crucial to a company’s sustained growth. At Macy’s, CEO, Terry Lundgren encouraged creativity and innovation, referring to those ideas that didn’t pan out as “noble failures”.

Innovation and greater job performance aren’t the only gains. Employers also save on expenses in creating a culture of belonging. Employees who feel they belong take 75% fewer sick days and represent a 50% reduction in turnover risk.[7]

And, if you need more compelling reasons to support a culture of Belonging in the workplace, consider the fact that the companies that value DEI, outperform their competitors by 35%. They see revenue increases of 19% where they have more diverse management teams, and their decision-making by diverse teams outperforms that of individuals 87% of the time. In sum, companies that want to get the most of their employees, reduce expenses and outperform their competitors should embrace Belonging.

As a final word, the sofrito we prepared after our visit to the Algeciras Mercado Torroja was memorable. The mixture of smells, taste, family, and warm feelings connected us to home, in Spain.

The Algeciras Mercado de Abastos Torroja is a bustling open-air market filled with vibrant colors, aromas, and the diversity of ethnicities found in Spain’s southernmost region. Algeciras is a port city that is the gateway between Europe and Africa; a city where Moorish influences abound today and where history speaks to its invasion in 711 by Moors of North Africa and its subsequent conquer by Alfonso XI of Castile during the Siege of Algeciras (1342-1344).

[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics (December 2020) [2] Catalyst, Women in the Workforce – United States: Quick Take 10/14/2020 [3] The millennial generation: A demographic bridge to America’s diverse culture (William H. Frey, January 2018) [4] Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor [5] Happiness at Work (Jessica Pryce-Jones) [6] Krueger & Killham Study (2007) [7] Better Up Study (The Value of Belonging at Work – New Frontiers for Inclusion (2018)

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