To make real progress on equality, employers need staff race networks to collect and amplify the employee voice. Gill Dix pulls out some of the findings from the latest Acas and Essex Business School research into the value they have.
“It felt like a catalyst, it felt like a moment in time, that got everybody’s attention, that got everybody thinking.”
What is this senior manager in an NHS Trust talking about? They are talking about Black Lives Matter, about the impact of the pandemic and about finally facing up to deep-rooted problems that have been left untouched for far too long in many UK workplaces.
This quote is taken from new research just published by Acas, which focuses on the under-researched area of the roles and impact Staff Race Networks have on organisations.
Collective solutions for collective problems
We are witnessing a renewed urgency to address systemic and cultural problems at work. The recent allegations around institutionally ingrained misogyny, sexism and racism are examples of the concerns coming to light, even in some of the country’s most important institutions.
Staff networks and inclusion
When it comes to addressing profound problems of racism and sexism, it isn’t simply a case of reaching for our normal conflict management solutions – for instance, more line manager training, though that will have a place. Nor is it simply a case of dealing with issues on a case by case basis, though clearly well-considered remedial work needs to happen in response to those immediately impacted.
But what we also know is that systemic problems need to be treated as collective issues, with collective solutions.
This new research makes it clear that staff race networks have a role to play since they serve as a form of both “self-help and organisational change”.
The value of race networks
Our qualitative study, carried out by Essex Business School, found that staff race networks offer a forum for social and emotional support and for information sharing. This is reason alone to support inclusivity networks in the workplace. But the research also found that participants had a more ambitious agenda. Following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, people reached a tipping point, and in some organisations, this manifested in the stimulus for race networks to evolve.
It’s time to make some real progress on race equality and we all need to be active players in supporting change. Race networks play a valuable role in collating and raising concerns and holding organisations to account. They are not a new idea of course, but perhaps their moment is now.
We found that staff race networks work best when they:
- have the backing of senior managers
- offer opportunities for network members to develop their leadership skills
- are supported by other diversity allies
- are part of a wider family of other equality networks.
Race networks play a valuable role in collating and raising concerns and holding organisations to account. They are not a new idea of course, but perhaps their moment is now.”
Having a ‘light touch’ governance structure helps with the smooth running and allows them to be treated seriously. This includes having network chairs, executive committees, working groups and executive sponsors. Time off to perform functions is also crucial, and so is succession planning around network members. In some of the case studies in this research, there had been sticking points: the relationships with trade unions, where the clarification of mutual roles needed ironing out; there was a need for more training on taking up roles in the network arrangements; and there was a need for greater clarity in the role of HR in supporting networks.
How can organisations step up to make the most of what race and identity networks can bring to the table? The research found an accountability gap. There is not always a clear line of who, and what forum, was responsible for addressing change and tackling the status quo.
Surely there are plenty of existing voice mechanisms for hearing staff concerns and pushing for change? That is true. But perhaps we have been too focused for too long on individual rather than group problems at work. Our research tells us that we need to reinvigorate collective voice so that it can speak on specific issues. And in this context, we need to recognise that networks aren’t simply a place for social exchange and support, but a forum which can help inspire and inform change.
We can’t change the past, but we can change the direction of the future. In the words of one participant in one of the race networks in a public sector organisation:
“.. the struggles to get where I am today, I wouldn’t want someone else to go through those same processes. I would hope, if my daughter joins, it would be a very different story to how I’ve navigated myself.”