An introduction to Staff Network Groups

An introduction to Staff Network Groups

If you’re active on social media and follow updates on platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that over the last twelve months more and more of the UK’s biggest employers are sharing their successes around diversity and inclusion with their followers – bringing lots of positive attention their way. Many of these updates are as a direct result of, or are related to, the fantastic work of their internal staff network groups who are generally coordinated and supported by employees who do this work in a voluntary capacity on top of their day jobs.

Whether it’s an organisation supporting one of the UK’s many diversity festivals, such as Manchester Pride and Glasgow Pride, or hosting an internal event to celebrate a key date on the diversity calendar, like International Women’s Day, or sharing their success at one of the UK’s awards events that celebrate those organisations doing great things in the workplace and in the communities they serve…network groups are the driving force behind much of these organisations activity in these areas. Without active staff networks groups there would be no story to share in many cases.

And when it comes to sharing the real-life workplace experience and benefits within an organisation in a competitive workforce marketplace, there are no better authentic spokespeople than your own employees.

Staff/Employee network groups (ENG), or employee resource groups as some people refer to them as, may seem like a pretty new thing, but some organisations have been investing in their own ENGs since the mid 1990’s. Flash forward twenty years and many organisations are just realising the value and benefits ENGs can have on their workplace culture, employee attraction and retention, corporate social responsibility initiatives and staff engagement. With hundreds of active ENGs all over the UK having a positive impact on the lives of their members, teams within their organisations, charities and local groups…and on their organisations bottom line…the business case for launching an ENG has never been clearer to see.

“And when it comes to sharing the real-life workplace experience and benefits within an organisation in a competitive workforce marketplace, there are no better authentic spokespeople than your own employees.”

What is an employee network group?

Employee network groups come in all shapes and sizes, but they all share many similarities. They bring employees with shared characteristics such as gender, race, cultural heritage, sexual orientation, faith, age and disability together in a safe space and offer varying opportunities for their members. These include social and development opportunities, mentoring, volunteering, sharing best practice and a chance to gain skills and experience in areas they may not get the opportunity to do in their ‘day job’.

It is common for networks to start their life with a focus on bringing their members, and potential members, together in a social capacity, such as payday drinks and quiz nights. This is a positive place to start, but it shouldn’t set the tone for a network group. There will be many people who won’t be interested in this aspect, or will struggle to engage due to responsibilities outside of work, such as being a parent or carer. Networks should work hard to avoid being tagged as the ‘all boys club’ or ‘boozy club’ – these are tags that are hard to shake off and will hold back the development and impact of the network.

Once ENGs have an engaged and active membership (this takes time), and more people to support their work, networks often then develop into a think-tank for their organisation, and sector, and are the go to people to consult and advice on policy, community and staff engagement, new products, services and advertising aimed at different communities, and beyond. They offer invaluable insight. The activities of ENGs are generally aligned to the wider strategy, values and social goals of the organisation they represent – this makes getting things done easier too.

For ENGs to have a real and lasting impact they need support and endorsement from the very top of the organisation. This support will ensure that at varying points in the work of the network group people listen and the networks voice is heard throughout the organisation. Senior sponsors help open doors and are vital for a network to grow and reach their full potential. With most networks being coordinated by a small team of dedicated volunteers at different levels of seniority within the organisation, this support helps get the most out of the limited time the individuals have to dedicate to the network. They will also feel their work is more valued by the organisation and that their immediate line manager and team understand and support their network group responsibilities – this is often a challenge for less senior members of a network group Steering Committee and for those not working in a head office location.

It is becoming more common for network groups to be fully inclusive and to welcome members who may not identity with the characteristic the network group represents, but who have an interest and a desire to be an ally and support the objectives of the network. This is a positive step forward and will support true workplace and community inclusion. By being a member, they will learn about and gain knowledge about things they may otherwise never have had access to. Allies will share the awesome work of the network, the real-life challenges still experienced by many and how everyone can support in different ways, far beyond that if the membership of the network was more exclusive. Chances are you’ll hear things from a different perspective from your allies too that’ll support you in lots of ways. All networks need ambassadors who will talk about the network at every opportunity, ensuring as many people as possible know that the network exists and how they can access it.

Photo : Staff network group members representing networks from all over the UK at the 2015 Inclusive Networks Awards in Manchester

What are the benefits of having an employee network groups?

This summary isn’t exhaustive, but here are some key benefits.

People perform better when they can be themselves
If you’ve attended any diversity conferences or employee network group events you’ve probably heard this saying many times – but it’s so true. An organisation with a visible ENG for different characteristics that your employees, future employees and customers identify with is a strong signal that employees differences are respected, and welcomed, and they can be themselves at work. If your ENGs are visible outside of the workplace, such as on Twitter and at community events, and are doing great work that’s positively engaging with people, your organisation will quickly gain a reputation as being one that truly embraces and supports diversity and inclusion…and you’ll become an employer of choice for many as a result. If people feel valued and that they can be their true selves at work, they will be more productive too.

Celebrating
With a packed calendar of diversity celebration events and awareness raising days, such as Black History Month and National Coming Out Day, ENGs bring your workplace and community engagement initiatives to life – and add authenticity.

There are lots of opportunities throughout the year to celebrate and link fundraising and employee volunteering days to supporting charities and community groups linked to these awareness days – such as supporting LGBT charity Stonewall around LGBT History Month or charity Mind around Mental Health Awareness Month. Your ENGs will often be the driving force behind this engagement and are likely to be full of fresh and innovative ideas to make this an even greater success and to help educate the wider workforce in the process.

An engaged ENG and Steering Committee will be a loud and positive voice for your organisations culture, career opportunities and internal and community engagement. Social media is an influential way for your employees to share their network group experiences, such as attending events, hearing senior leaders share their career journey, fundraising and demonstrating support for key diversity days, with their own followers – ultimately reflecting positively on your organisation and reaching people you may not have been able to…and it’s free – but shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“An engaged Employee Network Group and Steering Committee will be a loud and positive voice for your organisations culture, career opportunities and internal and community engagement.”

Career development
As already mentioned, ENGs shouldn’t be purely a forum to socialise. The most valuable networks offer many benefits for their members, such as mentoring, attending internal and external conferences and networking events, learning new skills by supporting the work of the network and by having access to leaders within the business who sponsor, support and actively get involved in the work of the network.

There are lots of things that make a network group successful, whether this is arranging events, producing the network newsletter, producing internal comms and masterminding ways to engage with more employees and gain the support of more leaders within the business. Due to limited time for network duties it’s often the easier option to align people to their day-job skill set, but lots of networks encourage their members to support with things they have an interest in, but perhaps not the experience. Through mentoring and on the job experience they will quickly learn new skills that can be added to their CV and support their own personal development.

Community
Networks offer a safe space where members of the network can be their true selves. For lots of people, coming to work may be the only time they are around people like them and they can be themselves. Lots of people live in communities and households where they are in the closet and face prejudice, not just with their sexuality, and networks can be a valuable opportunity for them to meet new people and to seek advice, support and reassurance.

Photo : Staff network groups from all over the UK at a panel event in London that was arranged by Inclusive Networks and awesome charity Action for Children

What if your organisation doesn’t have a network group but you want to be a part of one?

Launching an employee network group is a journey, and a path some organisations have gone down several times with their networks losing momentum or fizzling out for various reasons over time. Some organisations also may feel that due to their size, not employing many people, launching a network group may not work for their organisation.

Before coming to these conclusions, don’t assume and put a feeler out amongst your employees. People come and go and to get things moving all you need is one or two energised and determined employees who will put you on the right track.

Over the last few years inter-sector network groups have really come in to their own and are driving and championing diversity and inclusion in their respective sectors. Examples include the Gender Inclusion Network for Insurance and the Inter-Engineering Network for LGBT+ people and allies working in the engineering sector. The networks are made up of representatives and membership from a range of organisations within their sector with membership being open to anyone working within the sector – even if your organisation isn’t a member.

These are an attractive option for freelancers and consultants or for those working in small organisations and in more isolated areas.

Watch out for our new employee network group series of articles where we’ll be bringing you lots of examples of awesome networks around the UK. A version of this article, written by Inclusive Networks Founder Thomas Anderson, was published by VERCIDA in 2017.

Nobody is more influential when it comes to communicating your company’s brand and workplace culture, than the employees themselves. If you’d like to share your workplace, employee and community engagement and network group news and updates with our readers, then we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us here!

About The Author

Thomas Anderson

Founder and MD of Inclusive Networks. Thomas was Chair of the award winning LGBT network for The Co-operative Group, ‘Respect’ (2011-14). Thomas named the network and designed and managed all of the branding, communications and engagement until he stepped down from the role of Chair in March 2014. He also created the branding, name, was Editor of the quarterly magazine and developed the launch of the UK’s first Inter-Retail LGBT network ‘CheckOUT’. He contributed to the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index 5 Year review. In recognition of his work in the diversity field he was shortlisted for ‘Diversity Champion of the Year’ at the 2013 European Diversity Awards, shortlisted for ‘Role Model of the Year’ at the 2012 Lesbian & Gay Foundation Homo Heroes Awards and shortlisted for the ‘Positive Action’ award at the 2013 Asian Fire Service Association Fair & Diverse Awards. He also won the 2012 ‘Pride of The Co-operative’ award. He was a judge for Scotland's biggest diversity awards, The Icon Awards in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

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