We all know that networking and finding mentors are key to getting choice projects or moving up that corporate ladder — especially for minorities and women. But how and where do you begin? You may not need to look any further than your own company. Employees in many organizations have formed special in-house groups to network with others of similar race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.
Employee network groups have been around since the 1970s, the heyday of affirmative action. AT&T’s networking groups for African Americans and women were formed nearly 30 years ago. “Women and minorities didn’t have many role models, [so] we grouped together to discuss issues,” says Burke Stinson, a district manager of media relations for AT&T. “[Those groups] helped ensure that affirmative action was kept honest.”
In recent years, employee networking groups have been more focused on providing career and professional development for their members. That’s the case with the Shell Black Networking Group (S.B.N.G.), says Tahita Doyle, a financial analyst for Shell Exploration and Production Co., a Houston-based subsidiary of Shell Oil Co. All 600 black Shell employees, most of whom are based in Houston, are constituents of the S.B.N.G. The network was formed two years ago as part of a companywide diversity initiative. Doyle serves on the S.B.N.G. board of directors.
“We see ourselves as a means to help more black employees enhance their careers and as a mechanism for promoting the value of black leadership in the company,” she says. Diversity experts and members of employee groups cite the following as benefits of participating in employee networks:
- Career development. Doyle says that creating a mentoring program that pairs black employees with executives has been a major achievement of S.B.N.G. Doyle herself is being mentored by a black executive, the director of Shell RESOLVE, the employee grievance department.
- Networking with black professionals. For Nicole Morris, a product engineer and president of the African American Society (A.A.S.) at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota, participating in this group has helped her make key contacts with top African American executives and learn what it takes to advance in the company. In 1998, the A.A.S. sponsored an internal panel discussion that featured African American executives discussing their career paths. The group also sponsored an economic empowerment meeting that brought in three financial consultants to speak about personal finance issues.
- Advancing the company’s business. Business also benefits from these groups. AT&T often taps the expertise of network members to target or find out more about a particular demographic group. For instance, if AT&T is trying to sell services or wants commercials aimed at people with disabilities, it’s not unusual to have someone from the resource group have a say in how the message is developed, says Stinson.
- Exposure to company leaders. Groups offer participants leadership development opportunities as well. S.B.N.G. members can join committees dealing with mentoring, diversity, community outreach, human resources, member participation, communications, and event planning. In addition, the S.B.N.G. boards meet quarterly with senior Shell executives to discuss goals and concerns. The senior