Not long ago at an employee network leadership event, I was approached by a program manager sharing his excitement about the recent focus on business results produced by his employee resource groups. “We’re really getting the attention of executives who see the value of the work we’re doing for the company,” he told me.
Later that same day, however, I heard a different story from a member of one of his networks. According to her, she was becoming disillusioned. “In the past it was a place where I could develop skills, contribute to causes in which I believe and connect with other people like me. Now, we do very little of those things and instead focus on things that bring value to the company. I feel I’m giving up my lunch hour just to perform more work for the company.”
This comment does not surprise Theresa M. Welbourne, Ph.D., president and CEO of eePulse, Inc., who is currently conducting pioneering studies into the dynamics of employee resource groups. According to Welbourne, this is a consistent message found in her data. “We find that when employee network members feel like their role in the network is just to do more work for the company, it becomes less energizing and rewarding,” states Welbourne.
Getting Back to Where It All Started and How We Got Here
Today, employee resource groups can be found in almost every Fortune 500 company. These groups started as grassroots efforts driven by employees who had a social identity that was underrepresented in their company. The goal was to bring together others who shared this identity so that they could feel more included. In essence, many of these were a home and hearth for these identity groups. Some networks also provided a vehicle for the pursuit of targeted philanthropy that members found personally rewarding. Clearly, these were organizations created by members to focus on benefits for their members.
In time, these networks began to offer added benefits such as learning opportunities through speaker series, cultural awareness programs, events where members could showcase their skills, etc. As they added these benefits, their need for support and funding increased. Network leaders and supporters, seeking to secure more investment and involvement on the part of senior company executives, began to focus more on how they could provide and prove their value to the business beyond attracting and retaining talent in a particular group.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, for some employee networks, the pendulum has swung toward a focus on the business. The focus on maintaining the benefits that originally attracted and engaged members was lost. In some instances, this has resulted in networks either shrinking or quietly vanishing as members and even leaders dropped off. This is a shame when we consider that, as Welbourne puts it, “These networks have proven to be an amazing source of development, innovation, and energy for organizations that is yet to be fully tapped and leveraged.”
I fully encourage network leaders and sponsors to continue to explore how employee networks can provide business value. However, it’s important to meet members’ needs as well, because without them there is no network.
One of the keys to sustaining a network’s growth and development is to maintain a balance in the value provided to both members and the company. The good news is that, properly crafted, many employee network efforts can easily serve the needs of both stakeholders.
About the Author
Joe Santana is founder and CEO of JosephSantana Consulting, a company that focuses on diversity and inclusion assessments, diagnostics, and solutions. He is best known as Siemens first diversity and inclusion officer and the architect of the company’s highly successful program. He is also the author of thought-leadership feature pieces for Diversity Executive magazine. To learn more, visit JosephSantanaConsulting.com.
The topic of “Creating Measurable Value to Increase Recruitment and Retention” will be covered in great depth at the Diversity Best Practices’ Network and Affinity Leadership Congress on June 28 in New York City.