‘Emotional’ sponsorship from leaders is vital to drive workplace inclusion

Written by Jermaine Haughton Wednesday 16 June 2021
For employee support groups to thrive, leaders need to provide emotional support to ensure inclusion translates into change
Infographic of a support network in someone's hands: series of arrows pointing to icons of people

Employee support networks are a common investment made by companies aiming to transform their diversity, equity and inclusion to thrive in an increasingly interconnected world. Also known as ‘affinity groups’ or ‘employee resource groups’, these staff-run networks are a safe space for people to unite voluntarily based on their shared values or demographics and background.

For managers, the support networks allow employees from underrepresented groups to express their experience and highlight problems that need to be solved. The networking and personal development opportunities offered in these networks can yield more confident, loyal and engaged employees on your team.

At CMI Race’s webinar ‘Building a Support Network’, Poonam Parmar and Priya Aiyer Martin, co-chairs of The Mace Ethnic Diversity Inclusion Network (EDIN) shared practical advice on how to build and operate successful employee support networks.

Employee support networks can grow rapidly within companies

Working for the global construction company Mace, Poonam and Priya started the EDIN in the UK in January 2019. Aimed at providing support to ethnic minority staff, the group has grown into more than 350 members in two years.

With successful LGBT and women’s support networks already in place at Mace, Poonam and Priya felt there was a need for a new network serving people from diverse ethnic groups. After delivering a thorough business case pitch to Mace’s hierarchy, Poonam says they attracted widespread support from human resources and business leaders almost immediately. Poonam, who is a planning manager at Mace, said: “There was a lot of engagement from senior leadership to have this network within Mace and, as time's gone on, it's just been stronger. More and more people are coming forward and saying: ‘how can we support?’

Two years on, we have an established committee in North America and we're now working towards having a committee in the Middle East and North Africa and Australia. I can't stress how important it is to have leadership on your side."

Emotional sponsorship ensures Inclusivity stays top-of-mind

Poonam and Priya say EDIN’s success has been largely fuelled by the support of Mace’s senior leaders.

As well as providing financial support to fund events, guest speakers and the overall running of the network, Priya says bosses have shown ‘emotional sponsorship’ – including participating in events and promoting EDIN to their own teams.

She said: “Emotional or mental sponsorship includes our group board sponsor speaking about us in big meetings and training sessions that he's hosted. Other senior leaders are including five-minute presentations [about EDIN] as part of their communications meetings with their teams.

“Even with appraisals now, are you including an objective relating to diversity and inclusion? That’s a part of emotionally sponsoring people to excel in their career and [help them] become an inclusive leader.”

Managers are obliged to keep inclusive discussions alive in their teams

Priya and Poonam admit growing the fledgling network into a larger, more diverse group was particularly challenging. However, the role Mace’s senior leaders played in helping spread the message about EDIN’s events encouraged more people to get involved.

“In the beginning it wasn't as diverse as we wanted it to be,” Priya, who is a project artist architect, said. “The events bring people together. Whatever topics are being discussed, they take it to their teams and then they discuss it amongst their teams.”

“Once you've got the senior leaders from those individual teams that are speaking to their teams about [those diversity and inclusion topics], they then cascade up to people higher than them or even to each other,” she added. “If other teams are thinking ‘those groups are getting involved [in EDIN], maybe we should be doing the same,’ then it starts a domino effect.”

Line managers should seek to build trust with their people

One of the best ways for line managers to support employee support is to develop stronger relationships with the individuals on their teams. From showing interest in another person’s culture to openly welcoming different ideas, line managers can help their colleagues from all the many ethnic groups that comprise society to feel more confident and comfortable at work.

“Take that time to understand the people who work with you and what their needs are. You can get that through regular catch-ups. Build that trust with the people you work with so that they know they can come to you when there is an issue,” Poonam said.

She added: “Just by understanding a bit more about their background, you could actually find out a lot about that person – like, why they don’t want to do certain things or why this wouldn't work for them. It's up to you if you want to be a good manager and take that step to really understand the people you're working with.”

Prepare your support network to succeed with regular performance measurement

From its origins, EDIN was founded on a strong business case, and Poonam and Priya embedded performance tracking into its fabric to ensure they can track its progress, and hold senior leaders accountable for their promises.

“If you look at the ethnic minority pay gap, it's not that we're getting paid less than our White counterparts, we're just not at the [job seniority] levels of our White counterparts. As you go up the ranks you see a drastic decrease in the amount of ethnic diversity and I think that is something we are working heavily on,” Poonam said.

She added: “[It is important] to make sure your company has key performance indicators (KPIs), and holding a bit of accountability as well as to ensure those KPIs are hit. There are a lot of companies that go out there and put out all these statistics - ‘we want to reach that’ - but who is holding them into account about actually reaching those numbers?

“We hold that accountability, we hold human resources to that accountability, we speak to our leadership and we seek how to help to bring in more diverse talent and retain the diverse talent that we already have.”


Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is deeply valued by us at CMI, and we believe it should be a priority for managers everywhere. But how can we keep this at the top of the list when there’s so much workplace upheaval around us? Check out our recently launched Better Managers Roadmap to help get started.

Find out more about CMI Race and see our upcoming virtual events on topics such the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion aspects of organisational change. Our full events library can be found here.

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