How can employee networks achieve sustainable impact?
By Jo Faragher on 28 April 2023
The National Day for Staff Networks is coming up on 10 May 2023, and this year’s theme is “staying strong”. There’s a clear message here, that employee networks are a crucial space where people can feel welcome and heard, but that they can also be prone to burnout or inertia in their endeavours to drive change in their organisations. For many leaders, it can be frustrating that their actions – while valuable – may not be having the impact they really desire.
Sara Bell, associate consultant at Radius Networks, which supports group leaders, sponsors and allies to create sustainable networks, explains that network leaders often begin their journey with passion, but greater impact comes when they start to influence the business strategy. “There’s a shift in maturity from simply creating a safe space for a group of people,” she says, “they realise there are other networks and intersections and they’re not fighting for airtime.” Radius’ programmes support leaders to evolve their networks beyond traditional roles and activities such as awareness days, helping them to partner with key stakeholders in the business and truly influence the D&I agenda in their organisation. It also offers a network maturity guide, which allows leaders to track and assess where their network is in terms of impact, providing benchmarks and recommendations for how they can exert greater influence. Training is also available on how networks can feed into company D&I dashboards and other metrics.
Rob Neil OBE, director at Krystal Alliance and former chair of the Civil Service Race Forum, an umbrella network for race networks across government departments, says it can be tempting for leaders to be “intoxicated” by the success of activities such as awareness days and food-led events celebrating different cultures. “If there’s food involved it will always be enticing,” he laughs, “but you can get ‘drunk’ on the fact the organisation keeps allowing you to run these events, becoming victims of your own event management success.” Leaders with ambition often want to move beyond this and effect real change, he adds, but are usually doing this at the side of their desk with no financial compensation.
“The smarter organisations recognise that by including network activities in your business plan, and putting these roles on payroll, you end up with a more responsive and accountable team of people. They ultimately save money and deliver greater value because they can help avoid employment tribunals or other costly mistakes.” One of the most impactful ways networks can support the D&I goals of the broader organisation is through encouraging employees to share their diversity data, and there are multiple examples of businesses where this has been a success. At the Ministry of Justice, Neil explains, response rates increased from around 50% to 74% in less than 12 months thanks to support from the department’s race and ethnicity network.
If they’re looking for sustainable change and want to avoid burnout, one of the ways networks can create more impact is through efficient project management and the way they are set up, says Bell from Radius. “Networks are often flat, agile structures – they are anti-hierarchical by nature,” she adds. “But this means they can have an impact quickly if they work in a democratic way, where people feel their contribution matters and their voice has been heard.” Project management tools can help, or breaking initiatives down into smaller ‘sprints’ with shorter-term goals. Prioritisation is also important – less mature networks often have a “long shopping list” of things they want to achieve and struggle to make progress, and filtering this down to fewer priorities will help.
At infrastructure consulting company AECOM, employee resource groups are relatively new but are already making an impact. In 2022, their Ethnic Diversity Network was highly commended at the European Diversity Awards. “From the outset we made sure our ERGs felt they could add value and would be treated as core business activity. They have budgets allocated, costed business plans and objectives that align to our ED&I strategic goals. Using Dr Robert Rodriguez’s model, ERG activity is led by the 4 ‘Cs’ of community, culture, careers and commerce,” explains Rachel Billington, Head of ED&I for Europe and India at the company. “The idea is that ERGs are business focussed as well as a support community, and there’s still space for that.” There are regional ERG chapters and we collaborate to come under a wider global umbrella. Regionally, groups work together on an intersectional basis and are in frequent communication, she adds. In terms of governance, ERGs sit on an EDI delivery group where they can see how their activities fit into wider goals as well as being present when decisions are made. But ultimately, they are not responsible for delivering the whole ED&I strategy, Rachel stresses: “They’re an enabler, a critical friend,” she says. “That’s needed a bit of education – the onus is not on them to make those changes but to push the wider organisation”.
Networks can and do measure the impact they have in a number of ways, however. Helen Robinson, Diversity & Inclusion and Community Engagement Manager at Auto Trader, says her company’s networks do this by working closely with recruitment and the employee brand team. “They showcase all the work they are doing internally and through our social media channels helping to attract diverse talent into the business. Our resourcing team regularly get feedback from new starters about the reasons they join the business, with many stating that it’s due to some of the info being shared on social media about what our networks have been doing,” she explains. “Our networks are also able to review our quarterly employee engagement survey results and split them by diversity demographics in order to get a deeper understanding of how our colleagues are truly feeling across the business. With this information, they can then shape their yearly commitments focusing on specific areas. The networks are able to review these results every quarter and map any trends.”
Nadine Dyer, respect and inclusion manager and former head of the Multicultural Network (MCN) at Deloitte, says one of the key measures of impact was membership. “We measure success through the increase of MCN members, and through the number of active allies that also want to be involved – the growing community of allies as part of the network has helped champion active advocacy across the firm,” she says. Greater engagement from senior leaders also helps to increase impact. For example, UK Managing Partner Stephen Griggs is the sponsor of the MCN Allies community. She adds: “We also have regular mechanisms in place for members and key stakeholders to give feedback on the network’s performance and progress through surveys.” The network has also been recognised with a number of awards.
Dyer says the context and culture of the business often dictates how successful a network can be in making an impact. “I think all networks strive to do the very best for the people that they represent, it’s the purpose of the network to make an impact and the reason that they exist,” she says. “It really comes down to the organisation that the network is in, to allow the network to be the listening ear, the voice of the people that it serves, and to work in collaboration to be impactful. I don’t think they can exist separately, so they must be aligned to the organisation’s D&I strategy.” But that’s not all they offer, she concludes: “A network’s identity is always evolving, and they are much more than a distribution list. They make up the employee experience for many under-represented colleagues and play an important role in working in collaboration with the organisation to act and respond to members’ needs and expectations.”
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.