By Pam Magwaza and Ashleigh A Brookshaw, M.A.
In the world of work, diversity and inclusion aren't just buzzwords; they're a business necessity.
A 2019 article by McKinsey reports that organizations can take full advantage of the perspectives of a diverse workforce only if leaders and employees enjoy a sense of inclusion. But how do you foster a truly inclusive environment? Enter: Employee Resource Groups.
These employee-led initiatives are more than just social clubs. Using the power of community, they play a critical role in building connections, celebrating diversity, creating a sense of belonging, and fostering a culture of inclusivity.
So what are they, and what community principles can help them work better?
An Employee Resource Group (ERG) is a group of coworkers who gather because they have something significant in common: their identity, values, interests, perspective, or what they aim to achieve. These groups are employee-led and company supported.
Their purpose is to strengthen the workplace community, make everyone feel like they belong, and help their members grow personally and professionally.
Community Consultant Ashleigh Brookshaw, M.A. says that ERGs have many use cases, but regardless of the purpose, it is important to note that these groups should be as inclusive as possible.
"To promote a positive organizational culture, employees should be encouraged to join ERGs as allies, whether or not they are a member of the marginalized target audience," she says. "Examples include non-POC individuals joining an ERG for black people or straight individuals joining a PRIDE-focused ERG.”
"Members of the group and allies should feel respected and welcome at all times," she adds. "If the ERG is online, community moderators form a critical part of operations to keep the environment psychologically safe through items like community guidelines and programming."
According to ERGs: An Introduction, Review, and Research Agenda, the earliest ERGs were formed during the civil rights movement in America and helped minorities work under fair working conditions and receive equitable pay.
Since then, they have evolved to include not only race and gender but ethnicity, sexual identity and orientation, religion, disability, and variety in educational background and experience. As the way we work has evolved, so have the niches ERGs fall into.
Types of ERGs may include:
Ashleigh says the biggest win for companies with active ERGs is that they can be a useful retention and recruitment tool. "ERGs provide a structure through which employees can form connections with one another through shared interests," she says. "These connections can even lead to career development for many. This greatly impacts retention and is a great way to attract talent."
ERGs can also positively impact company reputation through community service work, and even marketing and product development should they be roped in the process.
Here are some examples of ERGs that have impacted the companies they exist in.
AT&T's Employee Resources Groups have led to thousands of employee referrals and increased retention rates. They currently have 54 groups for women, religious beliefs, LGBTQIA+, and veterans.
This ERG has empowered women at Microsoft to advance their careers within the company.
W@M has been responsible for everything from recruiting drives at traditionally female colleges to developing relationships with women-owned suppliers.
According to Dell, this is a network for young professionals, new hires, and the young at heart.
In the past, this ERG was roped in to prototype the company's new telephone/tablet product and provide feedback to the product development and marketing teams. The group's diversity helped product developers have a holistic view of the impact of their product.
So an ERG is an internal employee community, right? Not quite.
An internal or employee community refers to a group of individuals working within an organization. It is not merely a collection of employees but a community that has been established with specific goals and programs to foster relationships, promote trust, and build connections among members of the company.
The creation of an internal community can be initiated by the company's internal Community or People team, but ERGs are primarily employee-led initiatives. Members of an internal community can come together based on shared demographics or interests and form an ERG. These ERG members will then lead the group, organizing events, discussions, or activities that bring the members together.
At Commsor, we have a company-wide internal employee community; every employee is a part of that internal community because they work at our organization. Within this community, members of the LGBTQIA+ community have established their own ERG to serve as a support network. They hold bi-monthly gatherings, participate in co-working sessions, and organize various activities.
That said, because ERGs are employee-led, they can still exist in companies that don't have formal internal communities.
Whether you're starting an ERG or improving the one your company already has, some best practices based on community-building principles can ensure their success.
👉 Looking to learn more about community building? Check out our Community-Building Checklist
Every epic adventure begins with a plan. If you're starting out with building an ERG, having a detailed plan can help you with everything from knowing who should join your group to how you can present it to management.
Here's a list of important questions you should ask yourself before getting started.
"ERGs should support the larger culture, which will lead to obtaining executive stakeholder buy-in," says Ashleigh. "Having a concrete roadmap with realistic milestones and timelines and a list of the benefits of this ERG for both the organization and potential members is essential during this step."
If you're in the process of starting an ERG, it helps to treat it like a Minimum Viable Community (MVC).
First, start with getting the go-ahead from Human Resources before you start recruiting people for your ERG. Some companies may not allow certain groups to be formed because of company culture, so make sure you get the green light from someone with organizational influence before you begin.
(Another benefit to letting HR know about your ERG is so that current and new employees can get to know that you exist. HR can include your ERG in emails with company-wide updates or when onboarding new employees.)
Back to starting small…
You don't have to start with 50 members and a whole program of activities immediately. If your company already has an internal community, consider starting your group there and creating a channel for it. Ask three to five people you know who would be interested in joining and start having discussions or weekly meet-ups.
If your company doesn't have an internal community, you can reach out to a few colleagues you believe would be interested in your group. Then, decide how you will communicate regularly. You can start with virtual or in-person meet-ups and scale your group.
The ultimate purpose of ERGs is to strengthen company culture. They also provide a safe space for impacted groups and advocates to drive change and enhance organizational culture.
Ashleigh lists three strategies you can use to ensure that your ERG positioning is welcoming.
The language you use to describe the group should be welcoming and inclusive to all people regardless of their background, identity, or personal beliefs. This can include avoiding words or phrases that might exclude certain groups or people, such as using gendered language or assuming that all members of the ERG share the same experiences.
Ashleigh says that intersectionality is essential to consider in all DEI&B work, especially when creating and sustaining ERGs.
"Intersectionality recognizes that individuals hold multiple identities that intersect and overlap, and that these identities are not separate from each other but instead influence one another," she says.
"For example, if you create an ERG for women and women's issues and you intentionally exclude the experiences of black, Muslim, queer, or disabled women, your ERG misses opportunities to be more inclusive and will inadvertently create distance, which would not be good for the company nor company culture.”
She adds, "Allow people with intersectional identities in your group to share their experiences openly and make space for their unique experiences to be heard and included."
This is also a great way to encourage cross-collaboration between ERG groups for specific months. For example, she says that providing joint programming for Black History Month, Women's History Month, or International Women's Day is a great way to promote both groups.
ERGs can be an opportunity for people to learn. Take a group for LGBTQIA+ employees, for instance. Although these identities may fall under one umbrella, the experiences of the people in them are vastly different.
"Ensure you make space for sharing, learning, and difficult conversations,” says Ashleigh. “One way to accomplish this is to pulse-check your members to see what programming or content would be most helpful to them and how they've overcome difficulties.
"Ask members to share their experiences with the group or post articles and reading material in your community chat so everyone can learn about and support one another. Learning together can be a great experience that brings members together and strengthens the group.”
You can only expect people to join if they know your group exists!
To get the ball rolling, chat with a few colleagues who fit your target demographic. For example, if you're starting a group for people living with a disability, reach out to any coworkers who have disclosed that publicly.
If your company has an internal community, see if you can post about your ERG in the main channel or platform. Again, the key is to get the word out and make people aware of your group.
Having executive buy-in for your ERG is essential to its longevity and success.
If your company is small enough, you can go straight to your team lead and the CEO with your plans for the ERG and what support you may need to make it successful.
For bigger companies, you'll have to get buy-in from your middle manager first, and then if you're lucky, an executive can be roped in to provide support for the ERG and, if they fit the niche, maybe even be a part of it.
How to impress the top brass with a pitch that shows:
So why is it important that upper management is on board? Ashleigh says upper management plays a crucial role in supporting and sponsoring ERGs as well as securing additional resources the group may need.
An ERG needs a simple and accessible medium for communication to ensure that all members — including those who may face barriers to communication — can participate and engage fully.
Outreach and coordination are also essential to the survival of the group. You’ll need to be able to reach out to current and potential members while also coordinating activities like events and regular meets ups.
Luckily, there are many tools out there — like Slack, Google Meet, Teams, or Meetsy — you can use to connect easily with members and set up regular hangouts or one-on-one chats.
👉 Learn more about how to Foster Inclusion and Belonging in Your Team with Meetsy
Ashleigh suggests using these tools to assist with admin and awareness for your group.
ERGs are started up and run by employees, all on a volunteer basis. Some big companies might offer extra compensation for their ERG leaders, but smaller companies likely won't. Running a community takes effort and time, whether your ERG is big or small, so ensure you have the support you need to do your day job and keep your ERG alive.
Remember to keep your expectations in check and delegate so everyone in the ERG is helping plan and run events or activities. Sharing the load makes it all a lot easier!
Leading an ERG is a lot like being a Community Manager, so here are nine ways to prevent burnout and have a healthy work-life.
When setting up your ERG, you had some goals and KPIs in mind. It's good to check in, whether weekly or monthly, and make sure everything is on track. Are your members still fired up and involved? Have you hit your target number of employees in the group? And how's the activity level going — have you had as many events and activities as you hoped for?
In addition to these metrics, it is equally important to assess the satisfaction of your ERG members. Obtaining feedback through a survey can provide valuable insights into their perceptions of the group and suggest areas for improvement. This can help you maintain high engagement among members and foster a positive and supportive environment.
Building an ERG can be challenging, and it’s possible to face some blockers or make mistakes. Ashleigh shares some tips for overcoming these challenges:
Depending on your organization, having a business case tied to existing DEI&B initiatives can be helpful when socializing your idea.
👉 Pro tip: Create a business case highlighting the business need and impact, project team, timeline, and other vital sections to help make your case for an ERG.
Not having a strategy can make it difficult for ERGs to obtain resources from upper management and provide value to members.
👉 Pro tip: Take the time to write out the ERG's purpose, target audience, member benefits, and engagement plan. If you create the business case referenced above, the strategy will be well underway.
Starting an ERG within a company with no documented DEI&B strategy is challenging. This may make it harder to receive executive buy-in support from your organization, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't try.
Even in companies that understand the importance of DEI&B, not having an executive sponsor or a disengaged executive sponsor can make or break both ERG members and its leadership. Having an executive leader advocating for your group and guiding its direction at a higher level is important.
👉 Pro tip: Have your strategy and business case handy when you have conversations with potential executive sponsors, and always tie it back to the bottom line in your discussion.
ERGs drive culture change, and if the appetite from your target audience still needs to be quite there, re-examine why that may be.
👉 Pro tip: To strengthen your potential business case, have some preliminary data on interest through a survey, an interest form, or some other medium.