By John K. Borchardt, Ph.D.
Minority employee network groups are flourishing at a growing number of companies. These groups provide leadership in resolving diversity issues and offer opportunities for minority employees to grow professionally. They can also help firms compete in the increasingly diverse American economy as well as in global markets.
Both networking groups and employers have a stake in the success of the employers' diversity processes. Strong networking groups can help employers attract new minority employees and customers. They also offer workers a forum for connecting with others of similar backgrounds, interests and cultures. Edgard Prado, a project manager with Shell Services International and president of the Shell Hispanic Employees Network, says, "Our number one goal is to support Shell's diversity process." However, he also notes that the group "gives us an opportunity to talk about things common to us, to feel included and have a sense of belonging to something greater at Shell."
Removing barriers to build a sense of inclusion also carries multiple benefits. Rick Schroder, a diversity group leader and member of Shell's Diversity Center, comments that minority networks "help create a safe, open work environment where people can contribute to their full potential, increasing productivity."
With regard to forming networking groups, diversity consultant Taylor Cox, author of Cultural Diversity in Organizations: Theory, Research & Practice, says, "A core of similarity among group members is desirable. Members must share some common values and norms to promote coherent actions on organizational goals."
Sometimes the impetus to form employee networks comes from management, but more often it springs from employees—although the company may facilitate the group. For example, at Microsoft, individual employees initiate the formation of networking groups. Aerospace and defense firm Lockheed Martin assists employees in starting "affinity groups" by posting guidelines on how to do so on its company Intranet. At Shell, employees can contact the company's Diversity Center for advice on starting networks.
When initiated by employees, networking groups have a better chance of being accompanied by great enthusiasm. For example, although the first organizational meeting of the Shell Black Networking Group was held at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday, more than 300 interested employees attended.
Equally important, however, is getting management to buy in. Without the support of management, an employee group is likely to find success to be an uphill battle. Luckily for many networks, more and more corporations lend strong support, recognizing the benefits of promoting and encouraging employee organizations. Encouragement can come in forms as simple as the employer's providing access to meeting rooms, photocopying machines and company communications channels to announce meetings. Members of the Shell Black Networking Group use company videoconferencing facilities to communicate between different facilities during working hours. Support can also be given in more personal efforts. Each employee networking group at Texas Instruments is sponsored by a member of senior management. There and at other companies, the accomplishments of the networking group influence the adviser's own performance evaluation. At Xerox Corp., CEO Paul Allaire has appointed senior executives as "champions" of the employee networks and given them the authority to act on concerns raised by their groups. When African-American women at Xerox began to fear that the small numbers of black female engineering graduates would translate into their perpetual underrepresentation at Xerox, they confided their concerns to executive vice president William F. Buehler, their group's designated champion. Buehler acted, establishing a summer internship program for black women engineering students that has aided Xerox in recruiting these students after graduation.
Many companies have discovered that supporting employee networks pays big dividends, as employee organizations can make direct contributions to business goals. Besides participating in ongoing computing technology discussions, members of Microsoft's Chinese group (whose members are from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and North America) assist in Asian business development by participating in recruitment of employees for U.S. and overseas assignments. Their responsibilities grew when Microsoft announced it would open a research laboratory in the People's Republic of China.
Patsy Randell, Honeywell's vice president of corporate diversity and multicultural business affairs, says that the Asian American Council at that company provided valuable insight into Asian business practices and protocol that aided the firm's expansion in these markets. At computer systems firm Silicon Graphics, the Asian networking group provided similar advice and "was pivotal in helping them gain access to the Pacific Rim," according to Michael Wheeler, author of two diversity studies for The Conference Board, an association of Fortune 500 companies. Wheeler also reports that the Silicon Graphics' African-American networking group played a significant role in exploring expansion into South Africa.
Successfully marketing to minority groups is becoming increasingly necessary to business success. Employee networks play a role in reaching American minority consumers as well. For example, Honeywell's Hispanic Council aids the company in marketing products to people whose first language is not English.
Employee networking groups at many firms also promote minority employee recruitment. For example, at Microsoft, members of the Hispanic, Filipino and Chinese groups participate in employee recruitment of more professionals of these ethnicities. Prado emphasizes that the Shell Hispanic Employees Network wants to be a resource in the recruitment, development and retention of Hispanic employees at Shell. Network members are already working with personnel departments and visiting college campuses on recruiting trips, he notes.
While recruiting a diverse work force is important, employee retention is also a critical issue. "Very often, executives trying to build a diverse work force can find talented minorities and women already on the company payroll. All [these employees] lack is the opportunity to advance," observes Bernard E. Anderson, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor. Firms must promote the development of minority employees, offering suitable advancement opportunities. Some firms view their employee networking groups as valuable tools for encouraging professional development. Charles McCloud, new business development manager at Shell Chemicals, says, "Employee networks provide opportunities for growth for both the members and the company. The more people utilize network groups, the more opportunities there are."At Xerox the desire to retain minority employees has prompted action at the highest level. The Black Managers' Network, working several years ago with then-CEO David T. Kearns, analyzed the resumes of top executives at the company in order to determine the career path that each had taken to the top. Identifying the specific positions once held by these executives, Kearns then delineated similar positions at Xerox for professionals of color and women (in proportion to their numbers in the organization). The effort has not slackened with Kearns' retirement. Allaire has sent a memo to every manager informing them that he holds each of them accountable for promoting minorities and women into management.
The Black Managers' Network also found that African Americans as a group received lower performance appraisals than other groups—even when the same wording was used to describe their performance. In addition, African Americans in the same jobs often received lower pay for the same work. As a result of these findings, Xerox changed its personnel processes to achieve equity. These actions impacted hundreds of employees.
Networking groups at Texas Instruments have played a similar role, helping the firm update its policies against discrimination. For example, members of the company's women's networks participated in developing a training program addressing sexual harassment.
Employee networking groups also help younger employees meet successful co-workers who can become mentors and role models. In the case of engineers and computer scientists, these contacts can be invaluable since they might otherwise have little contact with successful minority co-workers. The latest employment data released by the U.S. Department of Labor show that there are still few African Americans and Hispanics employed in the engineering and information science fields.
Networking groups help members in less direct ways as well. Chip Egea, director of human resources at AT&T's corporate headquarters in New York, says that employee networking groups provide an arena in which to develop leadership skills—tools that become increasingly valuable to employees as they progress in their careers. The Texas Instruments Semiconductor Group Black Employee Network sponsors a leadership training program. Gini McCain, director of human resources communications at 3M Corp., notes that networking group activities often help employees develop useful political skills.
Some employee networking groups organize courses in career enhancement subjects such as communications and management skills. Others serve as clearinghouses collecting information on such courses and informing their members about continuing education opportunities. Employee networks can also strengthen other employee groups dedicated to improving personal skills. For example, discussions within the Shell Asian Pacific Employees Networking Group on the importance of oral presentation skills convinced some members to join the Toastmasters Club that meets weekly during lunch hours at Shell's research center in Houston. (Toastmasters International is an independent organization dedicated to improving its members' public speaking skills though an organized program of projects.)
Benefits can also spill over into the surrounding community. Wheeler says, "Community involvement helps the community but also provides developmental opportunities for employees."
The African-American, Hispanic, Native American and other employee networking groups at Microsoft have outreach programs to minority communities, particularly schools. Members of the Shell Hispanic Employees Network recently set up computers at a Houston area school that received a shipment of computers but no instructions on how to install them.
Programs through these and other companies' employee networks encourage minority employees to talk to grade school classes about career opportunities in engineering and other fields. These volunteers provide role models to children, showing that minorities can achieve career success in engineering and computer science.
Honeywell often responds to requests from its employee networking groups for financial support of worthy community and educational causes. The Lockheed Martin Latino Mentoring Network has raised thousands of dollars for the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund and has cooperated with other groups such as the Society of Women Engineers in service projects in the Hispanic community. These projects include going into schools to discuss engineering careers and serving as mentors to science teachers, providing information and materials to help them teach their classes.
Even if various employee networks at a company represent different minority groups, they often have common interests. Recognizing this, some networks are banding together, sharing resources and supporting each other's missions. The Texas Instruments Diversity Network is an informal organization of representatives from the various employee networking groups at the firm. The Microsoft Diversity Advisory Council includes representatives of 12 employee networks.
At both firms these groups exchange information, oversee areas of common interest to the various employee resource groups, guide new initiatives and organize leadership conferences. The Texas Instruments network also publishes a periodic diversity newsletter for employees.
Throughout the country, corporations and their employees are clearly realizing the benefits of minority employee networks. When supported and nurtured by employees and management, both groups reap significant profits—not only in terms of the bottom line, but also in career development success.
Dr. John K. Borchardt works for Shell and is an adjunct professor of chemical engineering at the University of Oklahoma. He also consults on career management and work force diversity.
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Source : Graduating Engineer Online