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Business

How to Set Up an Employee Network & Improve Diversity

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An employee network, also known as an employee resource group or affinity group, can be a great way for companies to support their employees and help create a diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

In this tutorial, we’ll look at what an employee network is and the benefits of starting one up. Then we'll go through the steps involved in starting an effective employee resource group. We’ll also cover some potential problems and how to overcome them.

Employee resource group
An employee resource group or employee network can have tangible benefits for employees and companies. Image source: Envato Elements

1. What Is an Employee Resource Group (ERG)?

The idea of an employee network or employee resource group is simple. It’s a space in which employees can come together based on a shared identity or experience and arrange events, discuss issues, raise awareness, and advocate for change.

For example, food company Kellogg has an employee resource group called Women of Kellogg (WOK), which has:

  • arranged mentoring to help junior female employees learn from more senior colleagues
  • organised a speaking event for International Women’s Day
  • set up networking events to promote gender equality

The company also has groups for young professionals, veterans, LGBTQ employees, and more. As one of its members said:

“I am a Kellogg employee, a Kellogg consumer and a member of the LGBTQ community,” said one KPA member. “I have experienced prejudice at other jobs and it was truly amazing to receive acceptance here at Kellogg.”

It’s common for large corporations to have a number of employee resource groups—in fact, 90% of Fortune 500 companies have ERGs. After all, when there are thousands of employees spread across the world, it can be helpful for people to organise around shared experiences, and large companies also have more resources available to support these groups.

But if you run a small or medium-sized business, you could also set up an employee network. There are several important benefits, which we’ll look at in the next section.

2. The Benefits of Employee Networks

So, we’ve looked at the “what” of employee networks; now let’s examine the “why.” In this section, we’ll look at the value of employee resource groups, both for employees and companies. Employee resource groups can help your company:

1. Meet Diversity Goals

In the past, we’ve talked about the benefits of diversity for a company, which include:

  • better reputation
  • happier staff and customers
  • better decision-making
  • more innovation

But creating a diverse and inclusive workplace is easier said than done. You've got to revamp your hiring practices, transform your workplace culture, and more. See this tutorial for more details:

Employee networks can be a wonderful tool to help you create a more diverse workplace, so that you can take advantage of all those benefits. They show that you take diversity seriously, which can help you in your recruitment efforts. And the support, networking and mentoring opportunities can improve staff happiness and retention too.

2. Support Employees

There’s nothing worse than feeling isolated and misunderstood. Conversely, meeting like-minded people and sharing common experiences can go a long way in helping you feel included and valued.

So just by providing a space for employees to come together and discuss their experiences, affinity groups can be a powerful tool in fostering a sense of inclusion. And by arranging events and exchanging information, they can increase understanding among different groups within the organisation.

Google, for example, has many employee groups, and they're an important part of the company’s culture. A founder of the Black Googlers Network told the San Jose Mercury News:

“I felt like I was being the executive I wanted to be, the career person I wanted to be, but I wasn’t bringing my whole self to work. I needed the community to let me bring my whole self to work.”

But employee networks can also go further than this. An effective employee group can create real changes in company policy, improving the working experience for employees. Careers community site Fairygodboss conducted a survey of women who have access to a women’s networking group and found that:

  • 70% believe it can effect changes in their company’s policy. 
  • 55% said their women’s ERG has helped to enhance parental leave benefits.
  • 53% said the employee group helped to push for more flexibility or better vacation policies.
  • 44% said the ERG helped to implement a mentorship or sponsorship program.

By making changes that improve the quality of working life, employee resource groups can support employees in getting the most out of their time and becoming happier and more productive.

3. Promote Engagement

Employee engagement is a huge problem. Only 13% of employees worldwide are actually engaged in their work, according to a long-running Gallup survey.

Employee resource groups can be a great way to get people engaged and involved in meaningful work. That’s because, although companies can help set up employee resource groups, they’re generally run and maintained by rank-and-file employees. They rely on people’s enthusiasm and motivation to organise all those events, and they help increase engagement among members.

According to Erika Irish Brown, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Bloomberg:

“At many companies, including Bloomberg, survey data indicates that employees involved in ERGs have higher engagement scores than those who are not.”

3. How to Start Employee Resource Groups

So now that you know what an employee network is and why you should set one up, let’s move on to look at how to start employee resource groups. What are the steps involved?

How to Start Employee Resource Groups
Starting up effective employee resource groups involves a few simple steps. Image source: Envato Elements

1. Establish Interest

An employee network works best when it’s a bottom-up, not a top-down process. As a business owner or manager, you can support employees in setting up the employee groups they want, but there needs to be some genuine interest in order for them to work effectively.

The most important thing in the early stages is to have a core group of employees who are dedicated to the group and motivated to make it succeed. It’s fine if that’s only a handful of people at first. The network can broaden its membership later, so at first just make sure you've got a set of founders who can take it forward.

2. Pick a Name and a Purpose

What do you want your group to accomplish? Canvas your founding members for a good, catchy name and establish a mission statement. 

Don’t worry about the name too much—if nothing creative comes up, you can just choose something descriptive. The idea is to convey quickly and easily who the group is for and what it aims to achieve.

For example, Oracle’s ERG for Latino employees is called the Oracle Latino Association, and its mission statement is: 

"Our mission is to develop and nurture the leadership abilities of Latino employees. We give a voice to the Latino community at Oracle and work together to increase access to opportunities and professional growth, recruit and develop Latino talent, and engage the wider community.”

3. Establish the Employee Resource Group Structure

It’s good to set up a simple structure and a few guidelines about how the employee group will operate. Consider questions like:

  • What are the main tasks, and who is responsible for them?
  • How often will meetings take place?
  • Where will meetings take place, and what’s the process for things like taking minutes, providing updates to people who couldn’t attend, etc.?
  • How will you ensure that people feel safe to speak openly?
  • How will the employee group be funded?
  • How will events be publicised?
  • How will new leaders be chosen/elected, and what’s the process for elections?

If all of this seems too much for now, it’s fine to start informally, especially in a small business. But you’ll probably want to get some procedures in place if the group starts to grow—it can help to keep things going if the original members leave, as we’ll see later on.

You can find some sample rules and regulations for an employee resource group in this guide from Cisco, so you could use those as a starting point for developing your own.

4. Provide Resources

Establishing an employee network doesn’t need to be expensive, but you do need to make sure that the appropriate support is in place. Talk to the members about the kinds of activities they want to organise and allocate a budget that'll allow them to accomplish that.

The resources you provide could also take the form of things like:

  • a room to meet in
  • a space on the intranet to advertise events
  • an online discussion forum
  • technical support
  • dedicated time set aside for group activities within working hours

Keep in mind, also, that the group may well expand and grow as time goes by. It may make sense to start small in terms of budget and resources but be ready to expand your support if the group proves popular.

5. Launch!

When you’ve assembled a core group of founders and got everything ready, it’s time to launch the group to the wider company.

This is where you can really support the group by giving it lots of publicity. Mention it in company meetings, include the link in company-wide emails or other communications, print posters and put them up around the office, and so on. Encourage people to check out the group and join if they’re interested.

It’s a good idea to have some kind of event to help launch the employee group. It could be tied to a wider event, e.g. International Women’s Day for a women’s group or Pride for an LGBTQ group. Or it could simply be a talk or networking event within the company. Make it fun and try to create a big splash so that people are interested in finding out more and joining the group. Gaining early momentum is important for its success.

4. Potential Problems and How to Overcome Them

When you’ve got everything set up and your new employee resource group is launched, what next?

Well, hopefully, the group builds momentum and gains new members, and all you need to do is let the members keep running it and give them support if they need it. 

But sometimes, things don’t go so smoothly. Here are some potential problems you may encounter and some ideas for overcoming them.

1. Lack of Interest

The Problem: Although the employee group has a small group of enthusiastic members, it never achieves wider support within the company.

The Solution: Keep giving the group publicity and senior-level support. If it’s still not gaining new members, help the group to devise new events that'll prove more popular.

2. Loss of Key Members

The Problem: The group starts out well, but then some of its core members leave the company or can no longer devote time to it, and the group loses momentum as a result.

The Solution: This is where the rules and procedures we talked about earlier can come in handy. With informal groups, it’s easy to become too dependent on a few key members. But if you put proper procedures in place for defining roles and responsibilities and filling vacancies, you should be able to avoid this problem.

3. Lack of Resources

The Problem: The group has good ideas and ambitious objectives but can’t achieve them because it lacks the necessary resources. 

The Solution: First, understand where the shortfall is occurring. Does the group need financial resources, or is it more a case of not having enough time to spend on the group’s activities? 

If it’s a financial issue, then allocate more budget if it’s available—or you could suggest that the employee group hold fundraising events or charge a small membership fee to raise funds. If it’s a lack of time, then work with the group’s leaders and their line managers to ensure that they've got some dedicated hours within the working week for organising the group’s activities. 

Get Your Employee Network Started!

In this tutorial, you’ve learned all about employee resource groups. You’ve seen what they are, why they're useful, and how to set them up. Then you’ve learned about some potential problems and how to overcome them.

The next step is to start setting up your own employee network. It can help support your employees and make your company more diverse and inclusive. If you need some more ideas or inspiration for possible events, check out this list of cultural awareness and diversity topics in the workplace.

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