Five ways to make your employee networks more effective

Author: Gareth Buchanan

Employee networks are valuable platforms for fostering inclusion, amplifying diverse voices and driving positive change within organisations. Inclusion consultant Gareth Buchanan explores five key ways to make your employee networks more effective.

To maximise their impact, it is important to encourage the establishment and delivery of common goals so that employee networks deliver impactful, cost-effective activities that change culture and create opportunities for their members.

1. Structure for success

Decision-making in any environment where there are multiple contributors and perspectives can be complicated. Throw in geographical considerations, the fact that network members may come from different parts of the business and may operate at different levels, with differing responsibilities and skillsets, and it soon becomes apparent that organising a democratic, effective network can be tough.

Employee networks, which often grow organically, can quickly find that they do not have the structure and ways of working in place to operate effectively from day one. Network organisers will no doubt want to maximise time spent dealing with substantive issues, rather than debating what to focus on or how to make decisions.

In the absence of organisation-led guidance on areas such as structure and roles, network members should consider forming a working party with the sole aim of deciding the roles and responsibilities needed to operate effectively, how people will be elected or appointed into those roles, the terms of office that will apply to role-holders, and the structure of their network (taking into account geographical and organisational factors). 

Once elected or appointed, network leaders should be empowered with the necessary authority to make decisions on issues within the scope of their role, and to facilitate discussion and agreement on issues outside their purview, with the support and blessing of network membership.

To enable leadership to perform their duties appropriately, the organising committee/group should clarify those issues that can be decided by leaders and those that should be decided by membership.

2. Establish clear goals and objectives

To ensure an effective employee network, it is crucial to establish clear goals and objectives that align with the organisation's overall diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mission and values. If the organisation does not already have DEI goals, that should be the first goal - to encourage the establishment of a DEI strategy.

Begin by defining the challenges you seek to influence and the purpose of the network. For absolute clarity, identify the specific outcomes you aim to achieve. Many networks start by focusing on raising awareness, but then struggle to move on to more impactful activity. By clarifying your aims and ultimate goals from the outset, you can then identify the steps needed to get you there.

Typically, networks will focus on a number of activities, including:

  • raising awareness and establishing the business case for change;
  • influencing the organisational policies, practices and culture that halt or hinder progression of underrepresented and minority groups; and
  • increasing representation of those groups at all levels of the organisation.

By clearly defining goals, network leaders can align their activities and resources accordingly, ensuring that they obtain buy-in from leaders and stakeholders by demonstrating a commitment to the organisation's strategic DEI objectives.

Once you have established your goals, develop a roadmap or action plan to guide your network's activities. This plan should outline specific initiatives, timelines and metrics for measuring success. Regularly review and reassess your goals to ensure they remain relevant and aligned with the evolving needs of your members and the organisation.

3. Engage organisational leaders to garner support

Leadership support is crucial to the success of any employee network.

When fully engaged in supporting delivery of network aims, leaders play a significant role by influencing organisational strategy, raising the profile of employee networks and their aims, acting as a conduit for honest conversations, and fostering an environment that encourages idea- and experience-sharing and innovation.

Networks can obtain buy-in from leaders by clearly articulating the experiences of members, alongside the goals of the employee network, emphasising how their planned actions will contribute to achieving the company's DEI goals and how they will foster a more inclusive, more welcoming culture.

The roles that leaders play in supporting and enabling employee networks will differ depending on their roles, skills and experience. Consideration should be given to identifying sponsors, mentors and allies to perform specific roles, and to provide clarity on what is expected/needed. Sponsors can provide guidance, resources and advocacy, helping to elevate both the network and specific individuals, visibility and influence. Mentors and reverse mentors (when a more junior member of an organisation mentors someone who is more senior) can help to increase empathy and understanding on both sides, through the sharing of insights, ideas and personal experiences. Ally programmes can help to give leaders and colleagues clear guidance on the practical things they can do to role-model the right behaviours and encourage others to do the same. 

4. Foster partnerships to support delivery

Building partnerships with internal and external stakeholders is crucial for enhancing the effectiveness of your employee network.

Collaborating with other groups, departments, networks and organisations can provide access to valuable resources and expertise, and can create opportunities for collective impact.

Consider the following approaches:

  • Internal collaborations: identify other employee networks or resource groups within your organisation that share common goals or intersecting interests. Explore opportunities for collaboration, joint initiatives and utilising shared resources. By pooling your efforts, you can amplify your reach and impact, and create a stronger, more inclusive message.
  • Cross-functional collaboration: engage with different departments and teams within the organisation to establish partnerships. Seek opportunities to collaborate on projects, events and initiatives that promote DEI both inside and outside the organisation. By involving multiple perspectives and organisational expertise, you can create more comprehensive and impactful outcomes. By seeking to develop joint plans, you can also benefit from organisational resources, rather than relying on network resources.
  • External partnerships: look for opportunities to partner with external organisations, industry associations, charities and community groups that align with your objectives. Collaborating with external stakeholders can bring fresh perspectives, cost-effective resources and opportunities for shared learning and advocacy. Explore joint events, knowledge-sharing sessions and community outreach programmes to expand your network's reach and influence.

5. Identify and seek out resources that help achieve common goals

To enhance the effectiveness of your employee network, it is essential to identify and secure cost-effective resources that enable you to achieve your goals in the most efficient and impactful way possible.

Network organisers should identify and plan the resources needed to achieve their goals, while recognising that most businesses operate in a cost-conscious reality:

  • Advocate for a dedicated budget or funding specifically for your employee network. By creating a clear business case and outlining how funds will be used to deliver activities that benefit both your members and the organisation, you can demonstrate how allocated resources will contribute to the organisation's DEI objectives. By introducing strict guidance on how funding can be requested by network members, possibly through a network treasurer, you can demonstrate how you will ensure fiscal responsibility and appropriate management of resources.
  • Work with other employee networks to plan and deliver activity that meets all of your needs. Often, other employee networks will share the same ultimate goals as you, and by working together you can strengthen your message and deliver activity to a wider audience, at less expense to the business.
  • Seek out the expertise of internal partners, such as communications and marketing, premises, and information technology, with a view to accessing resources and developing joint plans that support mutual goals.
  • Build external partnerships. Consider reaching out to external organisations or foundations that offer grants, sponsorships or resources specifically for DEI initiatives. Research relevant funding opportunities and partnerships that align with your network's objectives.


Related resources

What makes a great employee network?

Six steps to embedding a diversity and inclusion strategy

How Auto Trader utilises its employee networks to be more inclusive and enhance engagement