Why do employee networks matter to communicators?

Wooden letters spelling out the words Listen More

I’ve been inspired to write this blog about employee networks by three recent activities:

  1. Yesterday I attended the CharityComms seminar about building an anti-racist brand. There were many thought-provoking points, suggestions and learnings. A key takeaway for me was the importance of genuine dialogue with others, enabling a deeper understanding of their experiences and involving them in creating the way forward.
  2. Earlier this week, leadership coach, Jacqueline Harris, introduced me to this idea: the golden rule that we are taught as children is to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, but the platinum rule is to treat others as they would like to be treated. These two are not necessarily the same. If we interpret and act only through our own lens of experience, it may have a different impact when viewed through theirs.
  3. During Volunteers Week, consultant, Ellie Highwood, shared a post on LinkedIn thanking all the volunteers who are involved in equity, diversity and inclusion groups and networks. Without them sharing their lived experiences, time and skills, progress would not be made and actions would not happen.

These employee networks exist in many organisations, particularly larger ones. They are usually set up as a safe space for sharing of experiences and peer to peer support. They can also be catalysts for change and a place for celebration.

But why do they matter to the communications team? I am certainly no expert in this area and I’m trying to educate myself so that I understand my role better. These are ideas that I have been gathering during my own learning.

Building trusted relationships

Employee networks sometimes appear on comms strategies as a channel. And as we know, channels should have a clear purpose. What are you going to use the channel for? What is your desired outcome?

These networks are sometimes seen as an opportunity to get messages out, asking the members of the group to take information and spread it to others.

But to gain the trust of groups who face discrimination and build relationships with them, you need to listen to what they are telling you about life at your organisation as a Black person, as a Brown person, as a trans person, as a person with dyslexia. Really listen. Actively listen.

You should not be asking them to do something for you or for a bigger agenda that is driven by others.

As professional communicators, we know that understanding our audiences is crucial for effective communication. Employee networks present opportunities for communicators to listen and find out what is really going on.

And then to facilitate genuine dialogue that finds ways forward.

What can communicators do?

  • Actively listen – check that you really understand what was said and meant, from their perspective not yours. Different groups of people will be having different experiences of exclusion or discrimination and will look for different solutions.
  • Acknowledge what you hear – simply, clearly and honestly, without being defensive or trying to ‘justify’.
  • Be genuine and listen with no other agenda than to learn. If you feel pressured by others to use your attendance at an employee network as an opportunity for their agenda, push back. Especially where you have privilege to do so.
  • Put the insight you gain to use in the communication culture of your organisation. Obviously you must respect confidences and keep details anonymous, but don’t ignore what you learn. Change language, feature different people, call out inappropriate behaviour, do whatever you need to do.
  • Recognise that communication won’t fix everything but you can do some things. How can communication help achieve better outcomes? How can your work contribute to the dismantling of barriers? (And how might your work actually be contributing to the issues, whether actively or inadvertently?)
  • Use your communication to amplify voices and give everyone the opportunity to be heard. This includes celebrating different perspectives and experiences, acknowledging what everyone brings to the table.
  • Keep the dialogue going. Learning from employee networks is a long-term, ongoing process. You cannot expect to turn up to one meeting and go away with everything you need to tick a box. Building trust and relationships takes time and commitment to change.

Over to you

As I say, I’m not even close to being an expert in this area. I want to learn as much as I can. So I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of working with employee networks. Please do get in touch to share your stories.

Until next time

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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