How to set up a successful diversity network

If you want to build a group that drives real change, think about accessibility, creating a comfortable environment, and how you'll measure success, advises Teresa Boughey

As the importance of diversity and inclusion to business increases, so does the importance of establishing successful networks. These forums add tremendous value to your organisation as they provide an invaluable opportunity for underrepresented groups to come together to share experiences, meet new individuals, educate others, gain a fresh perspective and come up with new, innovative ideas. 

To ensure you are gaining the widest possible range of experiences, you should encourage participation from a range of underrepresented groups and, if necessary, set up dedicated networking opportunities.  However, D&I should always be intersectional so wide representation helps to ensure as many voices as possible are heard. 

There should also be representation from senior leadership and, ideally, an executive diversity champion so they can feedback to others in management on the issues raised. To broaden knowledge, experience and awareness even further, encourage representatives to participate in diversity and inclusion networks outside your organisation and consider extending your reach into the wider community.

For diversity and inclusion networks to function optimally, everyone needs to feel comfortable sharing their experiences.  The purpose of the networks should be clearly defined, which includes being a place to share experiences as well as the creation of practical suggestions or actions to raise awareness,  increase inclusivity and create a sense of belonging – as opposed to networks being viewed as a place for militants to hang out and moan.  If you run multiple network groups within your organisation, it is important to consider bringing the groups together (at least annually) so they can share experiences and explore opportunities for learning and collaboration. 

Accessibility for all

Within the network, you want everyone to feel comfortable speaking honestly about their life and work experiences, so clearly demonstrate that you value all opinions. Quite often, it’s the voice of a few which can be heard so it’s important to encourage others who are not always so vocal to share their views too. They may benefit from working with a smaller group or writing things down.  Technology can also be useful as individuals can be encouraged to create a video in a space where they feel safe (possibly at home) and bring this along to share with the group.  

Similarly, if you are holding events or forums, ensure that the venue and event is entirely accessible to all. Consider any adjustments that need to be made, including whether the venue is accessible for those who require adjustments such as wheelchair access. Are any of the activities going to create a noisy and overstimulated environment which may result in neurodiverse individuals being excluded? Without this, you are reducing the chances of success for the network as members will feel you do not view this as important.

But holding a diversity and inclusivity network or forum is only the beginning; measurability is important.  From the outset, be clear about milestones and measures of success.  These will include hard and soft measures, but it’s important to be clear so the network can measure its impact and make changes where necessary.  Ensure there is a clear escalation process for any issues raised.  This will ensure those involved recognise that the views, experiences and suggestions offered are taken seriously and that it’s not just lip service.  

Even if you are unable to implement a newly suggested policy straight away, communicate this with members of the forum so they feel their contribution is valued. Similarly, any successes that come about through the forum should be actively celebrated as this not only creates a sense of belonging, but will encourage others to join and share their invaluable insights.

Teresa Boughey MA FCIPD is CEO of Jungle HR, founder of Inclusion 247 and author of Closing the Gap