Good Relations: Northern Ireland businesses have ‘skin in the game’

We understand the need for Good Relations and the need to address it, however, many are reluctant to openly discuss it or encourage dialogue on the issue as it is challenging.

At Business in the Community (BITC) we challenge and support businesses to be responsible in all aspects of their operations, from inclusion and environmental impacts to community engagement. We talk about People, Planet and Place as the core of what constitutes a responsible business.

But here, on this part of these islands more than any, employers recognise their responsibilities.

That’s because their leaders live here, were born here, their kids go to school here, and they have invariably lived through challenging times in our recent history. They have skin in the game.

So, when it comes to Good Relations, we get it. We understand that building peace and social cohesion brings economic benefits, as it stimulates growth and investment.

Last year’s investment conference on the back of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was testimony to this, with the subsequent announcement of capital investment, major inward investment, and jobs.

We understand the need for Good Relations and the need to address it, however, many are reluctant to openly discuss it or encourage dialogue on the issue as it is challenging.

Some six months ago, we brought leading employers together under Chatham House Rule, to discuss Good Relations.

We discovered that many are playing their part externally but do not promote that role in society; that internally it is often avoided or not discussed as much as it should be, and that there is widespread recognition that the issue has not gone away.

Consequently, while businesses may not refer to it as such, have been increasingly engaging with the good relations agenda by fostering better understanding, collaboration and harmony among different communities in the region.

Furthermore, they are strategically embedding it as part of their responsible business activities.

It often takes the form of community outreach and engagement, business education partnerships and interventions, partnerships and sponsorships of organisations working on peacebuilding and reconciliation, or community volunteering.

This serves to enhance their reputation and profile, develop existing and future talent, and provide opportunities for employee engagement whilst crucially improving social cohesion, social connectedness, and social mobility.

These are examples of external engagement, but internally, efforts are often understated.

Some adhere to Fair Employment legislation and see it as sufficient to ensure they are meeting all the legal requirements in creating a neutral working environment, often adopting a zero-tolerance approach.

Others go beyond the legislation and promote an inclusion agenda as part of their commitment to Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) making their workplaces attractive to all sections of our community by celebrating differences, with formal strategies to attract and retain employees from different backgrounds and cultures. Many of these employers will seek external validation, benchmarks, or recognition for their practices through organisations such as BITC and Diversity Mark.

There is a third group, those enlightened and transformational employers who truly embrace inclusion and go further, beyond attraction and retention policies to

Create what we call Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or employee networks to champion inclusion in the workplace.

We are increasingly seeing a cohort of employers here in Northern Ireland who have introduced ERGs or employee networks which include Women’s Network, Age Networks, LGBTQ networks, Disability, Race, etc. These ERGs provide support networks, safe discussions, collective voices, colleague insights and mentoring support to colleagues from these groups.

Interestingly, among ERGs, we are seeing a small number of businesses introduce Good Relations networks specifically to discuss some of the community identity issues. However, given some of the challenges and negativity around Good Relations, these employers are not yet ready to share their experiences.

Regardless, we see that those who have embraced ERGs are creating truly inclusive workplaces where good relations are encouraged and nurtured, and where social connectedness is enhanced through events, collaboration, open communication, feedback, and adaptability.

Responsible businesses embrace community engagement at the same time as building truly inclusive workplaces.

Although we may find it difficult at times to openly discuss good relations in the workplace, by implementing these approaches, and by integrating good relations as part of diversity and inclusion initiatives, businesses in Northern Ireland are creating a connected and supportive environment where employees feel valued, engaged, and motivated to contribute their best.

Please reach out to our team who can provide strategic and practical support for businesses both strategically and practically. Become a member of Business in the Community Northern Ireland (bitcni.org.uk)