When I think about workplace equality networks (or WENs as we like to call them at the House of Commons), there's one topic that is always on my mind: the evolution of workplace equality networks.
At Parliament we have four very active WENs supporting:
They are successful at raising awareness of particular issues and have been one of the key components in assisting to embed Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) in the organisation. They are an important element in achieving our goals to become a more inclusive workplace and a leading edge Parliament.
When we introduced our new Diversity and Inclusion strategy 2015-2018 there were changes to the membership of the committees of nearly all our WENs. This could have resulted in a loss of knowledge and expertise of former committee members who had:
Contributed to the review of the previous strategy,
Helped to set objectives for the new strategy
Played a major role in moving the D&I agenda forward at the same rate of pace.
Because of the issues raised from this process, I asked myself questions about succession planning and in particular:
How do you ensure workplace equality networks remain effective?
Is the leadership of the workplace equality network important to its success?
How do WENs sustain strong leadership and active committee members?
Or is the answer to merge all the networks into one network reaching out to the whole workplace?
The last bullet point got me thinking; could this be the ultimate solution to succession planning? If there is only one network this should bring more leaders for the committee, a wealth of knowledge, expertise ,continuity and the ability to preserve longevity and effectiveness. Recently there seems to have been a movement towards this type of model, as it is seen to be a more inclusive approach, therefore leading to a more inclusive workplace. It also raises a number of questions but the main one is:
What is the difference between this type of workplace equality network, and your current workforce? And can one network ever really work?
To be effective, WENs need strong leadership. Their committees need to be made up from people that understand the D&I mantra and who are selfless. Their committees should understand the whole spectrum of D&I and support that each of the strands of the protected characteristics are not singular but rather interwoven and connected. They are only really separated by how the individual sees themselves at a point in time. For instance a LGBTIQ black male, may associate himself more with being LGBTIQ than their ethnic identity. This doesn’t mean that there is a greater need for one network over another but rather that the individual may at any time feel the pull towards one part of their identity over another.
One network would not require an individual to make this choice. Intersectionality recognises this fact and so the case for one inclusive network begins to build.
One network should enable the committees and their membership to become inclusive, more strategic and achieve more together. Most importantly this approach should also prevent network committees from being exclusive. Yes I said it: “exclusive”. So perhaps you're now asking: "How can networks be exclusive?"
This goes back to that earlier point about being selfless. Having the right people leading a WEN prevents the committees becoming their own private club, using the networks to enhance their profile, their careers and their causes. One inclusive network would limit this to some extent as a totally inclusive approach would be required to successfully champion all causes.
The Safe Space
However I am not convinced that employees would be comfortable with this approach. Why? Because having different networks supporting particular characteristics with people who share or understand their specific perspective creates a safe space for employees to be comfortable with speaking out about their workplace concerns regarding policies, practices and procedures. This would not happen with one network; the view of the workplace for a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) male is likely to be quite different from that of a white female. For example, when I attended a BAME network AGM, the employees who attended raised their issues, questioned senior management on their commitment and held them to account where they felt necessary. The network gave the membership a singular and unified voice and access to senior management attributed to a specific characteristic. One joint network could not do this as messages from the membership to senior managers would be diluted or competing for airplay.
In essence, the problem with a joint WEN is that its membership is just a microcosm of the workforce so who would join and what would be the point of joining? Successful WENs are about improving outcomes for their membership which should always be at the forefront of everything they do.
The tried and tested model of separate Workplace Equality Networks is my preferred choice. They work very well in Parliament and I will continue to ensure that they have strong leadership, a clear and collaborative strategy, and a sustainable approach to succession planning.
Whatever the model you are using, it is crucial to continue to foster inclusive workplaces and help everyone understand the benefits of diversity and how it contributes to the success of the organisation.
*Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Questioning
Maxine Albert is the deputy head of diversity and inclusion at the House of Commons