Come together! Practical learnings for building an employee support network

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett April 3, 2020
Tips from Salesforce's Women's Network on bringing employee groups together across an organization - and not just in a time of crisis.

(Kristy Merson )

In times of crisis, having a strong support network around you is crucial. That’s true in the corporate world as well as at a personal level and it’s true in normal times as well as in the middle of a global pandemic. Speakers at an Empower Women Leadership virtual gathering this week debated topics such as the ongoing gender pay gap, but it was the advice from the frontline on how to build and sustain employee networks that grabbed attention.

Kristy Merson is leader in the Solution Engineering organization at Salesforce and outgoing President of the UK Salesforce Women’s Network. Based on her experiences, she has some good advice on how to set up this type of employee group.

The Women’s Network at Salesforce is the first and largest of the firm’s Employer Resource Groups (ERGs), with more than 10,000 members across the globe across 40+ offices. In the UK, there are 500 members, says Merson:

That might not seem like a lot but that actually represents about 25% of our UK workforce. We’ve got a great level of engagement.

According to Merson, the Women’s Network is structured for accountability and action:

Leadership has a lot of ideas and thoughts, but it can be difficult to get from thoughts to execution. So we structured our leadership team into different pillars.

These three pillars are events; philanthropy - the network logged over 15,000 volunteer hours across the world in 2019; and policy and behaviors, supported by a team in the leadership committee that aligns directly with the employee success, HR and talent development functions. Merson explains:

This team has two purposes. It acts as a conduit between HR/talent development and our employee base – we are the voice of the employees, we take the pulse of what they’re thinking and we feed that back. It also makes sure everyone knows all the great things going on. We implemented some really exciting changes to our fertility benefits a couple of years ago, where egg-freezing support was introduced. We realised a lot of our members weren’t aware that had come into play. We had a platform to reach the audience, as 25% of the audience are really actively listening to what we’re sharing.

Despite the strides that Salesforce and other organizations have made around diversity and equal pay, women’s networks are still required to promote equal representation. Merson observes:

Just because we’ve talked about it a lot, it doesn’t mean we’re done. The Women’s Network is there to continue to amplify that message and make sure it remains top of mind.


This message includes the need to educate allies - typically men - about the experiences of women, but also educating women themselves, she adds:

We ourselves can be allies. It’s not just about educating men; it’s about educating ourselves to different challenges that other women may experience. We also have a team dedicated to making sure that all the communications we share are clear, that they align to our vision and our values, and that they’re not overwhelming our audience, because there’s a lot that goes on and a lot that we do.”

When the Salesforce Women’s Network created its leadership model, the committee deliberately created a Chief Ally role for a man to make sure the male voice was represented. Merson warns:

A lot of women’s networks can become echo chambers. It was extremely important for us to have someone in the room to sense-check what we were thinking and make sure that it reflected the way we were being perceived. This person is the conduit to our male allies, our male peers in the company to make sure they were understanding the message we were putting out there.

Women’s networks can also play a role in creating a stronger voice to call out certain behaviours. They ensure that all employees understand what ‘bad’ behaviour looks like and feel comfortable enough to call someone out, helping to create a safe culture.

Salesforce’s Global Women’s Network was started by an employee before the firm officially called it an ERG; the UK group was also started by an individual employee, giving the flexibility to create what this group of women wanted.

The arrival of the firm’s Chief Equality Officer, Tony Prophet in 2016 came alongside a desire to maximize the output and effectiveness of Salesforce Employee Resource Groups, recalls Merson:

We had a big desire to maximize our diversity goals, and to really make a lot of change internally. The company saw these ground-up ERGs as one of the best ways of doing that.

Ever since the Office of Equality – which is Tony Prophet’s realm – was founded, we now have a constant bottom-up and top-down approach. We have process and efficiencies coming from the top, and insight, ideas and execution coming from the bottom.

Get sponsored

For those at the early stages of setting up a women’s network, Merson strongly recommends obtaining some form of sponsorship:

You need to make sure you have at least one person in a senior place who will get behind it fully, who will echo the sentiment of what you’re doing. If they can add money to that, that’s great because money lets you create events to get your audience excited, and the more excited you can get them, the more they’ll stick with you.

If you’re going to create a women’s network, it needs to be focusing on the things that the majority of people want to talk about. It’s all about the network. So making sure you’re having as many conversations as possible with women around the business, and men, to understand what they want out of this so you can deliver something they really want is essential.

In the UK, the executive sponsor, who happens to be a man, is, according to Merson, deeply involved with the business and understands the priorities its leaders have - having that insight and perspective means the ERG can align its objectives with the challenges the business is having, and also feedback on initiatives that are not so valuable to employees.

Avoid setting yourself hard targets for creating change is another top tip from Merson, who argues it’s often more about the influence on that change. So if one of the objectives of a Women’s Network is to increase retention of female employees, focus on setting a target that relates to that, and can be measured in a specific way:

The retention of female employees has a lot of factors, not just your group. So what goals can you set yourself that you can actually measure for your group alone as a unique contributor, as opposed to increasing the retention overall.

Sara Devi Earnshaw, the incoming President at the Salesforce Women’s Network and lead for its Data Solutions Success team for EMEA, adds that being able to measure success is vital. A benchmark for her new team is that HR is now coming to the Women’s Network for help with certain challenges.

The firm has a particular challenge around women in high-level individual contributor and junior management roles, she explained, and the data has revealed it’s not a promotion issue, so it’s about retention. The Women’s Network has begun working with HR to discover the reasons why women leave or stay, on a qualitative and quantitative basis. This entails having conversations with women in the business, and that information is going back to HR and helping to retain high-value employees. As Earnshaw notes:

We’re peers, we’re not HR, so there are conversations that we can potentially have that people might be uncomfortable having with HR.

My take

Some sound practical advice on how to tackle an ongoing problem for so many organizations. While it’s entirely understandable and appropriate that the current health crisis is dominating so much management attention, it’s important not to forget the ‘life goes on’ issues. And now, more than ever, having strong support networks in place is crucial for the well-being of the the workforce.

On the wider topic of gender equality, it was Equal Pay Day in the US on Tuesday (31 March). This date marks how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous one. Despite various efforts to get more parity in pay between the sexes, many employers are still failing to redress the balance.

Of 50 leading US companies, half of them scored the lowest grade, according to the Gender Pay Scorecard released this week by investment manager Arjuna Capital and Proxy Impact. The report ranks companies on factors like goals to reduce the gender pay gap and a commitment to report numbers annually.  Goldman Sachs, McDonalds and Walmart were all graded F, while only three companies – Starbucks, MasterCard and Citigroup – received the top A grade.

Other countries have similar stories to tell. In the UK, for example, women work for free for two months a year as a result of the gender pay gap, according to recent analysis by the Trade Unions Congress (TUC). And the requirement on UK firms with more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gap data has been suspended this year, due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

When the current crisis is over, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

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