I don’t know about you, but nothing grinds my gears more than when organizations try to eliminate our humanity from the employee experience.
In today’s world, many of us crave human connection, a sense of belonging, and community with the work we do. Yet, oftentimes, we’re expected to check our humanity at the virtual waiting room.
With so much of our time spent online, one thing has become clear: there's no replacement for human connection. Fortunately, much has evolved in the way of new strategies, systemic change, and collective shifts toward a more humane workplace.
Whether you call them Employee Resource Groups, Employee Communities, or Affinity Groups, these organized, planned, and well-executed internal efforts can fuel much-needed organizational change and humanize your workplace.
If you’re seeking a blueprint for establishing such a group, you’ve come to the right article.
But first, who the heck am I?!
I’m Katie Zink. I help visionary leaders and change agents create dynamic workplace cultures that hear, recognize, and support all voices. Over the last 11 years, I’ve organized and advocated for youth, career readiness, and after-school programming, all of which were committed to an equitable tech industry.
I lead task forces and committees that result in sustainable plans and programming for systemic change, design and facilitate custom workshops, and form Employee Resource Groups backed with executive sponsorship.
So let’s talk about Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) in a way you might not have thought about them before.
We’ll take a look at how ERGs are defined, why they are valuable, and how to establish an ERG that can support your DEI goals. I'll cover
- What is an Employee Resource Group
- Why are Employee Resource Groups important
- How to establish an Employee Resource Group
What Is An Employee Resource Group?
Employee Resource Groups are groups of people who work in the same organization (not necessarily with each other regularly) who unify based on a common identity, lived experience, common goals, or intersectional backgrounds and aspirations.
Traditionally, ERG members belong to underrepresented groups such as women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds, those with disabilities, or the LGBTQ community, but they can form around other commonalities or interests such as working parents or environmental concerns.
ERGs can be the access point and connective tissue between people across the organization and the people who are making decisions that impact systemic change.
They’re a strategy for achieving many DEI goals, for example fostering a sense of community and belonging, ensuring equitable access to opportunities, building equitable workplace systems, and bridging inclusivity across silos.
ERGs can unearth employee voice, build community, learn, have fun, and understand what needs exist in order to achieve equity in the workplace.
They’re flexible in that they can provide healing spaces, learning spaces, networking opportunities, and impact both personal and professional growth.
Ultimately, the top purpose of ERGs for leaders and managers is to better understand employee needs.
Here are a couple of examples of how companies brand their ERG presence on their websites.
From New Relic
Why Are Employee Resource Groups Important?
ERGs can be a powerful and practical way to humanize your organization. By holding safe space for your employees in this way, you’re demonstrating that you acknowledge and value their lived experience, struggles, and aspirations.
ERGs can seriously benefit your organization’s DEI work, improve employee engagement and motivation, and catalyze incredible change.
Some examples of important and empirical systemic change that can emerge from ERGs are:
- Pay equity and transparency policies
- Equitable recruiting, hiring, and interviewing practices
- Fair parental leave policies
- Trans-affirming healthcare options
- Equitable performance reviews processes
- Success metrics for inclusive talent mobility
- Diversified customer base
- Quantifiable community presence and impact
- Operationalized employee listening
- A company culture of feedback, mentoring, and growth.
Here’s an example of how an ERG could have made a real difference in an organization.
Example case for ERGs
Recently, a friend of mine was in a routine team call discussing an organizational change that would roll out in Q4 of 2022—the peak time of year for the company.
Another team member spoke up with an earnest question around how the organizational change would impact employee burnout. The team managers proceeded to explain to her how no one was burnt out on the team.
The reasoning they gave was that one team member—and cis white male—had the largest territory, so he was the only person on the team who could warrant being burnt out.
Did they ask him at that moment if he was experiencing burnout?
They then went on to explain how, when they held the same roles before they entered management, they had much more responsibility and much larger territories. Because they supposedly didn't burn out then, this team shouldn't be burnt out either.
In a matter of seconds, so much harm was done by management.
Management centered a cis white male’s experience as justification for making the assumption that no one else deserved to feel burnout. They completely glossed over the valid concern the initial teammate showed for her peers and deflected a golden opportunity to check in with the team around burnout. They also created a false equivalency between their own experience and an assumed experience of a large, diverse team of people.
So, what might have been a better approach? They could have asked the team:
1) If they were burnt out (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?)
2) How they take care of themselves to manage burnout
3) What the company (or at least management) could do to help people with their burnout.
Even though an employee had the opportunity to ask a question about a very real problem related to the employee experience, there was no opportunity for the people who were affected to be heard (or even acknowledged).
There was no evidence of respect or regard for the full team’s humanity or needs.
Furthermore, decisions were being made on behalf of people who will likely never know this question was even asked.
This all too common problem is just one example of the many ways people from diverse backgrounds, lived experiences, and those who are battling all forms of oppression are treated when systems deflect their needs and their humanity.
Team meetings are when the real versus expressed workplace culture really shows. If employee listening was valued and had been operationalized throughout the organization—something an ERG can affect— managers would have been open to hearing feedback from their team members about how they're experiencing the workplace and how the new change could impact them. In doing so they'd have likely uncovered new ideas and protected the health of their team members.
Remember, the top purpose of ERGs for leaders and managers is to understand and address employee needs. ERGs can extract authentic needs that can be leveraged to keep leaders and managers accountable to the employee experience.
When colleagues come together to focus on their tasks and responsibilities, equity becomes intrinsic to how it’s done. The knock-on effect is more engaged employees and increased retention.
So how do we create and hold space for employee voice and the potential of a truly supportive workplace culture (the things that recruiters and an employer’s brand are selling us)?
How To Establish An Employee Resource Group In Your Organization
First, it’s important to remember that ERGs are a people over profit approach.
Organizations need to believe that their people are their greatest asset and be willing to invest in them. They need to agree that DEI matters to their bottom line and that there’s value to be discovered through operationalized employee listening.
Once that’s in place, here is a 3 part framework to consider if you’re ready to establish an ERG.
Employee Resource Groups are often completely employee-led, grassroots efforts at the intersection of employee activism and culture.
They take a similar structure to committees, clubs, or task forces. Thus, you need enough interest, someone willing to start the group, established meeting and behavioral guidelines, and goals. In addition, there needs to be some allotment of funds available for the group to utilize as needed.
Ideally, whomever establishes the group identifies as having the lived experience that the group is designed to support. Whether or not the group is fully composed of that identity can be determined by the group once formed.
So yes, if you’re currently in an all-white organization, you may not be ready to establish Black, AAPI, or Latino ERGs. If people are not safely out in your organization, you’re not ready to start a Pride or LGTBQIA ERG.
Once you have enough interest and members to share the load of responsibilities that come with organizing, you’re ready to create your plan.
Organizing people is one thing, but without priorities, purpose, objectives, vision, or goals, it will be difficult to gain the momentum needed for long-lasting and sustainable change. So, take some time to really identify what this ERG will accomplish long term.
Is it solely for participants to heal and build community? Is it to raise awareness of important topics across the organization? Will you host speaking events, professional development opportunities, or volunteer days?
The possibilities are endless. Identifying the needs not currently being met may be a good place to start. To help, check out this list of core needs that all people have and brainstorm ways your ERG can address them through systemic change.
Belonging - How can ERGs focus on building a community where people feel cared for and feel mutual understanding?
Improvement - How can members of the ERG experience personal growth in ways that improve the company?
Choice - How can you help members of the ERG feel more autonomous in their day-to-day employee experience, have more agency, and empower their decision-making abilities?
Equality - What are some ways you can increase their access to resources (time, money, space, information) in a way that feels fair?
Predictability - How can the members of the ERG anticipate change or future challenges to promote a sense of certainty around resources so they can focus on their job and personal goals?
Significance - How can you help the ERG feel like an important part of the movement for change and the mission?
Once you’ve identified your needs and priorities, find your stakeholders. Think of your executives, HR, and management as having a stake in the success of your ERG.
They must be fully briefed that these ERGs exist and what they’re working to achieve, and they should be your advocates and sponsors as well. We’ll refer to them as your executive sponsors.
As you know DEI is a business decision so, once you’ve identified your stakeholders, be prepared to articulate your plan to your executive sponsors.
Beware of your executives squawking about a business case ERGs need to provide about why DEI matters. Executives need to already believe in the importance of DEI before an ERGs starts to form.
If you need to assemble a business case for your executives, Partners in Diversity in the Pacific Northwest has many data driven research projects designed to help organizations communicate the importance of DEI efforts to leaders.
Then, it’s up to your executive sponsor to communicate the needs that emerge from ERG efforts to the appropriate channels. They’re accountable for the information to get in front of the right eyes and into the right hands for execution.
Once you have a plan (I recommend planning about 12 months out), start hosting regular member meetings, assign roles and responsibilities, and launch your first program.
You’ll quickly learn and see what’s working, what’s not. Eventually, you might be ready to create a newsletter to generate company-wide awareness, draft proposals to effect policy change, and continue focusing on recruiting to grow the ERG’s presence and impact.
As you execute your plan, keep your company’s DEI goals close and ensure your ERG efforts and outcomes align.
ERGs can be successful at fostering a sense of belonging, ensuring access to opportunities, building equitable workplace systems, and bridging inclusivity across silos. Practically, ERG members have been found to help human resource departments with tasks such as onboarding new hires.
Growth And Healing Happens In Groups
Above all, remember that this work cannot be done alone, in a vacuum, or by one VP of Diversity.
Employee Resources Groups have always and will continue to exist to give a voice to the people, build community, learn, have fun, and understand what needs exist in order to create more equitable and inclusive workplaces.
Keep us current with your DEI and ERG work by sharing on our socials. Once you’re ready to draft your DEI or ERG Mission Statement, check out this article to help you get started.