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D&I Clinic: are businesses taking advantage of employee resource groups?

Q. How can HR help employee resource groups make positive progress without the business taking advantage of them and their time?

A. Increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace can improve retention, stimulate innovation, boost productivity and increase profitability. So, the first thing to say is – congratulations to anybody recognising this and driving inclusive change within their organisation.

When your diversity and inclusion (D&I) programmes are tactical rather than strategic, when they represent a few passionate individuals rather than a holistically inclusive company culture, challenges arise. HR can play a pivotal role by making sure that diversity groups and networks are aligned strategically. 

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Without this centralised, strategic direction, the focus can become disjointed and siloed.

There is a danger of diversity networks becoming echo chambers – attracting people who identify with a particular affinity or interest. So, LGBT+ individuals might only focus on sexuality, disabled individuals might only focus on disability, and so on.

For any D&I initiative to be successful, it must be led from the top. Groups and networks should have an executive sponsor, someone who can remove impediments and connect people with decision-makers and resources.

Diversity networks often lack budgets. A board-level or senior sponsor can ensure the funds are available to help implement effective change. HR can take the lead in supporting the group from the outset and approaching likely sponsors. 

People organising and developing diversity groups are often doing so voluntarily in addition to their regular jobs.

Those involved in the group need a supportive manager, one who understands the group’s aims and its importance for the company as a whole. It’s not just a nice to have – it’s a critical element to improving a company’s culture.

HR can work with managers to ensure the right balance. Too often, D&I initiatives get shelved because of the responsibilities of the day job. To ensure D&I activity is not pushed aside, group members must feel empowered and encouraged.

The key to driving change within any company is enabling everyone to contribute to its success. I often see pressure placed on certain individuals with particular characteristics to become the ‘poster child’ of the D&I programme. Pressure like this can be overwhelming. In truth, change is the responsibility of everybody.

For example, it shouldn’t only be disabled staff trying to make the business more accessible. This issue needs non-disabled champions too. Also, don’t rely solely on women in your organisation to drive gender equality. Men must play an active role as well.

With more people involved, a wider range of issues can be championed and progressed. The rainbow flag is flown by a number of businesses during Pride month, but what happens afterward?

Are these businesses really championing policy or process change within their organisation after the parade? If network activities happen infrequently and in isolation, they can appear somewhat tokenistic.

In the end, success depends on everyone pulling in the same direction. HR has an important role to play in fostering a working climate that encourages individuals to take a lead, while ensuring they are not shouting into a void.

It is more probable for change to occur for the greater good of the business if groups are supported and encouraged to work strategically, rather than tactically.

Toby Mildon is a D&I architect


The D&I Clinic is a space for HR professionals to anonymously air their challenging D&I questions. Send questions for the next one to jo.gallacher@markallengroup.com

The full piece of the above appears in the September/October 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.