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  • As published in Equal Opportunities Review

Staff networks: a gateway of productivity

At a time when Cherron Inko-Tariah felt that her talents were not being recognised and her career not progressing, she turned to a staff network, that offered her the confidence and opportunity she needed to demonstrate her abilities. Here she explains how involvement in staff networks helped her, and the benefits of staff networks in general.

Cherron Inko-Tariah had worked for the civil service for some years and, although she achieved great results in her work, she was regarded as lacking the strategic and analytical skills thought necessary for promotion. She explains how working with a staff network helped her:

“It was a staff network that gave my colleagues and I permission to show that we could be strategic, analytical, and offer challenge (these were often cited as competencies that black and ethnic minority staff lacked and therefore weren't ready for promotion). It was an opportunity to be collaborative with other staff networks as we recognised the 'intersectionality' of our members. We provided solutions to the barriers people were facing and built the confidence of staff who were feeling marginalised and demotivated. At a time when the rhetoric about diversity and inclusion didn't always manifest in reality for many black and minority ethnic staff, we as a collective were raising aspirations and addressing unfair treatment.”

The network’s programme of work helped to change attitudes across the government department and achieved real outcomes for staff. Examples include:

  • Working collaboratively with HR to identify gaps in service provision, pulling together a powerful and inspirational range of events to help plug those gaps. Its activities were targeted at members but open to everyone to maximise the benefit. It also provided rigorous assessment of policies to ensure that they did not adversely impact BME staff or communities.

  • Members of the network demonstrated their ability to use their intelligence and external contacts to help shape internal policy. For example, immediately after the civil disturbances in August 2011, network members went to affected communities with two aims:

  1. To advise affected businesses about the support available from central and local Government; and

  2. To identify the barriers businesses were facing in getting back to normal trading. The information from the members proved invaluable to the policy team who were able to advise Ministers about the real issues impacting people on the ground and how to address them.

The staff network used their 'bridging and bonding capital' to help both community and government in a practical way at a crucial time.

How staff networks foster Inclusion

As well as offering encouragement and networking opportunities, staff networks, with the right investment, are able to do so much more - for both its members and the wider organisation.

Employee Voice

They can be effective mechanisms of employee voice; articulating and amplifying the plurality of the BME experience (crucial especially as black and ethnic minority staff are often mistaken as one homogenous group). When employees feel that they are being listened to, they engage more. The more employee engagement there is, the greater the productivity. Every business, regardless of the sector, wants to be more productive and increase its bottom line. By using their human capital, staff networks are ideally positioned to engage with members and senior managers alike.

Frugal Innovators

The current economic climate and the financial constraints imposed on parts of the UK workplace mean that organisations will have to exercise frugality as they deliver their services and still make room for creative solutions. Frugal innovation is an attitude that says despite restricted resources, there is an alternative way to achieve the same or better results. Professor Jaideep Prabhu, author of Frugal Innovation, believes that employee networks are excellent examples of demonstrating frugal innovation in the workplace for two key reasons:

  • They include the marginalised in the development and ownership of solutions - leading from the edge; and

  • They seek opportunity amidst adversity

For example, during my organisation's restructuring, members used their skills and knowledge to devise and deliver a training course called the “Assessment Masterclass” which aimed to help members submit strong job applications. The course was so effective, that it was rolled out to the whole department.

Unearthing Talent

In addition to their human capital, staff networks have a wealth of social capital too. This is a potent combination; one that makes them a valuable asset in the organisation. They can unearth diversity of thought and unblock the reservoir of often unrecognised talent that exists in the organisation and identify cost effective systems that will be both inclusion-friendly and efficacious.

Advice for individuals

  • If your organisation has a staff network, join in and get involved. It can provide support and equip you with practical skills to help you advance. If joining a staff network is not an option, find people you trust and can learn from (and vice versa). It is important to cultivate a supportive circle of people - who may or may not look like you - but will challenge you to be your best.

  • There may be set-backs or hurdles but try to not allow these to distract or detract you in your quest for progression. They can be overcome because we are more resilient than we realise.

  • Is your organisation ready? Be proactive and undertake the necessary checks to ensure that staff, service users, and stakeholders feel valued, respected, included and are acknowledged. This may be uncomfortable for some but essential for the organisation.

  • If you have staff networks, consider how your organisation invests in them and how it values and recognises their contribution. Your organisation needs a partnership agreement in place that outlines how the organisation will work with the networks.

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