The role of network groups in diversity, equity and inclusion

Employee network groups can help to drive diversity, equity and inclusion policies, a recent series of WiHTL panels heard.

Diversity And Inclusion. Business Employment Leadership. People Silhouettes


Network groups are a good source of competitive advantage, challenging employers to improve what they offer and giving a broader range of perspectives, the CEO of Wickes told a recent WiHTL conference.

David Wood was speaking at WiHTL’s recent conference on different aspects of network groups in the hospitality, travel and leisure sectors.

Tea Colaianni, chair of WiHTL, asked 50 companies it works with about their views on network groups. Over 67% had an employee network group and the majority of those who didn’t said they were planning to set one up in the next 12 months. They identified gender, LGBTQ+ and race as the most likely groups. The benefits include improved communications and a stronger sense of belonging. Just over half offered training to co-chairs of groups with the most popular form of training being in leadership skills.

The panels covered issues such as how network groups can accelerate diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] efforts across a company and increase engagement. Ben Jackson from Wickes’ Price network said it is important to start a group with a clear view of its purpose and what it will bring the business and to include statistics to back up the need for it. His group has four pillars – education, celebration, support and challenge, each with a clear set of activities. Education is about explaining the historical challenges LGBTQ+ people have faced and are still facing. Celebration is about events such as trans awareness day; support is about having the right structures, including an employee assistance programme helpline or chatrooms that provide accessible peer to peer support.  Challenge is about moving policy and process forwards and making sure the language used in the business is inclusive.

>After making the case for a group, it is important, said Jackson, to build a committee that is representative of all areas of the business, all identities and all levels. This then empowers the group to speak for a diverse group of people.

Kristen Wells, director of DEI at Hilton hotels, said it is important to have CEO support and executive advocates in order to have a voice at higher levels. Its nine resource groups are international and have recently been relaunched as virtual platforms which are location agnostic. The international perspective is important and helps to drive greater understanding of different cultural perspectives.

Katie Birchall, HR business partner at Whitbread and co-chair of its Glow network [for LGBTQ+ people], said the organisation has four employee network groups – on LGBTQ+, on race, religion and cultural heritage, on disability and on gender equality. Glow started as a way of connecting people in different parts of the UK. It is a virtual group, having started on Facebook and is now moving onto Teams and Yammer. It celebrates the LGBTQ+ community.  It draws on Stonewall’s controversial Diversity Champions programme as a framework. Birchall said that the framework had helped it to think about its purpose and aims, including how it can influence Whitbread’s suppliers. Each network group at Whitbread has an executive sponsor.


Budget was discussed with many of the groups saying they had started small and had gradually been allocated a bit of budget to run their events and activities. Another panel discussed  intersectionality.

Tieran Bhuhi from IHG’s ethnic diversity resource group spoke of how the group intersects with other employee resource group and uses storytelling to educate in a safe space and to encourage allyship. Matthew Case, co-lead of Whitbread’s Glow network, said allyship is crucial. Reverse mentoring can help to drive understanding of people’s diverse and rich identities. He added that intersectionality helps groups to ensure they are not bringing any particular biases to their group and excluding some people.

Mum of two Ana Abenza, founder of Deliveroo’s gender equality committee, spoke of how employee network groups encourage a more open culture and a space of psychological safety. Intersectionality encourages groups to collaborate, raises awareness and ensures that all women are represented, she said.

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