Importance of staff networks: The role they can play fostering diversity and inclusion
by Shoosmiths LLP
Employee networks are voluntary groups of employees that come together based on shared identity or life experience. Properly organised and empowered networks greatly benefit those organisations genuinely looking to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace.
What do employee networks do?
Usually, staff networks will have a focus on traditionally disadvantaged or marginalised areas of society such as the LGBTQ+ community, ethnic minorities, women, and those with disabilities and/or mental health issues. This is because society reminds us that bias has and still does exist, with sometimes devastating consequences.
The remit of such networks can vary from organisation to organisation. Primarily, they offer employees a safe space in which to meet and discuss their experiences, network with their peers and build a workplace community based on their shared identity.
They can also provide a source of support for individual members of staff who may be facing challenges at work, by giving easy access to colleagues who can empathise, share their own experiences, and offer practical advice.
However, staff networks can offer much more than this and, if used effectively, can play a key role in an organisation’s diversity and inclusion agenda.
For example, employee networks can provide a platform to promote an employer’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, showing the value that the employer places in all of its staff. Members of the network often commit to helping to educate the wider workforce by writing blogs, hosting events, delivering training or sharing information.
A staff network can also have a collective voice, raising awareness of areas for improvement needed within an organisation to ensure equal opportunities for any and everyone. This might be bringing issues to the attention of management, or campaigning for changes to policies and procedures to make them more inclusive. With internal staff networks working collaboratively and for the same common goals, the better the result and/or progress sought will be. An example here would be staff networks working together to raise awareness of matters of intersectionality.
A challenge for many employers looking to make improvements in diversity and inclusion is the lack of available diversity data for their organisation which could help to identify where resource is needed or what their priorities should be. However, there can be uncertainty over what data employers can ask for and many employers are reluctant to approach employees for such information, on the basis that it may appear intrusive or promote division. This is where a staff network can be invaluable. Not only can the network advise on what data to collect and they best way to do this, they can also disseminate information to their members about what approach the organisation is taking, why and how the data will be used to reassure and encourage employees to provide the necessary information to an employer. In turn, the network can report back to members on any progress made as a result of the data received.
Some employee networks also discuss wider issues faced by similar groups in the community as a whole and work with charities linked to the particular focus of the network, which can build on and enhance an organisations CSR programme.
Why are such networks important?
On average, we spend nearly a quarter of our life working. Making employees feel included at work can directly enhance performance and happiness in the workplace, which in turn builds loyalty and trust and helps an employer to attract and retain talent.
Employee networks provide support, enhance career development and contribute to personal development in the work environment. They create supportive environments and help bring people together. They give the ability to champion individuals and call for change, as well as empower employees and help to create an environment where everyone can be their true selves.
Not only that, staff networks are key to ensuring effective equality and a culture of inclusivity within the workplace, by helping to eradicate discrimination or harassment at work through education and information sharing.
By supporting a diverse workplace, the organisation will also benefit in terms of productivity. Research has demonstrated diverse teams can solve problems faster and have an increased ability to innovate and make decisions compared to non-diverse teams. Engagement levels are also higher and opportunities for external networking, whether with customers, clients or intermediaries are greater.
How do you ensure your networks are effective?
For an employee network to be an effective tool for an organisation, it must be a real vehicle for the employee voice, both on an individual and collective basis, and be authentic throughout (staff networks should never be part of a tick box exercise). This means that the network must be actively engaged with the rest of the business. For this to work, there also has to be buy-in from senior leaders within the organisation, who commit to attending meetings and taking an interest in the work of the network.
An effective network will also have clear aims and objectives, setting out why it exists and how it will operate, and make these available to all staff.