2 Inclusion networks
Also known as diversity networks, affinity groups or employee resource groups, these are groups that aim to ‘inform, support and advance employees with similar social identities’ (Dennissen et al, 2018).
Some organisations develop networks for their LGBTQ+ employees; Black, Asian and minority ethnic employees; or disabled employees. Networks may also be created to focus on issues relating to staff with caring responsibilities or employees who are homeworking.
The popular consensus is that they provide a support network that can help to advance an individual’s career, building community and creating safe spaces for employees to meet and discuss inequality issues.
Professional service firm EY (no date), describes the contributions made by its ‘employee networks’ as follows:
- Raising awareness of the diversity of our people and promoting a culture of inclusive leadership. Educating the business by raising awareness of the issues facing some of our under-represented groups.
- Attracting diverse new talent by contributing to the firm’s position as an employer of choice.
- Providing members with personal development opportunities and creating a sense of affinity with the firm. Creating opportunities to connect with colleagues across all our service lines and in different geographical locations, providing wider personal networks.
- Connecting to the market by providing opportunities to engage with our clients and potential clients.
- Challenging the business to ensure that inclusive practices are ‘business as usual’.
Watch this short video to hear how a variety of people benefit from their membership of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy’s networks.
Dennissen et al (2018) looked closely at five diversity networks to explore whether they are always as effective as organisations suggest. Their work confirms that at an organisational level, networks are able to change norms, policies and practices in order to make them more inclusive – drawing management attention to inequalities.
However, on an individual level, their research found that diversity networks can make people more ‘individually responsible for their careers’, meaning that the ‘organisational barriers that impede upward mobility remain invisible’.
At a group level, community building is valued, but ‘there is a fear of stigmatisation and disadvantage when they are perceived as exclusive communities’, which can negatively impact on the group’s willingness to challenge inequality.
It’s important to be aware of the potential downsides so that you can consider them honestly and openly with those involved before they have the opportunity to arise.
Activity 2 What could a diversity network offer your organisation?
Spend a few minutes thinking about how a diversity network might benefit your organisation. What aspect of diversity do you think is the biggest issue for you at the moment? What could a network achieve? Should the membership include allies from across the organisation?
If you already have one (or more) – what benefits do they provide at an organisational level? How might you explore whether Dennissen’s findings are reflected in your own networks?
While diversity networks can undoubtedly add value and create a sense of community, there is a risk that they can lead to resentment, particularly from those who do not feel represented. They don’t necessarily address the intersectionality of diversity either.
Before launching this type of initiative, it is important to consult widely to gain a perspective from your workforce.
This successful example of the use of diversity networks comes from a well-known sports club.
Manchester United Football Club (Robert Walters, 2020)
Alongside their ‘’ campaign, Manchester United launched several employee inclusion networks across a number of different workstreams. Their aim was to provide employees with ‘the platform and opportunity to drive forward the club’s work across varied areas of diversity and inclusion. With the support of at least one Executive Sponsor, members are empowered to provide critical advice and guidance on business initiatives, as well as insights into policies, processes and initiatives.’
So far, outcomes have included the development of a ‘Supporting disability in the workplace policy’, the launch of a Mental Health and Wellbeing Network and the initiation of the club’s first LGBTQ+ supporters group.
This one is from a financial services firm.
Financial services firm, Northern Trust’s ‘Business Resource Councils’ (Robert Walters, no date)
These affinity groups actively support workplace inclusion. They are employee initiated, governed and led and membership is open to any partner who shares an affinity for the mission of the group. Each council also has an executive sponsor. Activities include:
- designing and developing professional development opportunities for the population which they represent
- assisting in attracting diverse talent and supporting the diversification of the wider industry
- providing diverse insights to the business.
While setting up these networks may be a deliberate part of your action plan, maintaining the flexibility to recognise an emerging need and respond to it is also important.
Management consultancy firm, Capco (2020)
Nisaa tells her story about forming a new affinity group:
‘Coming to work after hearing that yet another tragedy has befallen the Black community takes its toll on you emotionally. It is hard to carry on as if everything is fine. I began to feel that my work life did not reflect enough my desire for community building and advocacy.
Capco needed a new network specifically for community building and advocacy for its Black employees, a network to advocate for diversity and to support each other professionally. With the support of Capco’s senior leadership, we formed the Black@Capco Affinity group. Black@Capco aims to create a space and network for Black employees to connect, engage, collaborate, and build professional and personal connections. Our mission is to partner with HR to recruit diverse talent, raise the rate of retention and improve advancement opportunities for Black employees. We have hosted a series of events, everything from virtual Jeopardy sessions to a training session on unconscious bias. To date, our events have been really well received and appreciated.’
If your organisation is too small to set up its own diversity networks, your relevant professional body might offer a similar opportunity.
The UK’s library and information association (CILIP, no date)
CILIP has established three diversity networks providing support and a platform for workers from diverse backgrounds, and their allies. These are the BAME Network (for professionals from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds), LGBTQ+ Network and Disability Network. Membership is free and open to both members and non-members.
Each network provides a forum for colleagues to share knowledge, experiences and information, support each other and network.