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Using staff networks to drive change

Diversity management has come to the forefront of the recruitment and retention strategies for many organisations. As business leaders grapple with talent shortages and ‘quiet quitting’, there is a growing emphasis on ensuring every employee is motivated and engaged in the business’s goals.

Staff networks or employee resource groups (ERGs) – run and made up of employees who share a common background in terms of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or faith – are an increasingly popular vehicle for engaging with employees, serving as a forum for otherwise underrepresented minority groups.

As part of a recent study, we at the Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS) spoke to a number of staff network chairs, EDI leads and HR managers in commercial and public organisations to understand how these groups work in practice.

We identified a number of ways businesses can maximise the potential of staff networks for both employees and employers.

Employee-led groups have an important role to play post-Covid

Working towards clear goals

Many staff networks do not have defined goals, which can lead to meetings being reduced to a space for employees to air grievances.

Although providing a safe space for dialogue is a key purpose of staff networks, these mechanisms are more beneficial to employees and employers if they focus on agreed-upon goals to address concrete issues such as gender pay parity or race bias at the workplace.

Almost all staff networks in our study conducted events celebrating special occasions for their minority group such as Black History Month, Pride, and International Women’s Day.

How can you ensure resource groups drive inclusion?

As important as these events are for visibility and engaging colleagues more widely, unless the groups work towards actually improving the work lives of minoritised groups, they may lose engagement from members in the long run, impacting the legitimacy of these groups.

This might include sponsoring and mentoring programmes (including reverse mentoring), pushing for mandatory training on issues like Islamophobia and microaggression awareness workshops.

Collaboration with EDI, HR and senior management

In principle, staff networks should be independent of EDI and HR teams. However, a healthy relationship is important.

In order for staff networks to realise their full potential, chairs, members and EDI/HR teams need to agree on standard operating procedures.

Moreover, there needs to be dialogue about where these networks fit within the organisation’s structure in general and voice channels in particular.

Case study: Engagement on a budget

Engaging with these groups involves a careful balancing act for HR.

It’s important not to impose a reporting relationship for staff networks but at the same time work with them collaboratively to address common concerns.

For example, staff network members can agree to invite a HR team member to some of their meetings, especially where strategic issues are being discussed.

HR can also invite staff network representatives for input at board meetings, particularly when HR issues are being discussed, as minority employee voices may not otherwise be heard in these discussions.

Passionate leadership and boardroom advocacy

Our research points to the fact that well-run staff networks have committed chairs who fuel the group with their passion and energy.

This can be a double-edged sword, though, as the network may be too reliant on a popular figurehead.

Having a sub-group of core members who are equally passionate that help in the running of the network can negate this risk.

As with every initiative, top management support is also key to staff network success. Our study points to the idea that effective staff networks have executive sponsors or champions.

They may not participate in the day to day running of the network, but their support is essential in the groups having visibility in the board room.

Each organisation and network will invariably need to experiment with arrangements that work for them and their employees, but these guiding principles can provide a framework for establishing an effective staff network.


Imran Saqib is lecturer in human resource management and employment studies at Alliance Manchester Business School