An ideal employee may be a tech hirer’s unicorn, but recent research from mobile coaching company BetterUp shows employees who feel a strong affinity of workplace belonging perform better, are less likely to leave, and take fewer sick days.

When a company fails to foster a sense of belonging, and employees feel excluded, productivity suffers, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars lost, the study postulates. As a response, BetterUp promotes interventional, transitional, behavioral change within a company, which it alleges will prevent or alleviate the feelings of exclusion. The research also shows interventions can often prevent or alleviate feelings of exclusion, thus building a more productive work environment.

Companies should “practice inclusive leadership” and “equitable team behaviors” and be wary of workplace exclusions, said Gabriella Kellerman, chief innovation officer for BetterUp. If an exclusion has been identified, managers should ask employees about the experience and ask how they are coping.

She said, “Workplace exclusion can happen unintentionally, so the first step is to create awareness of the detrimental impact that exclusion has on both employees and employers. Getting ahead of the problem by instilling organizational values and behaviors that support a culture of inclusion, mentorship, and allyship early on can help prevent the problem from the beginning.”

Inclusion should start at top, as she explained, “Inclusive leaders are empathetic, trustworthy, equitable, transparent, able to listen, and open to feedback. Inclusive leaders pay attention to team dynamics, notice the balance of communication and participation, and ask questions like, ‘How could that meeting have gone better?’ They are open with their own vulnerabilities, and available to their teams when they need to talk.”

Key results:

  • Belonging is good for business. Employees who feel a strong sense of belonging, versus a weak one, experience a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in sick days.

  • Lack of belonging is costly. The study speculates that if everyone at a 10,000-person company feels a high degree of belonging, productivity gains would top $52 million a year. This is based on “the projected increase in the average US employee’s real output per hour, a measure of how much each US worker contributes to the GDP,” Kellerman said. “We estimated the increase based on links we established through our data and through existing literature which are: belonging, job performance [to] productivity gains.”

  • Belonging is the best recruiter. Employees who feel they belong are 167% more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work to others.

  • Exclusion hurts performance. The survey showed that a single incident of micro-exclusion can result in a 25% decline in an individual’s performance on a team project.

Unsurprisingly, Betterup recommends coaching as an effective way to cultivate belonging in the workplace and suggests that intensive coaching for managers on how to practice inclusive leadership, which includes noticing when exclusion happens, understanding becoming allies, and gaining perspective on how it feels to be excluded.

“Taking steps to increase belonging has profound impacts, making workplaces more human and more productive,” said Alexi Robichaux, CEO of BetterUp. “Belonging is a basic human need that has not been given the attention it deserves in the workplace. Our research shows that when workplace exclusion exists, it has a detrimental impact to a company’s bottom line.”

BetterUp tested new interventions to increase belonging in a team setting. BetterUp found that small actions can make a huge difference. Effective solutions include fostering equitable team behaviors, creating allies, and having employees gain perspective on how it feels to be excluded.

“Our research shows that belonging is a core component of the employee experience and thriving at work,” Kellerman said. “Up until now, there has been a lack of evidence -based tools used to create inclusive workplaces. Fueled by our latest research findings, we are proud to have established a number of novel, evidence-based interventions.”

BetterUp’s previous studies were on loneliness at work, and the need for meaning and purpose.

Image: iStockphoto/fizkes