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Like many, my first step in the inclusion world was through setting up a staff network. It was an ethnic minority staff network. That network helped open the eyes of the organisation to the different experiences of its employees. It helped them understand how its brand, purpose and services were landing with people from different ethnic groups.

Since then, I have set up and supported a variety of networks. In my previous role, I saw some of the pitfalls, as well as the amazing progress and collective energy, they can generate.

In this blog, I capture some of my learning about setting up a staff network from scratch.

What is a staff network?

Staff networks can add huge value to organisations who want to advance their inclusion programme and practice. Setting up a staff networks allows organisations to raise awareness and celebrate workforce diversity.

They create opportunities for employees to connect, share support, identify barriers and make suggestions for improvement. They can be a driving force for change for colleagues who share similar identities, interests or experiences. Especially for colleagues from underrepresented or minority groups.

A staff network is a group of colleagues, often with a shared heritage, experience, or characteristic. Through the network they come together to support each other and support the organisation to promote inclusion. They may also be called Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), Business Resource Groups (BRGs), Workplace Equality Networks (WENs), or Affinity Groups.

Who can set up a staff network?

Networks should be entirely inclusive and allow all colleagues to join and support their activity. This could be from a lived experience perspective or as an ally.

In order to achieve real change, it is essential that inclusion is understood and appreciated across the workforce. Building silos or boundaries can hinder this progress.

This does not mean that all activities, or roles, within a network need to be open to all colleagues. I will expand on this more below.

How do staff networks support employees?

Staff networks are dynamic communities. They serve as catalysts for positive change and drive initiatives that promote inclusion. They also provide platforms for connection, advocacy, and professional development.

When setting up a staff network it’s important to establish a clear purpose. Knowing this from the beginning helps to ensure the success of the network in achieving it’s aims and goals.

Here are some examples of the benefits and impact of setting up a staff network:

Championing inclusion

Networks raise awareness of the opportunity and importance of striving for inclusion, because they communicate its value. Staff networks support a culture where colleagues can be themselves and still deliver the needs of the organisation.

Support

Most of us will need support at different stages in our lives but not everyone has the same access to support. Staff networks can be an amazing source of support and can signpost colleagues to further sources of help if needed. This helps might include internal offerings, local services, organisations, and charities.

Connections to others with similar lived experiences helps to create psychological safety. Safe and supportive spaces encourage people to be themselves.

Challenge inequality

A network can act as a critical friend, shining the light on inequalities in the workplace. Staff networks can offer “early warning signs” and provide insights about concerns. They can be a safe space to develop solutions to address them.

Setting up a staff network that 1) raises issues, and, 2) offers solutions, will quickly become seen as commercially critical. It is likely to be supported by the wider workforce and leadership.

How do staff networks benefit organisations?

Successful networks offer a huge commercial advantage and can be hubs of innovation and creativity.

Staff networks improve the internal culture by enabling employees to feel valued and heard.

The also have the power to promote the employer brand externally. They can highlight the organisation as an employer of choice and one dedicate to attracting diverse talent.

Networks can also help provide insight on external customer needs. They can help develop new ways to satisfy them and respond to concerns.

“Make sure you provide suitable training and guidance and invest in building their capability at the outset. The most effective networks have the scaffolding and support in place initially. This supports them to become self-sufficient.”

Discover how our Staff Network Academy can help
A diverse group of people in a staff network training session raising their hands in a group exercise

How to set up a staff network in your workplace

Setting up a staff network is an exciting opportunity. It is a chance to foster a sense of community and support in an organisation.

Below is a list of considerations for getting one off the ground:

Is a staff network needed?

Firstly, you will want to explore the current level of interest and appetite. You may have colleagues who are keen to set up a network. If you have little interest you will need to raise awareness of the value of setting up a staff network in your organisation.

If you decide to go ahead, it could be worth considering setting up an umbrella inclusion group as a first step. This can help increase awareness before more focused networks are developed. Focused groups may evolve more organically, once interest grows.

Be clear about the purpose and priorities

When you set up the network its vision, strategy and priorities should align with your inclusion and diversity strategy. This strategy should be linked to your organisation’s mission and priorities.

Supporting the delivery of the overall inclusion and diversity strategy and objectives is a natural focus for staff networks. Ideally, the inclusion and diversity strategy will align with the corporate strategy, and the priorities of your networks. Collaboration between all areas of activity helps to increase the impact and align the key messages.

If the vision of the organisation or network is unclear it will be hard to identify the objectives, put them into practice and evaluate them. Colleagues will naturally be more engaged if they can see a clear link with what they do day-to-day and the goals of the staff network. This clarity will also make it easier to get buy-in from line managers and senior leaders.

Agree your membership, terms of reference and governance structure

Once you have clarified the network’s purpose, as explained above, you can formalise this in a terms of reference. This acts as a guide for your activity and helps solidify your membership.

Sometimes networks can unintentionally excludes or alienate colleagues. Staff networks must allow all colleagues to join and support their activity. This could be from a lived experience or an ally perspective. Some may want to take an active lead and others may want to attend events and awareness raising.

There may be times when it’s helpful for people of a particular affinity to meet alone. A space where they can share experiences in a safe space and develop ideas to address exclusion. Learning from these groups can be shared with the wider network of allies to generate collective action and responsibility.

Helping the network identify its members’ roles and responsibilities will support it to be productive. This means feeling confident to delegate tasks so that the network is not reliant on the energy and enthusiasm of a few members.

If you have more than one staff network, it can be helpful for the chairs /co-chairs of each network to meet regularly. This creates the opportunity to share: progress, challenges and lessons learned, and creates opportunities to collaborate and plan intersectional events and activities.

The network needs recognition in your wider governance structure to have an impact. Typically, this would include providing regular reports to your inclusion and diversity committee or team, or to your Executive Team. This is particularly effective when there is alignment between the company’s strategies and plans, as explained above.

After setting up a staff network its awareness and expertise will grow. Other areas of the organisation will recognise its strategic value and go to the network for feedback on projects and developments. This could be a communications campaign, recruitment process, or policy and strategy development. It’s good practice to record the impact that networks have, so their value can be demonstrated.

Make sure actions have an impact

As part of setting up a staff network, develop an annual plan of activity with SMART objectives and measures. This will help to keep the network’s activity aligned to the wider inclusion and diversity strategy and demonstrate its impact on business outcomes and performance. This is particularly helpful if the network wants to request additional resources and budget for the following year.

Outcomes could include:

  • Offering a certain number of lunch-and-learns per year.
  • An increase in staff network membership by a certain percentage.
  • Improved staff survey results in a particular area.

Support them to grow and flourish

Establish a staff network that will be supported. Networks benefit from clarity about the support that’s available to them, so make sure they know about key contacts in the organisation. For example, link them with communications and event teams, admin support, the inclusion and diversity team, training and development opportunities, and make sure they know what budget is available to them.

Don’t assume that network members naturally know how to be inclusive. Colleagues join networks for different reasons and won’t necessarily be inclusion experts. Make sure you provide suitable training and guidance, and invest in building their capability at the outset. The most effective networks have that scaffolding and support in place initially. This supports them to become self-sufficient in the long-term.

When setting up a staff network the key areas for development will include:

  • Understanding the boundaries and focus of the network.
  • Aligning with the organisational purpose.
  • Supporting the wider inclusion programme.
  • Devising a business plan.
  • Measuring the impact of their activities.
  •  Running an inclusive meeting/team.
  • Influencing skills.
  •  Inclusive leadership behaviours.
  • Running inclusive events.

Managing the commitment

Organisations need to pay attention to the workload of network chairs and members. Where possible prioritise granting them protected time for network activities or other forms of recognition and reward.

Managing and setting up a staff network requires a lot of responsibility, creativity and innovation. This responsibility can often rest on a few active employees. They are likely to be squeezing network activities in around their day job because they are passionate about the impact they are having or desperately concerned about the lived experience of their colleagues.

This can often lead to burnout or needing to withdraw from network activities to give themselves a well-earned break. The burden of inclusion work should not fall solely on the shoulders of minoritised groups. This needs to be a collective effort and we need to be mindful. If this is happening it’s important to take steps to protect colleagues’ well-being.

How Inclusive Employers can support you to set up a staff network?

Many of the Inclusive Employers team have been involved in staff networks. Whether they have been members, involved in setting up staff networks, and for some leading award-winning national networks. We have a wealth of experience to bring on this topic that is developing everyday, through working with our members.

We often work with organisations to provide bespoke support and development for staff networks. The support we provide will depend where they are at in their inclusion maturity.

We also offer our Staff Network Academy. This includes a focus group with network chairs to understand their specific needs and a series of learning modules on topics including inclusive leadership, setting the network vision, delegation and influencing.

For Inclusive Employers members, our Staff Network Guide and Terms of reference template for staff networks are great resources for helping to get networks off the ground. They can also inspire networks in need of revival and new thinking.

If you are a member, please reach out to your Account Manager as we would love to hear about the progress of your staff networks and talk about additional support we can offer.

For non-members looking to set-up or develop an existing network, you can use the contact form below to start a conversation. We’re passionate about staff networks and look forward to hearing from you.

Grow your team

When you become an Inclusive Employers’ Member you grow your I&D team.

Your account manager works with you to understand your goals, your challenges and achievable next steps.

Do you need more support for your inclusive culture to thrive?

Learn about membership today

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