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Diversity Network Groups: The Complications

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Many companies explore the use of employee resources or network groups as part of their business equity, workforce diversity and workplace inclusion initiatives. 

They’re sometimes also called affinity groups or business resource groups, often depending on the maturity of the programme.

This four-part mini-series covers topics for companies to consider:

  1. What
  2. Why
  3. How
  4. Complications and challenges.

This insights mini-series has covered what networking groups/employee resources normally consist of, why they are so important and how to set them up.

There are, inevitably, complications and we’ll cover some of the more frequently experienced ones here. 

“I’ve not had that problem”. 

Often people who could be involved in a network group, or indeed more than one, say “well being black/a woman/gay /disabled/etc. has never been a problem for me so why should I be involved?” 

This can often be explored with questions such as “are you really saying that it’s never been an issue for you?”, or “have you never seen it be an issue for someone else”, or “do you accept that there may be people who at least perceive that there may be issues?”. 

Often this isn’t just about what an individual believes their own benefit will be, but also the ways in which they can help others.

“Records aren’t allowed”

There are some countries where employers are not permitted to maintain formal employee records of aspects that in some places are called “protected characteristics”. 

There may be many reasons for this, not least of which is to protect employees from having their characteristics inappropriately being used in decisions about them. Unfortunately, this is often put up as a reason to not have networking groups or even communities of interest.

That’s likely a simplistic response and shouldn’t necessarily be accepted at face value. 

For example, there should be nothing to stop a disability network from being established in a country where the employer isn’t permitted to record that about a person on formal records. Being part of such a network doesn’t mean that you’re disabled yourself it just means that you have an interest in the topic, want to learn and support others, and want to support positive change. 

“Such campaigning / promotion isn’t permitted in this country”

Here we touch on what is acceptable, or potentially even considered legal, in any particular territory. 

If this is a factor it is essential to understand very clearly what is and is not permitted, not just take common perceptions or stereotypes at face value. (This isn’t legal advice, you may need to source from company counsel.)

For example, discussions inside a company can be about how to do our best for our people. This does not necessitate campaigning or “promoting” a topic that is governed in some jurisdictions. 

If the people who work for us can’t discuss such matters outside the workplace, it’s arguably an even greater reason for the company to have mechanisms in place that provides for them when at work.

Having a workplace environment where an individual feels valued and respected solely on their capabilities, and giving them a safe place where they can be themselves without fear of discrimination or retribution, is arguably a sign of a forward-thinking company.

“We don’t have that problem here so we don’t need such groups”. 

This one can be a bit of a struggle to deal with. Is it really the case that:

  • People with disabilities feel fully engaged, supported or catered for at every single work location?
  • There’s a 50:50 mix of men and women at all levels in the company? 
  • The ethnic mix of staff represents the societies that we operate in or the customers we serve? 

There are many examples where the “no problem” line has been used because “there aren’t any LGBT+ people here” or “there’s nobody here with a disability”. In reality, it’s highly likely that they are there but that they are not known about or being engaged properly. 

Alternatively, why do people not want to come and work for you? 

Setting up such groups is divisive”. “Creating these groups creates division among people instead of unity”. “I thought we were not supposed to make such distinctions

This is a topic that requires some careful consideration. 

It’s really important to note that networking groups, and indeed Diversity and Inclusion initiatives more widely, are not intended to create divisions – quite the opposite.  The networking groups however may shed light on divisions that already exist but that may not be visible to others. 

For example, office banter that may be considered acceptable to some can be hugely offensive to others and thereby create or reinforce barriers. Company medical schemes or other benefits that do not provide for same-sex partners can cause real issues and distress. The networking groups can help the company and its people raise awareness of such issues and provide solutions on how to address them. 

As has been mentioned in previous items in this series it is often the case that improvements sought by a networking group bring benefits for all, and indeed that most people are impacted by at least one if not all of the D&I characteristics in one way or another anyway – we are, after all, all unique human beings!

In conclusion

Networking groups bring huge value to the company and employees, but they aren’t without their challenges and complications. 

Careful consideration of all of these factors is prudent and will help bring along all stakeholders.

About Steven

Steven has extensive experience in strategic executive leadership having led large business units at Fujitsu. Steven has had full and operational delivery responsibility for $1bn annual revenue business, including sales / growth, of full-service range (consultancy and change programmes, to operational IT services) to multiple clients. Leading business through changes in strategic direction, crisis management, transformational turnarounds especially those delivering business critical services to clients such as Public Sector / National Government. Steven engages well with C-suite executives and senior stakeholders, including in previous roles with UK Government Cabinet Ministers.


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