When Heddy Pena joined AT&T 12 years ago, she never expected to participate in a meeting with Robert E. Allen, chairman and CEO of the 273,000-employee company. Yet in 1990, that's exactly what she did. What made this meeting so memorable for Pena, however, wasn't Allen, but its purpose: As a representative of AT&T's 2,000 Hispanic employees, Pena was there to discuss company policy in relation to Hispanic issues.
"Meeting with the CEO was the ultimate goal of the Hispanic network after spending years trying to identify the needs of the Hispanic employee body," says Pena, an account executive at AT&T and president-elect of HISPA, the company's Hispanic employee network. "It was very exciting and very important."
Employee networks are nothing new (some have been around for more than 15 years), but as the number of women and minorities entering the work force increases, so does the number of employee networks. The reason? Employee networks have proven to be one of the best avenues for these workers to decide what their issues and concerns are, get them in front of the CEO and the company's top policy makers, and work out solutions.
Employee networks often are started informally. They may begin as a social group or as a casual gathering of workers who have common backgrounds and interests. They then evolve into groups interested in career opportunities and development, advocacy, support and recruitment. Typically, employee networks are Asian, black and Hispanic. Some companies have women's networks and a few have gay and lesbian networks.
One company that has integrated its employee networks into an organized and effective structure is New York City-based Avon Products Inc. Avon has three strong groups: the Avon Asian Network, the Avon Hispanic Network and the Black Professional Association (BPA).
These groups originated in the 1970s as the Concerned Women of Avon, which then became the Women and Minorities Committee. In the mid-1980s, committee members branched out and began networks to address their specific needs.
Each Avon network holds quarterly meetings, has a budget, a clearly defined mission statement, a focused agenda and a member who's a senior officer in the company. These senior members attend the meetings, bring management's viewpoint to the networks and keep the network in tune with the direction of the company.
Likewise, these senior members keep management apprised of the employees' reactions to their policies, particularly with regard to diversity issues. Each network has an executive committee that meets with Managing Diversity, a senior-level task force.
Avon's networks are so sophisticated that the BPA has an academy. The BPA Academy is a series of workshops given quarterly by managers who are BPA members. Topics are suggested by members and in the past have covered: career development from the perspective of black employees, managing personal growth, managing up, and black women.
The structures and goals of employee networks vary from company to company because they depend on the nature of the business and the needs of the workers. For a network to be effective, however, employees involved in them say they must be grass-roots in origin, must not be mandated by the company and must have visible support from management.
Top management at Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's Corp., for instance, supports its networks by budgeting monies each year for network activities. "It isn't only lip service. It includes senior management support as well as financial support," says Leslie Lucas, who, as regional personnel manager for McDonald's South Florida region, helps coordinate the network process. "This sends a clear message that it's OK to belong and participate fully in employee networks."
Management's support is an important part of the employee network process because it helps ensure open lines of communication between management and employees. …