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Employee Networks: Slay or Nay?

by Bradley Barnes (he/him)

21 Jan 2024

During the Financial Times virtual insight week I was lucky enough to participate in last fall (Thanks PLAN!), we were given the chance to interview various FT employees about their roles and responsibilities at the organisation. One of the interviews that stood out to me was with Jamie Brown, a Senior Software Engineer who also co-chaired an employee network of LGBT+ people within the FT, called 'Proud FT'.

Up until this point, I had never really considered employee networks as a concept. It made complete sense to me that they should exist, they just weren't something I had actively thought about before. So, I was quite curious to learn more when Jamie mentioned his involvement.

And I have to say, I was impressed with what I saw. Aside from providing a space for and nurturing a community of LGBT people, his group had also made major breakthroughs in ensuring more inclusive company policies. These included a guarantee of gender-neutral bathrooms in new buildings and gender affirming support in company healthcare packages. I was quite taken aback when I heard about all this. Being a bit of a cynic, I expected that action prompted by inclusion groups would be quite surface level; but instead, these were concrete policy changes that would greatly and positively impact people's lives.

Learning about Jamie and Proud FT made me curious about Employee Resource Groups (ERG) more broadly. Was what was happening there an exception or the rule? Did groups like these generally have such a positive impact, or was it dependent on the organisation they were in and how they were being run?

First for some background on employee networks. ERGs are usually completely volunteer-led and receive some (albeit often limited) funding from their organisations. In some cases, they receive no funding at all. In order to get more money ERGs can seek executive sponsorship or crowdfund. Often, volunteers will end up funding these ERGs themselves. For all of these reasons, ERGs can be somewhat limited in the scope of what they can achieve.

Despite this, there have been some notable successes of ERGs. Obviously, we have already discussed Jamie and Proud FT, but there are many, many more out there; with one being the Military Support and Assistance Group (MSAG) within the Bank of America. The aim of the group is to help veterans as they readapt to day-to-day life, employing several initiatives such as job recruiting, career development, financial education, and so on. Since the start of this program, they’ve donated more than 2000 homes to military families and are committed to hiring 10,000 veterans and service members over the next few years.

There are also examples of large firms achieving a great deal of breadth when it comes to the ERGs they offer their employees; good examples including EY, PwC and KPMG.

However, ERGs and their impacts are not unanimously positive. Oftentimes, they can essentially become a placeholder for meaningful change and more substantial Diversity and Inclusion infrastructure. If scrutinised for a lacking diversity hiring policies or workplace inclusion, companies can simply point to their ERG for a respective minority, and claim to be doing their bit. Instead of driving the change that's necessary, the normalisation of ERGs could actually hinder progress by acting as an excuse for it.

Moreover, even if we assume ERGs can be a driver for increased diversity, it may not be the case that companies see their facilitation as an end within itself. Research from Accenture suggests that small increases in diversity could lead to higher profits. Since ERGs do not need large amounts of internal funding, they seem to be something of a nobrainer for an organisation looking to use Equality, Diversity and Inclusion solely as a driver of growth.

All considered, however, I would not personally advocate for getting rid of these organisations. If nothing else, they provide a sense of belonging and community for minority groups and in many notable cases they have done so much more than this. That being said, ERGs cannot come in place of a broader D&I strategy and must exist alongside other efforts by firms to further their DE&I goals.

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