As we celebrate the National Day for Staff Networks, we asked our colleague Paula Kemp, Head of Employer engagement to tell us more about how staff networks can support the employee across their career as well as help the organisation build an inclusive workplace.
10 May 2023 is the world’s only nationwide day dedicated to recognising networks/resource groups and the incredible value they add to the workplace.
With over a third of employers who took part in the our employer consultation at the end of last year mentioning having (or soon to have) a Social Mobility staff network – sometimes referred to as an Employee Resource Group (ERG), or people/employee network – we know that a lot of organisations are reliant on these colleagues in supporting their efforts to build socio-economic inclusion.
These groups are predominantly run by employees and sponsored by a senior leader, most of whom are in executive positions within the organisation, with representatives from their network often sitting on a ‘Diversity Forum or Board’.
Employers reporting in our consultation praised their staff network for their commitment in supporting the wider organisation to take action that improves social mobility, and felt the networks helped influence a positive inclusion culture within the organisation, encouraging open dialogue around social mobility and building trust.
Below I list the key attributes of staff networks, highlight some examples of positive action that I have heard and reflect on other considerations:
- Create a safe space for colleagues to share their experiences
- Support colleagues to have the career they want
- Be a change agent for their organisation and their community.
Create a safe space for colleagues to share their experiences
In the first instance, staff networks offer employees a safe space in which to meet and discuss their experiences; network with their peers and allies; and build a workplace community based on their shared identity.
Staff networks provide an accessible source of support for individuals who might be facing difficulties at work, and are unsure of where to turn and are not yet ready to explore any formal route – members of the network can empathise, share their own experiences, and even offer practical advice. Ensuring confidentiality is considered, these issues can be relayed through the network to the organisation for the issues to be addressed.
Also, we shouldn’t assume that every experience an employee might have will be negative – sharing positive experiences of class in the workplace can also have real impact – providing employers with a great source of case studies and ‘organisational ambassadors’, highlighting the organisation’s inclusive culture, for use on internal and external communications.
During our Masterclass ‘The art of using storytelling to build inclusion’, where we discussed how storytelling can help an organisation to have inclusive conversations, Odo Noel, Tri-chair of the Santander Social Mobility Network told us that network members sharing their stories had had a powerful effect on getting others involved in the network and their activities.
In our employer consultation, many employers felt their staff network “provide[s] a collective voice on social mobility from a lived experience perspective.”
Support colleagues to have the career that they want
With most members being drawn from across the organisation at many levels, they represent a wide range of grades and departments – making them ideally placed to support each other, as well as those new to the organisation, to have the careers they want.
I use the term ‘have the careers they want’ because for some people, this may mean feeling secure in the same role for many years, and for others this may mean progressing through the organisation – the staff network can help individuals achieve both.
For new colleagues it is a great way to quickly understand the company culture; it provides them with networking opportunities with people from different departments and levels of seniority to help them understand how they contribute to the wider organisational goals.
For those who want to progress in their career, being a network member could lead to conversations about different career pathways or informal sponsorship or mentoring opportunities. In fact, many organisations galvanise members of the staff network to participate in their official mentoring programmes, with some staff networks facilitating their own programmes or hosting learning and development opportunities specifically for members.
Be a change agent for their organisation and their community
Having that collective voice, coupled with access to HR (and connected to a senior sponsor and/or included in their organisation’s ‘Diversity Forum or Board’), the network can raise awareness of improvements needed to ensure equal opportunities within the organisation. Their ‘change agent role’ could see them highlighting issues to senior management or seeking changes to company policies and procedures to make them more inclusive.
They can also help the organisation to understand and address challenges faced by customers and clients from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In our employer consultation, a number of organisations mentioned that they use their staff network to engage externally on the topic of social mobility with SMEs (small-to-medium sized businesses) and other organisations through external events and activities.
Understanding their organisation’s procurement policy can also help drive change – there are instances of staff network members driving the change to an organisation’s procurement policies – shortening invoice payment terms; requesting their suppliers not employ staff on zero-hour contracts; or asking all suppliers to sign up to the real living wage.
Staff networks might choose to work with charities linked to social mobility, which can build on and enhance an organisation’s CSR programme and will almost certainly be involved in any of the organisation’s outreach or early careers activities that target students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
They can also lend their voice to making change across their industry. Antoinette Willcocks, in our Masterclass on ‘Accents in the Workplace’, shared with us that it was the Social Mobility employee network in FleishmanHillard who wanted to explore commissioning research into accent bias, resulting in the publication of ‘The Language of Discrimination’, a co-authored report exploring the lived experience of under-represented groups in the creative industries against a representative poll of UK adults working across all sectors. This research is now driving conversations not only in FleishmanHillard, but also industry-wide.
Some final considerations
As an employer, consider how you support the resourcing of the network. Most employers in our consultation offered their network a small budget to run activity, but the biggest resourcing issue was time. Often, the network members are running activities from ‘the side of the desk’ – ensuring the recognition of those staff volunteering their time would be welcomed. This could be through acknowledgement in staff performance reviews; attendance at D&I events; offering volunteering time or even training opportunities related to their role in the network (ie. comms training).
As a staff network, clearly set out your aims and objectives and share with all members. The resources, both money and time, that you have for activity to support social mobility will never be able to match the passion your members have for the subject – which could result in being spread too thinly, with little impact. Having agreed goals will help you stay focussed – and ensure you align with the organisation’s central social mobility strategy, anything else is confusing for network members and colleagues alike.
Never more true is the statement ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ than when talking about building a strong working relationship between the central Diversity and Inclusion [HR] team and the staff network. Their employment knowledge and your invaluable insight from lived-experience can really drive change for your organisation and the communities it is part of.