12 tips for starting — and growing — an employee network

If you work at a corporation of a certain size, you’ve doubtless heard of “employee networks” — also known as “employee resource groups” or ERGs. These are groups typically started by employees, motivated by the grassroots and sharing a common interest or characteristic, like a culture or race, or playing tennis, or being LGBT.

I’m not sure what percentage of corporations have or support employee networks, and I know that smaller companies and startups don’t usually have such groups (perhaps because they tend to be diverse by default?), but internally at SAP, they’ve grown in prominence over the last few years.

Since part of the reason SAP’s employee networks have been rejuvenated in the past few years parallels and perhaps has been inspired by our LGBT employee network transformation, I wanted to share a group of suggestions I published internally out loud here in the real world, to have a conversation about common experiences and hopefully also learn new tips.

pride@sapThree years ago in 2010, the LGBT presence in our major SAP Bay Area location was lackluster at best. Today, especially since the release of It Gets Better: SAP Employees one year ago, we are a vibrant community – not automatically and not without work, but we are far less disenfranchised.

What did we do to bring this change? As near as I can figure out, these things are what made a difference:

Address an unaddressed need

First make sure you are addressing a real need, and a need that is not addressed elsewhere. Look around and make sure there aren’t other groups that are also trying to attract members — combine and/or build together.

For us, the need was clear: There was practically zero momentum in our local LGBT group – there was much disenfranchisement and no goal or sense of community. We knew there were many of us out there, but we were isolated locally. Meanwhile, national laws still lacked (and are getting better, but in most places continue to lack) protection for LGBT families.

All our goals and activities flowed from knowing these needs.

Start locally

Ask and listen to what your local community needs. The nature of our employee network made it critical that we have a local presence – not only are there differing laws from state to state, but there are differing cultures and levels of acceptance per workplace. For us it was important to create a locally galvanized group — and we also chose a name that expressed our local nature — Pride@SAP Palo Alto. We made it a point to be a sub-group of the larger global group — not a different group, but a part and working together. The larger global group has much established practices and brand value already that has also been essential.

It can start with just one person – but one person alone can’t do it

There needs to be at least one passionate person who can devote some volunteer time to engaging a new initiative. It simply won’t fly without someone organizing things — administering communities, creating mailing lists, and getting monthly lunch rooms and appointments alone can take a lot of time, not to mention actually having activities.

But do not do it alone or expect one unsupported person to make a difference. Tap into resources from Global Diversity and Communications, if available.

It must be grassroots — but ask a local executive to help generate momentum

In my experience it doesn’t work all one way or all the other — it needs to be a grassroots group, but often disenfranchised people will stay this way unless they feel there are executives who care.

In our case, one key moment in kicking off our rejuvenation was a roundtable lunch attended by the Managing Director at Labs. This brought out many many people who were formerly hidden in the woodworks.

Welcome “straight” supporters

For us, it has been absolutely key to welcome straight supporters, who have been key to a successful re-establishment of the group. Staight folks might not always know the discrimination and difficulties you face (all the better to educate), but they often care about LGBT issues, experience homophobia, and have non-straight friends and family just as we do. If you want people across the company and spectrum to care, invite them to share how it is they care too. Be inclusive.

Use your internal platforms to create an internal community

This is essential for easily starting discussions, storing documents, starting activities and collaborating. Decide if you want this group to be open or closed. Inside some companies, LGBT groups are closed and let you enter by approval. In others, they are open. We have a combination of both. This is by design: when people join an open community, everyone in the company can see you joining. However for LGBT folks where not everyone is comfortable being “out” — you may need to welcome people to join at all levels of comfort of being “out.”

Make an email distribution list

And circulate emails with, for example, the notes from the roundtable summary above — linked also in a discussion on Communities. Encourage people to join the discussion online in the group. This is (still) often the most effective way to make sure you reach everyone you want to reach.

Create a core team

Identify 3-4 passionate members to help ramp up the group and to have a diverse start to the goals and activities

Build a list of goals, objectives, and activities

With the core group, build up a list of what you will do and why it matters. Let people know what this is and contextualize why it matters inside your company and in the world.

At a minimum, have regular monthly lunches in a regular room, in which you update on goals and activities, listen to and respond to conversations, and encourage new goals.

Network with similar local groups from other companies; track and talk about relevant external events.

Be specific and precise around “asks”

We developed a list of “asks” of local management as well as Global Diversity that included budget and communications, to help drive visibility. Be clear how these asks contribute to not just helping the employee group, but to the betterment of the company as a whole (according to the goals and objectives, above).

Come together around a cause

Your network can come together as a community around a cause that you collectively feel passionate about. For example, the LGBT community in Labs North America come together as Pride@SAP Palo Alto around the cause of anti-bullying. Our first notable event, a film night screening an anti-bullying film, brought us together around this cause and also set the framework for our It Gets Better film. By doing this it gave more purpose and focus for the group, which lead to an extraordinary outcome—the film and boarder awareness of the issue of teen LGBT suicide, which was cathartic for all of us involved.

Measure growth

Measure growth in the group and achievement of goals and report back to Global Diversity to raise visibility (how the group generates “ROI”).

One interesting way other companies’ LGBT groups measure ROI is by tracking successful hires from diversity recruitment efforts, for example.

Have you created an employee network or been a part of helping one grow? I’d love to hear from you.

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