The benefits of employee networks

Employee networks are voluntary groups of employees that come together based on shared identity or life experiences, often linked directly or indirectly to protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 such as sex, ethnicity, mental health, families and carers, social mobility, LGBTQ+, religion or belief and disability. Employee networks go by different names: employee resource groups, employee affinity groups, and other similar terms. If implemented and run effectively, and supported at a senior level, employee networks can bring multiple practical organisational benefits:

  • Demonstrating support for employee networks shows current employees and potential recruits that the organisation has a vigorous diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) strategy. An established employee network can contribute to the wider organisational DEI strategy by recognising and harnessing the benefit that diverse perspectives can bring;
  • A challenge for many employers looking to make improvements in diversity and inclusion is the lack of available diversity data for their organisation. 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 be intrusive or promote division. An employee network can advise on what data to collect and the best way to do this and can also disseminate information to their members about what approach the organisation is taking, why and how the data will be used and reassure and encourage employees to provide the necessary information. Subsequently the network can provide valuable feedback to members on any progress made;
  • Acting as a ‘critical friend’ to the business, employee networks provide an avenue for employees to identify barriers, and enablers, to a successful DEI strategy that senior leadership may be unaware of. Employee networks can make informed recommendations on how to improve recruitment, development, progression and retention in the organisation;
  • Supported employees drive productivity, develop better products and services, and promote innovation. An engaged network can add value by providing support in the workplace, empowering members to share their lived experiences and developing a pathway to bring these insights into the organisation’s culture; and
  • Engaged and supported staff provide a climate to develop social and business connections; in turn these may drive personal development and a wider understanding of the organisation.

The most important consideration when setting up an employee network is to establish its role within the organisation. Without clear aims and objectives, networks can at best either drift into irrelevance or, at worst, become a source of workplace conflict if given free reign to pursue a particular agenda.

Multinational businesses will normally be public-facing organisations. They have a social media presence and, in some cases, large mainstream media and sponsorship influences. When these organisations act at odds with (or even stay silent on) social trends and cultural movements, they expose themselves to criticism from their employees as well as from media outlets and the wider public. Employee networks can provide an important focus for those employees who are particularly passionate about social issues and can lead to a rise in employee activism.

Employee activism can be understood as employees being engaged in coordinated action to address a societal problem connected to the company they work for. This may entail promoting or countering change in their organisation or using the organisation as a platform to bring attention to an issue in wider society.

From an employment perspective it is key for organisations to understand that becoming involved in social issues is likely to cause some level of discussion. Diverging opinions may lead to workplace conflict between employees. It will be important to balance valid differences of opinion within an open framework of discussion and collaboration to avoid polarisation.

Employers around the world are facing challenges about how to engage with employee activism, whether in relation to their organisation’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, stance on the Middle East crisis, human rights issues, impact on the environment and the countless other topics where businesses may be seen to be contributing to problems or to have some influence on potential solutions.

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