Pride Month: Allyship and the importance of employee networks
Employee networks are voluntary, employee-led groups aimed at providing support, resources and a sense of community for employees who may share a common identity or experience. These networks provide a safe space for employees to connect, share experiences and work together to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
The role and importance of employee networks
In recent years there has been an increase in the number of organisations who have facilitated important progress via employee networks. Typically, employee networks will have a focus on traditionally marginalised communities or minority demographics, such as the LGBTQ+ community, ethnic minorities, women and those with disabilities. This is in order to try and challenge the biases that have, and unfortunately still do, exist within the workplace and beyond.
Employee networks should aim to provide a safe space within which employees can meet and discuss their experiences, network with their peers and build a community based on their shared identity or beliefs. Embracing a culture that focuses on equity, diversity and inclusivity at work can then, in turn, enhance happiness in the workplace and improve employee engagement and performance. Recent studies have also shown that diverse teams can solve problems faster and innovate more successfully than non-diverse teams. But, above all, giving employees the opportunity to be involved in an effective employee network can help to foster belonging and encourages employees to be their authentic selves at work.
Employee networks can also play a key role in demonstrating an organisation’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion and, when used effectively, they can provide a platform for effecting real change in the workplace. Using a collective voice, effective messaging and campaigning can highlight and raise awareness for areas of improvement within an organisation to ensure equitable treatment and opportunities for everyone. An employee network actively backed by an employer displays that the organisation places value in the inclusion and well-being of all staff, irrespective of their background. Network members also provide a key service to other colleagues by delivering training, sharing information and educating the wider workforce.
Employee networks will also discuss wider issues and may have links with charities and other organisations related to the particular focus of the network. This can assist employers who want to enhance their corporate social responsibility initiatives to focus on underrepresented communities.
The role of allies within networks
There is often the perception that network membership excludes certain parts of the workforce. However, employee networks do not have to be limited to individuals who identify as falling within a marginalised group and they should, where appropriate, be open to allies too. At Shoosmiths, we have our Proud Network (raising awareness for the LGBTQ+ community), Embrace network (celebrating the culture and heritage of our employees) and Balance Network (which promotes gender equality). All of our networks are open to allies, who are also crucial to effecting change in the workplace (and out of it!).
Allyship is all about being an advocate for people from marginalised groups, without being a member of that particular group. Allyship goes beyond passive acceptance or tolerance, but helps change the system and advocate for equality, taking proactive steps to support marginalised individuals. Allies acknowledge their privilege and use this to speak out for others and amplify minority voices.
Belonging to an employee network is not a requirement of being an ally but, by getting involved, allies can make a positive impact. They can display a proactive attitude and can actively make connections and advocate for a culture of inclusion, working to advance workplace culture for the benefit of all.
As well as being a beneficial addition, allies can also learn a lot from employee networks. Such networks will often hold events, write blogs and will generally discuss experiences of the group members. Allies can learn from these events and experiences, practice empathy and develop a deeper understanding of equity, diversity and inclusion, just by being an active member of an employee network.
Ensuring effective networks
To ensure that employee networks are properly supporting colleagues and effecting change, it is important that the network is a real voice for employees, and not just a tick box exercise. Committee members should have clear goals and objectives, setting out the distinct vision and purpose of the network. The involvement of a member of senior leadership can also assist in order to support and coach the committee to achieve the goals of the wider network. This offers role models who can share their journey and inspire other junior colleagues. Senior buy-in can also provide the influence that is sometimes required for organisation-wide policy changes.
Collaboration between employee networks will also ensure that there is an approach that supports employees with overlapping identities and acknowledging intersectionality in this way is vital for genuine inclusion. Further, keeping track of what works and what doesn’t is also crucial for the success of employee network efforts. A plan for monitoring and evaluating efforts of the group is important for developing the network and maintaining efficiency.
If implemented in a considered manner, employee networks can be a key driver for progress. Whilst Pride Month provides the opportunity to reflect on the role of employee networks, it is important that these networks are continually nurtured and developed in order to achieve genuine progress. Organisations should therefore look to foster the growth of networks all year round in order to improve overall equity, diversity and inclusion throughout their work force. Further, allyship should be actively encouraged on an ongoing basis in order to promote support and open conversation between colleagues.
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