Four people gather around a paper flip chart on a stand and one person points to pink post it notes on the paper around the title, Facilitating Discussions
English Heritage staff attending a 1 day training course on 'training the trainer' at Steam Museum, Swindon, on 27 January 2010. © DP085789
English Heritage staff attending a 1 day training course on 'training the trainer' at Steam Museum, Swindon, on 27 January 2010. © DP085789

How Can Staff Networks Help Our Organisation Become More Inclusive?

What is this resource for?

This resource is for organisations looking to establish and support staff networks, also known as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These groups exist to represent and advocate for the workforce. Staff networks can be broad or established to represent staff with protected characteristics.

What are the key points?

  • Staff networks are self-selecting networks of people with shared characteristics, identities, interests or experiences
  • Staff networks raise awareness of specific issues, provide peer support and champion marginalised voices
  • Terms of reference help to define the purpose of the networks and outline how they should be run
  • Networks should determine their own goals and agenda, and organisations should be wary about exploiting the networks or expecting emotional labour from them

What are staff networks?

Staff networks are often self-selecting networks of people with shared characteristics, identities, interests or experiences. They are becoming more common across a range of organisations and can serve different functions depending on the organisation or the kind of network they are.

Staff networks primarily raise awareness of specific issues, provide peer support and champion marginalised voices. They offer supportive environments for underrepresented groups in the workforce, those with protected characteristics, and their allies.

Staff networks can be used to:

  • Allow colleagues to share their experiences with peers or with the organisation
  • Be a safe and supportive environment with others with shared characteristics or identities
  • A place for staff to raise concerns or awareness
  • Champion marginalised or underrepresented voices
  • Signal to potential future staff that there are established groups that recognise gaps in the workforce
  • Offer staff professional development opportunities from running and contributing to a network
  • Create networking opportunities and encourage relationship-building with employees who may not typically work together

What staff networks exist at Historic England?

All organisations will necessarily have and benefit from different types of staff networks, which (where possible) should be led by members of that group in response to need.

At Historic England, we have 6 staff networks:

  • Disability network
  • Gender Equality network
  • Neurodiversity network
  • Pride network
  • Race Equality network
  • Social Mobility network

Other organisations might have other networks, such as mental health networks, parent and carer networks, or networks for particular religions or specific disabilities.

How can ‘terms of reference’ help staff networks to run?

At Historic England, we have worked with the staff networks to develop terms of reference.

Terms of reference help define the networks' purpose and ensure some consistency in how they are run. It is important for these to be developed with or by the network members themselves to ensure they are fit for purpose. The terms should be reviewed periodically, perhaps whenever a chair's term ends.

The terms of reference might cover:

  • Any internal policies or guidance the network must follow
  • Guidance on making meetings and events accessible and inclusive
  • The structure of the network. For example, at Historic England, our networks all have 2 co-chairs, and some have set up a committee with particular assigned roles
  • A term limit for co-chairs. We recommend 2 or 3 years maximum to ensure that other people get the opportunity and to keep the group fresh
  • What support is available for staff networks. At Historic England, each network has a representative from Human Resources (HR) and our Executive Team (ET)
  • Any values or behaviours expected of members. These should align with your organisational values and behaviours where possible
  • Who to contact with any concerns
  • Any expectations for network co-chairs. At Historic England, there are quarterly meetings for all network co-chairs, and we recommend regular staff network meetings or events
  • Information for line managers whose direct reports are members of a network. At Historic England, we support our staff to be members of networks during their work time and advice about how to manage any impact this has on their role
  • Any information about the available budget for staff networks to run events or bring in guest speakers
  • Guidance around confidentiality of membership (if and where appropriate)
  • Expectations of any reps supporting the network. In Historic England's case, this includes the HR rep and the ET rep

What can an organisation expect from staff networks?

While staff networks can be a tool for improving the inclusive culture of an organisation, how they operate should be determined by the network members. At Historic England, we do not expect all staff networks to be the same, even though they share terms of reference. Instead, we encourage the networks to shape their approach around the needs of their members. Some networks meet regularly and have an agenda and actions; others meet more informally.

Networks can also contribute to organisational policies. At Historic England, we do not encourage this for our networks as we are aware that it is not always appropriate to expect people from underrepresented or marginalised groups to lead on Inclusion, Diversity, and Equality. We would advise instead that if other areas of the organisation want to consult people with a particular lived experience, they should commission an external organisation with the appropriate experience to do so.

In this context, lived experience means people whose views and perspectives have been informed by hands-on, direct involvement rather than just a theoretical, academic, or media-informed perspective. For example, a disabled colleague will have a different perspective about the accessibility of a building than someone who is not disabled due to their lived experience. Lived experience does not mean being a voice for an entire community, only for your own experience.

What should not be expected of staff networks?

We are also keen to avoid staff networks taking on the emotional labour of organisational change. Emotional labour in this context refers to the toll on people's wellbeing and mental and physical health in a particular kind of work. For example, asking an LGBTQ+ person to write a policy about homophobia in the workplace, when it's not their job, is expecting emotional labour from them as their lived experience relates so closely to the work expected of them.

To avoid this, staff networks should be able to determine their own agenda and not be given work to do by the organisation where expertise could be reasonably sought elsewhere. This does not mean that staff networks should not be invited to participate in or review material or discussions that expect emotional labour from them, but involvement should be voluntary rather than assigned to the network.

How to encourage staff to join staff networks

To encourage staff members to get involved with the networks available, we advise the following:

  • Ensure information about the networks and how to get involved is a part of any induction or onboarding information, allowing staff to be members from their first day
  • Have a staff network page on your organisation’s intranet site. At Historic England, each network has its own page, which allows the networks to have agency over how they are presented to the rest of the organisation, with links to relevant articles, training and sources or further learning
  • Include updates from the networks in any regular internal communications, sharing news about upcoming meetings and celebrating the achievements of the networks and their members
  • If possible, offer training to network Chairs, ensuring they feel supported in their role
  • Encourage existing members of staff networks to recruit their colleagues to join (personal invitations can be highly effective in encouraging participation)