How firms can make networking events more inclusive

How can firms make networking events more inclusive?

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​When you think of networking and recruitment in the same sentence, chances are your mind conjures up an image of champagne flowing, ties loosened, and bar hopping late into the night (or the next morning).

20 years ago when I joined the industry, that was a fair picture.

Recruitment had a reputation for work hard play hard, and late night events involving heavy drinking were the norm. Not only were they the norm, but they were expected if you wanted to progress your career and be part of the team.

Thankfully, the world has changed since then. And networking these days is likely to be something that you’ll remember the next day. But there are still questions around how to make networking events more inclusive, yet still something people want to be part of.

Since the pandemic it’s a conversation that’s being had more frequently, and with more urgency than ever before. So how can firms create inclusive networking events and opportunities?

The importance of networking

At the heart of recruitment are relationships, and at the heart of professional relationships is networking. The two go hand in hand.

But it’s not just recruiters who value networking. 80% of professionals find networking to be essential to their career progression. Meaning that networking isn’t going away.

Face to face time is vital for building deep relationships and connections with clients, candidates and colleagues. Whether we’re talking about informal work socials or more formal client networking opportunities, networking is key. But it’s an opportunity not everyone is able to participate in.

Management can’t force employees to attend events and with scheduling conflicts, or unappealing events, not everyone will be onboard and that might have negative implications for them within the firm.

In our post-covid new normal way of working, networking has to adapt and evolve to keep up and remain relevant.

Contrast the demand for networking with the fact that according to Niznik Behavioural Health, 35% of employees don’t want to drink at corporate events, but 15.8% of those do anyway.

The takeaway is that there isn’t the same demand for long boozy dinners as there used to be.

Look at the non-alcoholic drinks market. In 2022 sales of no and low alcoholic beverages increased by over 7%, taking the market past the $11 billion mark.

In the UK the number of non-drinkers has risen in both the 16-24 and 25-44 age categories. It’s clear that networking events need to start catering for this new market.

With Gen Z and women at the heart of the change, alcohol fuelled networking events aren’t cutting it anymore. Instead the focus has shifted to inclusivity. It’s not just a buzzword or a tick box.

Inclusivity is the future of networking events.

What is inclusive networking?

There are no surprises that inclusive networking is all about making networking open and accessible to everyone. It’s about levelling the playing field and giving everyone equal access to networking.

We all have our own bias and blind spots that we’re unaware of. Whether that’s because we’ve always done things that way, or it works for us so we assume that it works for everyone.

Inclusive networking begins by recognising that you don’t know everything and there might be better, more open ways of doing something that you haven’t come across yet.

As employers, we have greater awareness of people’s circumstances and the concessions needed for them to succeed in their careers. For instance;

  • Those with caring responsibilities simply can’t attend after work events.

  • Those people who can’t or don’t want to drink (yes, they can choose to drink soft drinks but it’s never enjoyable being sober in a room of drunk people).

  • Women in particular can feel vulnerable having to travel home late at night after a work event.

  • People of certain religions/cultural backgrounds may feel uncomfortable at certain types of events.

  • Neurodiverse employees or those with anxiety, for example, may struggle in large or overwhelming settings.

By excluding those individuals from your thought process when planning networking events, you’re excluding a large number of people.

Inclusive networking is a way to open opportunities, events and networking opportunities to everyone. It’s about opening your mind to new ways of doing things. And as a result, opening your events to more people.

Our small steps towards inclusive networking

At Ambition, we are far from perfect, we are still evolving and learning but we recognised it was time for a change. So we started making small changes. We started to roll out ‘conscious inclusion’.

Have we got it right? Not always. Is our heart in the right place? Absolutely.

Here are the initial steps that we’ve taken to make networking events more inclusive.

1. Ditch the booze

A decade ago events that centred around alcohol were the norm. Drinks after work. Boozy dinners. Bottles of champagne to celebrate milestones. We’ve made a conscious effort to think about activities that everyone can enjoy, and remember.

2. Lunchtime is the new after work

Traditionally, networking events took place after work and into the small hours of the morning. Automatically alienating anyone with caring responsibilities - be that young children, elderly parents or energetic dogs.

We’re choosing to put more events on during working hours. For instance, our high performers dinner is now at lunchtime and finishes at 5pm so those who need to leave can do so guilt-free, and anyone who wants to stay on can do that guilt-free too.

3. Awareness and mindfulness

Every networking or social event we put on we’re doing so with awareness at the front of our minds. Instead of ignoring non-attendees, we’re looking at the barriers that stopped them attending, or enjoying the event.

For one of our teams this meant delaying the evening meal until after sunset at a recent social so a colleague celebrating Ramadan could join in.

The big change for us is being mindful and aware of others. Looking to cater to the many, not the few and if that means making radical changes to the way we network then that’s what we’re happy to do.

What more could we do?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. When you start looking into inclusivity in the event space there are so many initiatives you can roll out. From asking attendees about their name pronunciation and pronouns through to food choices to considering global time zones. Once you start digging a whole world of possibilities opens up.

We aren’t going to lie, creating inclusive networking events requires more thought, more consideration and possibly more time.

When looking at how you manage events in-house it’s worth looking at the diversity of the organising team and how that can be broadened. Having a spectrum of beliefs, values and ethnicities on that committee will help inclusivity stay at the top of the agenda.

But the fact that you’re here, you’re reading this and you’re starting to think about inclusivity is the best first step you can take.

Start small, make one change, ask for feedback and then make another. If we all take that approach then the world of networking will start to respond and become an inviting, inclusive arena for all that want to participate.

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