To help reduce inequalities and support our staff, the NHS People Plan and the NHS equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) improvement plan recognise staff networks as vital: driving meaningful change and creating organisational cultures where everyone feels they belong.
This toolkit includes useful guidance and resources to help develop your staff networks across the NHS.
What are staff networks?
Staff networks comprise employees coming together around a shared purpose to improve staff experience within their organisation and across the NHS.
Common NHS staff networks include:
- BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic)
- LGBT+ (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans +plus queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, and all other gender identities and sexual orientations)
- Religion or belief (for example, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, multi-faith).
The role and importance of staff networks
With over 700 staff networks operating across the NHS in England, they provide protected spaces where people can be open and inclusive, nurturing a culture of belonging and trust.
Not only do they provide a supportive and welcoming space for NHS colleagues, but they also offer expertise on matters related to equality, diversity, and inclusion. The NHS People Plan asks organisations – including boards and senior leaders – to ensure this expertise informs senior-level decision-making for workforce development, improving employee experience and retention, and to influence national policy and patient care positively.
As NHS staff networks increase in size and number, they continue to ensure NHS colleagues make connections with those with similar experiences and help people to exercise leadership, network, find sponsors or allies, amplify voices, and share in decision-making.
Networks also provide opportunities for people to build confidence to speak up in forums outside of the network space, address local concerns and link people to collaborate and innovate intuitively across the NHS.
Staff networks play an important role in helping NHS organisations deliver high-quality care, and equality through their ability to:
- share the lived experience of people to inform decision-making and improvements
- support equality, diversity, and inclusion
- reach seldom-heard voices
- identify and develop future leaders
- advise on the different needs of our people and how best to meet these needs so everyone feels a sense of belonging and can thrive
- help NHS organisations to work in ways that embraces and progresses inclusion
- help leaders demonstrate their commitment to creating an inclusive culture
- provide feedback on strategic areas of work
- improve inclusive recruitment processes and practices
- influence, challenge and improve policies and processes
- offer diverse expertise and voices to enhance decision making
- remove outdated and adverse policies and practices
- provide a space for individuals seeking peer support, and a safe space to create and experience a sense of community and belonging.
Why do we need a staff network toolkit?
This toolkit was developed in response to feedback from NHS staff network chairs and leads for centrally provided, practical guidance to help develop staff networks (of all protected characteristics), which is currently lacking.
To help foster the inclusive culture set out in the NHS EDI improvement plan, the toolkit can also help every NHS organisation to support the continuous development of staff networks to help improve staff and patient outcomes.
Who is this toolkit for?
Although this toolkit is primarily for people setting up staff networks across the NHS, or existing staff network chairs and leads who are developing theirs, it will also be useful for:
- staff network members
- staff network sponsors
- board members and senior leaders
- equality, diversity, and inclusion staff
- HR staff
- line managers of staff network key role holders and members.
Establishing your staff network
Who can set up a staff network?
Anyone can propose setting up a staff network. Volunteers usually run staff networks, so their success comes from the dedication and passion of those running them, such as staff network chairs and co-chairs, together with the proactive involvement of their members.
Each NHS organisation has its own process requirement for setting up an official staff network, including network types, so consult your equality, diversity, and inclusion team or HR team first to understand their requirements to help you succeed.
Other NHS staff networks chairs are also good sources of help and advice.
Establishing its need and purpose
To establish the need and purpose of your staff network, consider:
- who is it for?
- what is its purpose?
- what are the aims and objectives of the network?
- how does it link to other staff networks within your organisation and the wider NHS?
- how will it link to your organisation’s vision and strategy?
- how will it link to your organisational or national equality, diversity, and inclusion strategy?
- how will it operate?
- how does the operational and behavioural code of conduct of the network and its members align with the NHS values of the NHS Constitution and/or your organisational values?
- is there any data to support the need and purpose?
It’s a good idea to ask those who are likely to become staff network members to help establish the need and purpose of the network, as well as help with all other areas of the network’s operation, for example, the network’s name etc.
Surveys, focus groups, webinars, and meetings effectively engage people. Your communications team is a good source of help and advice on engagement.
To help you define and set out your staff network requirements and agree on the way forward, complete a staff network charter.
Key roles for consideration
Depending on the size and purpose of your network, you may want to consider the key roles and responsibilities required to help it operate successfully. These include:
- Chair (or co-chair / lead)
- The chair will guide the staff network and play a key role in shaping its agenda and be the lead contact for the sponsor.
- Ideally, the chair should be representative of the network’s core membership.
- A staff network chair role description can help to formalise this role’s requirements.
- Deputy chair
- The deputy chair supports the chair’s role and deputises in their absence.
- Provides functions such as minute keeping, organising and co-ordinating meetings and social activities with the chair, and any other operational matters.
- Finance officer
- The finance officer manages the budget and all budget requirements, including budget applications.
It’s important that all role holders should be agreed upon by your staff network members, which should include:
- process for filling roles
- election and voting process (particularly for chairs)
- succession planning and process.
Line managers should also be made aware of your additional role and responsibilities and be added to your performance and career conversations.
Finding a sponsor
It’s important to secure buy-in to the work of the staff network from senior leaders at the top of your organisation to ensure your network can contribute to and inform decision-making processes at the board level.
This buy-in can help provide a greater sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the wider organisation, making sure line managers take it seriously and helping attract members to meetings if they think their voice will be heard by those at the top.
Find a board member or a senior director reporting to an executive board member to become the sponsor. Someone passionate about supporting your network who demonstrates interest, understanding and empathy towards any challenges and issues faced.
They should liaise with the board and other senior leaders about your network. This includes arranging for your staff network chair to present the work of your network to the board and other senior leaders to help shape policy development and decision-making.
Your sponsor can also advocate on behalf of your network for funding, help to guide strategy and direction, solve any issues, and raise the profile and influence of your staff network.
When choosing your sponsor, consider their:
- role – advocate, influencer, strategic advisor (or all three)
- level of engagement to meet and support your network – including attending meetings
- ability to commit time
- understanding of the key challenges facing staff network members
- understanding and agreement with the role requirements.
A sponsor role description can clarify expectations and responsibilities.
If you are unsure of potential candidates or need help, contact your equality, diversity, and inclusion team, or HR team for advice and guidance.
To help ensure the success of your staff network, it is important that those holding key roles are given time within their working hours to carry out their staff network responsibilities outside of normal working roles.
On average, across the NHS, a minimum of two days per month of protected time is allocated to help successfully carry out network roles and responsibilities.
This should be agreed with your line manager with the support of your network’s sponsor.
Communications are extremely important to raise awareness of your staff network across your organisation. Whether you are launching a new network, promoting your activities, updating your members, or recruiting new members, effective communications are key to helping your network succeed.
Develop a communications plan to help you communicate your staff network’s goals, progress, and successes.
The communication plan should include, for example, communication objectives, key audience, key messages, communication channels and frequency.
Communication channels to consider include:
- a dedicated page or section on your organisation’s intranet
- internal organisational newsletters
- case studies
- a dedicated staff network newsletter to update your members
- staff induction programs/training and education events
- corporate events/workshops/social events
- social media platforms – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter
- promotion via sponsor speaking opportunities.
Your organisation’s communications team should also be able to help provide help, advice, and guidance – which also includes accessible communications.
Your staff network membership operating criteria should be determined by your network members.
An open membership model for all employees (including friends and allies) can increase visibility, raise awareness, and create greater acceptance across your organisation. It can also meet the needs of a larger group of people, focusing staff on a specific issue and providing a broader perspective.
Closed membership provides a safe environment for people to come together, provide support and guidance, discuss common issues, and resolve concerns. When using a closed membership model, members should be clear about why these membership criteria are chosen and communicate the intent and purpose of the network.
- ensuring your approach aligns with your organisational values and policies
- a process for appointing members
- if patients or the public should be involved
- if representatives from other organisations are included, including trade union representation
- whether members can be removed from your network.
Ideally, an annual budget should be allocated to help support your staff network’s activity. This includes your events, meetings, materials, training, and for participating in any national awareness months and days such as International Women’s Day, LGBT+ History Month and Pride events, Black History Month, or Disability History Month.
Consider planning joint events with other staff networks to maximise cost impact and efficiency.
Across the NHS, the average annual budget for each staff network is around £3,000.
Organisations may allocate one budget for a network of networks or multiple staff networks instead of an individual network. For example, one budget for an overarching multi-faith network consisting of five smaller networks representing different religions and beliefs.
Any budget should be determined by your staff network’s needs and organisational requirements and requested as part of your organisation’s business planning and budget allocation process.
Your sponsor and finance team will be able to provide budget advice.
Annual action plan
Your staff network should create an annual action plan of what it wants to achieve. This should include any new actions to meet relating to an equality, diversity, and inclusion strategy, events, and other activities.
The best way to develop and agree your action plan is to co-design it with your members – and keep it simple.
Example events and activities:
- awareness and education events connected to key international or national days such as International Women’s Day, LGBT+ History Month and Pride events, Black History Month, or Disability History Month
- regular reports to your sponsor about meetings, activities, and emerging issues for staff
- network communications such as intranet web pages, blogs, speaking events
- inviting leaders and HR to meetings to share ideas and information
- inviting inspirational leaders to speak
- member networking events
- hosting joint activities with other networks
- encouraging members to share their knowledge and expertise informally or through mentoring and/or coaching
- delivering training and development activities such as presentation and communication skills.
Staff network meetings
The frequency of your staff network meetings should be determined by the members’ availability and the key priorities of your network. Some networks meet weekly or monthly, while others meet quarterly.
Meetings should follow a clear agenda – as agreed by staff network members – to help keep everyone focused.
They should also provide a respectful and safe space with psychological safety for people to discuss general issues, areas of concern, share lived experience, contribute to organisational policy and decision making, and discuss and agree the activities and annual business planning requirements of your network.
Inviting guest speakers to attend can help to keep meetings varied. Speakers could be role models from inside or outside your organisation sharing their experiences, or perhaps experts on unconscious bias or conflict mediation.
Don’t forget to celebrate your successes during meetings too.
A terms of reference document helps formalise how your staff network meetings will operate.
Terminology and inclusiveness
Your staff network’s name and the terminology used to refer to the people it represents are important.
Bear in mind that this differs across organisations and people. The terms BME (Black and minority ethnic) and BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic), for example, are commonly used across the NHS, but some people find the term problematic.
Acronyms in general can be confusing when not everyone recognises their meaning. There are also debates about whether BME or BAME unfairly singles out or ignores the people from Black or Asian groups or isn’t sufficiently inclusive of white ethnic minorities such as Gypsy, Roma, and Irish Traveller groups. Some people prefer the more general term ‘ethnic minorities’ as being more inclusive.
Similarly, for the LGBT+ community, different organisations use various LGBT+ terms:
- LGBT – acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans
- LGBTQ – acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning
- LGBTQI – acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning, intersex
- LGBTQIA – acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual
- LGBT+ acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans +plus queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, and all other gender identities and sexual orientations.
People have different lived experience and should not always be joined under a single category when discussing issues that might apply to one group in a different way from others.
Ask your staff network members about the terminology to use to ensure your network uses terms that most are comfortable with.
Ask your staff network members about the terminology to use to ensure your network uses terms that most are comfortable with but expect it might not be possible to please everyone.
This is a good discussion to have when setting up a network for the first time.
Discussing sensitive issues
Discussing sensitive issues or someone’s lived experience can be a powerful tool for raising awareness of issues and tackling stigmas. These discussions may surface different emotions and need careful management to avoid causing more upset or issues.
Tips for meeting chairs to help discuss sensitive issues:
- have a code of conduct for staff network members which includes treating one another with courtesy, respect, and compassion during meetings
- ensure a confidentiality agreement is in place ensure nothing is disclosed outside of the meeting without consent
- allow people to talk about their lived experience without interruption until they’ve finished
- provide opportunities to stop or take a break, a glass of water or a tissue, if someone is emotionally struggling and needs to regain compose
- avoid meetings developing into heated arguments, exchanges of blame felt to be directed at others present, or the devaluing of others’ experiences
- don’t be afraid to shut down a discussion if things are getting out of hand – suggest a private discussion later
- bring the session to a close if you have moved off topic or the session is becoming unconstructive.
Managing sensitive conversations is a skill that often needs training. Since the effectiveness of a staff network relies on its members having the skills and confidence to raise sensitive issues and on network chairs to help properly manage them, further learning for those chairing networks can help develop the skills required to succeed.
Speak to your line manager about learning and development opportunities. Your equality, diversity, and inclusion team or HR can also provide advice and guidance.
Maturing your staff network
Why is maturing your staff network important?
A new staff network in the early stages of development has less impact than one that is older and has strategically focused on becoming a more impactful, effective, thriving network.
Your organisation should support the network to develop and build its influence, agency, and impact. This includes:
- ensuring it has a named board level sponsor
- embracing your network’s voice at board level to help with decision making, as set out in the NHS People Plan
- helping ensure your network can achieve its objectives.
To help mature your network, measuring its impact, growing your membership, continuing to learn and develop, and working with others will help it thrive.
Measuring the effectiveness of your staff network is extremely important to determine if it’s delivering your colleagues’ needs and helping to achieve its aims, objectives, and priorities – and to help it mature.
When defining your success measures, make sure they are realistic and achievable and whether they can be verified through feedback and data, for example, in relation to WRES, WDES, NHS Staff Survey results, or the NHS EDI improvement plan – and linked to your action plan.
Conducting an annual staff network member survey is also a great way to evaluate your network and help plan and develop it.
Members can help understand what’s worked well, what didn’t work well, and future needs.
If unsure how to measure impact, speak to your equality, diversity, and inclusion team for advice and guidance.
Growing your membership
The larger your staff network, the bigger its voice and ability to help bring about change to make your organisation a better workplace.
Top tips for growing your membership:
- Have a clear purpose and objectives to help potential members understand why they should join your staff network and what it is about.
- Make sure your communications plan is helping you reach everyone in your organisation. Speak to your communications team if you’re unsure.
- Ask your existing members to help to find new members.
- Keep your work relevant to meet the need of your members – and keep everyone involved and informed.
- Work with other staff networks to help cross-promote your network.
- Apply for awards and celebrate your successes.
- Share stories, create shared experiences, make connections, and show your network has power to hold your NHS leaders to account.
Learning and development
Learning and development are essential for those holding key roles to help staff networks succeed and are also important for someone’s chosen personal and career development path.
Building the skills of chairs through leadership development, training and co-mentoring is fundamental to helping staff networks thrive. The ability to collect and analyse data and use metrics to demonstrate their value will also help raise awareness of staff experiences and build a good reputation across your organisation.
Your organisation should formally recognise that any activity connected with staff networks is important and provide training and development opportunities wherever possible.
As those holding key roles – particularly staff network chairs – can be from any role or level across the NHS, it is essential they are supported to have the confidence and ability to influence to board level within your organisation.
Learning and development opportunities can include:
- leadership development
- data management and analysis
- evaluation and monitoring
- public speaking/presentation skills/media training
- successful influencing
- social media and marketing communications
- coaching and mentoring
- equality, diversity, and inclusion
- meeting management (administration, co-ordination, facilitation).
Your learning and development objectives should be linked to your performance and career conversations with your line manager.
If you are unsure of learning and development opportunities in your organisation, contact your equality, diversity, and inclusion team, or HR team for advice and guidance.
Working with others
Work with others within your NHS organisation and wider to further your staff network’s aims and effectiveness. Staff networks can often achieve more working together when addressing difficult workplace issues or amplifying their collective voice for decision-making across the organisation.
By working in partnership, networks can also provide better support to those staff with an intersectional identity, for example, someone who is a member of BAME, Disability, and LGBT+ staff networks.
Your organisation should avoid having separate approaches to working across equality, diversity, and inclusion issues. Having an umbrella network, or a network of networks, is important to bring networks together into a wide employee voice forum, being more representative of your workforce.
Ask your equality, diversity, and inclusion team for advice and guidance.
- Action plan
- Annual staff network member survey
- Communications plan
- Role description: Staff network sponsor
- Meeting agenda
- Role description: Staff network chair
- Staff network charter
- Terms of reference
- National Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team – national events and guidance (NHS England)
- Improving staff equality networks through partnership working: A good practice guide (NHS Employers)
- Improving through inclusion: Supporting black and minority ethnic staff networks in the NHS (NHS England)
- Improving through inclusion: Supporting black and minority ethnic staff networks in the NHS part two (NHS England)
- Setting up an LGBT employee network group (Stonewall)
- Understanding LGBT+ employee networks and how to support them (NHS Employers, York University, Stonewall, Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion)