One of the greatest benefits of staff networks is that they provide a voice, platform or path to improve outcomes for minority groups e.g. ethnic, religious, gender, sexuality etc.
They are agents of inclusion who want to help their organisation celebrate difference and make constructive use of that difference so that everyone can realise their potential. And yet, time and time again, I hear of staff networks that are reluctant to open its doors to all. The key thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between a network and an exclusive club. People within exclusive clubs have the pleasure of knowing that they can enjoy the privilege of excluding certain types of people. These are often those who are either in a different place (class / status) or who are just plain, well, different (financially or physically) from the exclusive members.
Your network may not be so deliberate in its approach but the principle of only engaging with some people is bubbling beneath the surface. For example, a religious network that excludes the non-religious, or an ethnic minority network that excludes white people , or a women’s network that excludes men? Then, I’m sorry to break it to you but that is not a network; what you have there is as an ‘exclusive’ club.
Let’s revisit the purpose of a network. A staff/employee diversity network should be an exemplar in how individuals (from a variety of minority groups) can engage and interact constructively. They are supposed to demonstrate that minority groups can be equally productive members of the majority So when a staff network chooses to exclude certain members of staff, then without realising it, the network begins to emulate the ‘old boys’ network’ when by its very nature a diversity network is supposed to be inclusive. So why do minority staff networks shy away from engaging with the majority within their organisations?. I know that fear is a common factor behind this because people from certain groups believe that speaking up may have negative repercussions (‘We want to create a safe space for our members to voice their concerns’). However, engaging with the majority doesn’t have to take that element away Unless your network is a platform for complaining, there is no excuse why every meeting or communication should be utilised for the airing of ‘issues’. There are around 36 hours in the average working week, and while I understand that there are a variety of ways in which staff networks operate, and that they often have to work with limited resources, this does not mean that the airing of membership views should be the main focus of each group.
You need a strategy!
Because of competing work priorities, limited time and resources, itis crucial to have a PLAN. There is a popular quote from Sun Tzu the Chinese author of an ancient but very influential book on military strategy entitled ‘The Art of War’.which says:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Your employer is not your enemy. The key focus here is Sun Tzu’s suggestion that to gain absolute victory over an opposing view or strategy, you not only need to be clear about what you want, but also about the needs of others that may have a different view to yours. That is why a staff network requires a strategy to understand their organisation and how the concerns of the network can be raised, heard and acted on. When a war film is next on television, forget the entertainment and consider how the conflict was eventually won. It is nearly always the same. Alliances are formed (to strengthen the defence), insiders are recruited (to gain intelligence) and then, and only then, is any engagement entered into.
Form an Alliance!
Many networks focus on their differences (which can easily lead to exploited divisions) . Instead, I believe that networks should seek and embrace their similarities to develop alliances which can strengthen their arguments and increase their influence. This will enable them to constructively challenge and proactively engage with their organisation’s senior team.
Intersectionality means that we are no longer one dimensional. We have many layers that do not exist separately from each other, but are complexly interwoven. There are women in the faith network that may identify with some of the concerns recognised by networks serving BAME staff or women. The #he4she campaign encourages more men to support the gender equality agenda so women’s networks need to be mindful of how they will include male colleagues. Collaboration makes sense because working together to understand and refine concerns, creates a hugely influential group and widens the resource pool.
Recruit Allies / Supporters / Mentors
Actively seek out people who can help the cause. Use your social capital and your network of connections. You will need people who are similar to you as well those that aren’t. Consider Baroness Karren Brady and Lord Sugar. They are friends and she fulfils the role as an advisor to him on his television show ‘The Apprentice’. What they have in common is that, Lord Sugar was the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, Baroness Brady was chairperson of Birmingham City and is currently serving as vice chair of West Ham United, in addition, both have life peerages, he, is a baron and she a baroness. What separates them, are their political views (usually a potential for much conflict), because he is a Labour Peer while she is a Tory one, and Lord Sugar is Jewish male while Baroness Brady is Christian female. However, this hasn’t prevented them from working well together when circumstances deem it profitable for them to do so.
So once you have reached a point where you understand what demographic your individual network represents, what their specific issues are, which of those issues it is possible for you to address specifically and which can be addressed through engagement with your allies (the “know yourself” part of the Sun Tzu quote), you can seek out and recruit supporters throughout your organisation.
You do this by approaching a variety of individuals from board members to general team members within your organisation. You’re allies / supporters should be individuals whom you respect and they should be able to provide you with that objective overview that is necessary for challenge, Consequently, the key traits that your allies should have is that they are diverse in appearance (not all from your demographic) and views (they need to be able offer an objective viewpoint when necessary).
Negotiate a mutually beneficial method of support. Recognise that for numerous reasons, there are various ways in which support can be manifested. Your supporter may not wish to be visible, they may only wish to simply provide you with advice /strategies, or they may point out your network’s achievements at strategic high level meetings – whatever is necessary to progress the cause. Just note that support is multifaceted, so don’t try to confine it.
So, use your network’s increasing influence, be inclusive and innovative in your approach. Be shrewd about how and when you utilise supporters to really benefit from each relationship. Unite
The strategy for Success
Developing your intelligence on views that are likely to challenge your own is the first step. However, it is important to utilise this by being proactive. Your network is trying to achieve equity and improved opportunities from your employer. Therefore, you need to illustrate how equity for minorities benefits the majority by, ‘showing them how it is done’.
Begin by ensuring that all opportunities, benefits and/or communications devised by your network can (eventually) either be accessed by, or positively reflects upon, your organisation as a whole. You should consider this, in everything that you try to achieve, because this, will become your evidence that inclusion works.
Make sure that you collate and keep the evidence of how, why and what was achieved, seek out constructive advice from your allies and supporters, gain more insight, perspective and objectivity in your approach. The more you seek in each, the better your strategies for improvement and progression become and the less likely you will be to meet outright opposition. In short you will learn to plan challenge, and engage better because your aspirations and purpose will become more objective and therefore achievable because they will be more inclusive.
Inclusion means appealing to more people and that increase in appeal leads to greater influence which is a fantastic tool in the fight towards aligning the minority with the majority.
Dionne Campbell-Mark is a former civil servant who has undertaken various rolesboth project management and policy (including working with Ministers) within central government. Dionne now uses her skills in the education sector.