Equativo Insights: Diversity Network Groups

Many companies explore the use of employee resource or network groups as part of their business equity, workforce diversity and workplace inclusion initiatives. 

They’re sometimes also called affinity groups or business resource groups, often depending on the maturity of the programme.

This four-part mini-series covers topics for companies to consider:

  1. What
  2. Why
  3. How
  4. Complications and challenges.

In a recent conversation with someone who had been asked to be the executive sponsor of one of their company’s employee networking groups, they explained that they were not quite sure how to respond. 

Whilst being pleased to have been asked there was uncertainty as to what it meant and what they would have to do.

I was proud to have been the executive sponsor of my (at the time) employer’s LGBT+ networking group (at a Japan-headquartered IT services company) since the first chair of the group and I set it up a couple of years before. I found it to be personally fulfilling, challenging at times, and a fantastic opportunity to make a difference.

We got to talking about what it means to be a sponsor, and why network groups, employee resource groups or affinity groups as they are also sometimes called, are so important. Indeed, these groups form one of the major parts of most companies’ approaches to diversity and inclusion. (I’ll call them networking groups here unless seeking to clarify between the types.)

So what are these groups, why are they so important, how do they work, what’s in it for employees, what’s in it for the company to support the formation and successful operation and growth of them, and are there any potential complications be aware of?

What are affinity groups?

Generally speaking, affinity groups are those where like-minded individuals, for example, those who believe that greater ethnic diversity in the workplace is a good thing, can come together (digitally or in-person) to share their experiences, lend each other encouragement and support, and network around the company.

They are not a “talking shop”, or a trades union, and they are not there to provide counselling. In some companies these are “closed groups” only open to those people who share a characteristic, however it is more common for these to be open to those who share an interest.

An employee resource group (ERG) may go beyond this and start to influence aspects of corporate life to strengthen inclusion. For example, an ERG could review employee benefit policies to ensure that they work well for everyone in the company.

Or it could be represented at recruitment fairs to help the company demonstrate its diversity and attract a broader pool of candidates. An ERG can network with customers to broaden and deepen our engagement with them.

A typical configuration of networking groups would include:

  • Disability 
  • Gender / Women
  • LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender)
  • Cultural diversity (or black, Asian, minority ethnic, BAME, or black, Indigenous and people of color, BIPOC)

Other networking groups that could be considered relevant, with varying degrees of priority in different countries include religion and belief, age, parents and carers, and military veterans.

This allows for local variations, for example in some countries indigenous considerations are substantially more relevant than in others. 

Taking that common approach allows us to share between the groups far more easily what’s worked, as well as what hasn’t. It also allows us to be able to consolidate all of the work underway around the company into an overall program view and to ensure that the corporate strategic objectives and philosophy are being incorporated.

There are many reasons for the establishment of these groups, for both the individuals as well as for the company.

  • It’s a forum for like-minded people to gather to discuss topics of relevance and what changes they believe need to be made to create a more diverse workforce and inclusive workplace.
  • It allows allies to participate – those who do not necessarily personally identify with the group but who want to support progress – for example men participating in the gender / women’s network. (Network groups without allies participating are missing out massively on the potential to make change happen.)
  • Most of us are impacted by one if not several of the D&I topics, so even if one doesn’t identify with a group personally they may be relevant. For example
    • The parent of a lesbian daughter may join a company’s LGBT+ network to learn more whilst supporting the network. 
    • An employee who has a partner with a mental health conditions may join the mental health network at work for support, or to seek change in company policies if they do not provide support in the ways they need. 
    • It’s also the case that some characteristics are permanent for us and some may be temporary or transitional; for example a person may have a chronic illness for a number of years from which they later recover.

For the company:

  • Networking groups give the represented employees a voice. If there’s an issue then it’s a channel to engage the company on. If the company acts upon feedback it will help foster a sense of engagement and enablement between the company and the members.
  • The group may identify areas of improvement that are not apparent to those who are not part of the represented group, and not unreasonably so: for example not many heterosexual or straight people will know or understand why many LGBT+ people choose to “live in the closet”, or hide a fundamental part of one’s own identity every single day. 
  • Most improvements are available for all, for example where a Women’s Business Network may promote more flexible working practices they may in turn benefit everyone, not just women.
  • The group can help raise awareness around an issue, for example the company’s disability group could run a cross-company dyslexia awareness week.

Some structure needs to be established for networking groups. This helps both the members and the company. 

So, for example, one would normally have a network chair and a deputy. It will likely be expressly stated that the networking group is not a formal employee representation body (there are other channels for that) and that the networking group is not there to respond on behalf of the company on formal matters such as escalations or grievances (though of course members may choose to speak to other members should they choose).

Generally speaking, networking groups are not provided with substantial budgets. They typically rely upon the energy and enthusiasm of participants, along with a modest budget to, for example, fund attendance at external events, to cover internal meeting room costs when hosting an event, for the time that the network chair may spend away from their day job in managing the network. Most companies formally permit and encourage all employees to spend time on network activities during work hours, and many employees also choose to contribute some of their own time too.

How a networking group goes about its business is a topic in its own right. Of paramount importance is that the networking group defines a set of objectives for itself and seeks company endorsement of those objectives and the intended way of delivering them. 

The group should seek to engage as many people as they can in their work – they should recruit allies, determine how to communicate, identify how to involve everyone without needing to meet face-to-face all the time, and agree on how they are going to share information and coordinate their workload. 

Networking groups may rely in their initial stages heavily on the experience and knowledge of peer networks in other companies, or organisations. For example, in the UK many companies work with Stonewall when forming an LGBTQ+ network group. In turn, once established you can help networking groups elsewhere flourish too, such as corporate charity partners. 

It can be quite daunting to get going and no one should start from a blank sheet of paper – there’s a lot of information sharing within a company as well as with friends in other companies. 

There are, inevitably, complications and we’ll cover some of the more frequently experienced ones here. 

“I’ve not had that problem”. 

Often people who could be involved in a networking group, or indeed more than one, say “well being black / a woman / gay / disabled / etc has never been a problem for me so why should I be involved?” 

This can often be explored with questions such as “are you really saying that it’s never been an issue for you?”, or “have you never seen it be an issue for someone else”, or “do you accept that there may be people who at least perceive that there may be issues?”. 

Often this isn’t just about what an individual believes their own benefit will be, but also the ways in which they can help others.

“Such campaigning / promotion isn’t permitted in this country”

Here we touch on what is acceptable, or potentially even considered legal, in any particular territory. 

If this is a factor it is essential to understand very clearly what is and is not permitted, not just take common perceptions or stereotypes at face value. (This isn’t legal advice, you may need to source from company counsel.)

For example, discussions inside a company can be about how to do our best for our people. This does not necessitate campaigning or “promoting” a topic that is governed in some jurisdictions. 

If the people who work for us can’t discuss such matters outside the workplace, it’s arguably an even greater reason for the company to have mechanisms in place that provides for them when at work.

Having a workplace environment where an individual feels valued and respected solely on their capabilities, and giving them a safe place where they can be themselves without fear of discrimination or retribution, is arguably a sign of a forward-thinking company.

“We don’t have that problem here so we don’t need such groups”. 

This one can be a bit of a struggle to deal with. Is it really the case that:

  • People with disabilities feel fully engaged, supported or catered for at every single work location?
  • There’s a 50:50 mix of men and women at all levels in the company? 
  • The ethnic mix of staff represents the societies that we operate in, or the customers we serve? 

There are many examples where the “no problem” line has been used because “there aren’t any LGBT+ people here” or “there’s nobody here with a disability”. In reality, it’s highly likely that they are there but that they are not known about or being engaged properly. 

Alternatively, why do people not want to come and work for you? 

Setting up such groups is divisive”. “Creating these groups creates division among people instead of unity”. “I thought we were not supposed to make such distinctions

This is a topic that requires some careful consideration. 

It’s really important to note that networking groups, and indeed Diversity and Inclusion initiatives more widely, are not intended to create divisions – quite the opposite.  The networking groups however may shed light on divisions that already exist but that may not be visible to others. 

For example, office banter that may be considered acceptable to some can be hugely offensive to others and thereby create or reinforce barriers. Company medical schemes or other benefits that do not provide for same-sex partners can cause real issues and distress. The networking groups can help the company and its people raise awareness of such issues and provide solutions on how to address them. 

As has been mentioned in previous items in this series it is often the case that improvements sought by a networking group bring benefits for all, and indeed that most people are impacted by at least one if not all of the D&I characteristics in one way or another anyway – we are, after all, all unique human beings!

In conclusion

Networking groups bring huge value to the company and employees, but they aren’t without their challenges and complications. 

Careful consideration of all of these factors is prudent and will help bring along all stakeholders.