When it comes down to it – do employee networks really help inclusion?

Two weeks ago I attended a brilliant event that we hosted in our Holborn ASE, facilitated by Radius Business consultancy. We had over 60 guests attend from clients, other companies and internal colleagues – all to ponder the power and responsibility of employee networks.

Actually, this was one of the things that I first mulled over when I started working with our employee networks – the seeming conflict between an organised group for people who had a specific “characteristic” and how that potentially clashed with our overall ethos of inclusion. (It’s a similar debate to a principle that we must treat people fairly, equally and therefore the “same.” Really that’s a syllogism – to treat people fairly, we often need to make adjustments for their own unique challenges.)

Having spent almost the last two years working closely with our LGBT+ network, OUTfront, our Women’s Business Network, and our new regional inclusion network (more on this later), I’ve realised that our networks a) fulfil an important sense of community, opportunity and support for many people and b) our networks are also formed on the basis that anyone can join – this is the real power of allies.

Anyway, going back to the event, Christine Hodgson (our Capgemini UK Chairman) opened the event, emphatically underlining the business imperative for diversity and inclusion, before handing over to the panel for the debate. The panel included:

  • Sally Ward, Inclusion Specialist, BT
  • Daniel Docherty, Business Performance Manager, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
  • Frances Duffy, Vice President HR, Capgemini
  • Keela Shackell-Smith, Co-Chair of the Cross Government Gender Network, Environment Agency

The discussion opened with a view on the power of employee networks – uniting people together with shared experiences, for support and opportunities to network. The discussion ranged from the amplification of networks when they collaborate together (e.g. holding joint events) to the change that has taken place over the years as “network members own their networks.” The panel particularly commented on the shift over the years from a network acting as a mediation or escalation point, to now actively driving change within an organisation – something we’ve seen as we now actively consult our OUTfront network on policy updates and communications.

Our own Frances Duffy also commented on the need to make networks relevant – and spoke about our drive to reframe the conversation around inclusion rather than difference. This is manifested in our Active Inclusion programme and the call to action for all team members to feel accountable for inclusion in the workplace. One of our regional Women’s Business Network branches has evolved this year to become what we call The Collective – a  curious community led by women who provide opportunities to make connections through active engagement and thought-provoking topics. Each monthly Collective session is themed around one provocative word, using speakers, podcasts or TED talks to prompt the debate. So far, we’ve had amazing sessions on Courage, Tolerance and Resilience is coming soon. Feedback has been brilliant, we’ve already duplicated the sessions into another location with further plans to expand for the future. Overall, the power of the Collective is bringing a mix of people together and giving the space to share views, reflect and discuss.

Having pondered this over the last two years (and just as we are about to host our first network conference) I agree with the conclusion of the panel on the night – networks come in different structures and sizes, and are most powerful when they are most inclusive – collaborating together and engaging with allies across the organisation. This is still a healthy debate to continually have – treading that fine line between providing a sense of community and support within a network – and ensuring that network allies and the wider organisation are engaged in making our workplace as inclusive as possible.