Employee Resource Groups at Your Organization: Tips for Getting Started
Between the pandemic and other social justice issues, diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace is evolving from a topic that demands awareness and visibility into a mature practice. Smart employers recognize that DE&I can help establish a positive, productive work environment, which in turn helps to strengthen, advance, and improve the organization. The question then becomes, what programs establish a culture that encourages acceptance, respect, and a sense of teamwork among a diverse group of workers? Employee resource groups (ERGs) can accomplish exactly that. ERG diversity can help staff members increase their respect, compassion, and level of understanding for colleagues who look, think, and experience the world differently than they do.
What Are Employee Resource Groups?
Employee resource groups are a social network within an organization comprised of employees with a distinct set of shared interests, characteristics, and/or life experiences. Members of these employee-led groups join voluntarily. Employee resource groups often focus on traditionally marginalized or underrepresented groups of people such as veterans, Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, LGBTQI+, people with disabilities, or women. It's important to understand an ERG is open to any staff member who has an interest in learning more about the issues, challenges, goals, and culture that is the focus of a particular ERG.
Why Are Employee Resource Groups Important?
A robust ERG program can provide an array of benefits. Tapping into the energy and passions of employees can help transform members' professional lives, the business, and even the larger community. Let's unpack the benefits of employee resource groups.
- Inclusion. ERGs help provide a safe environment for employees whose minority status may lead them to feel marginalized, excluded, or intimidated. Finding like-minded or supportive individuals can help employees feel more connected and empowered in the workplace. Moreover, the collective voice of ERGs can bring attention to organizational policies, culture, or behaviors that could either weaken or strengthen a more equitable workplace.
- Engagement. In a fast-paced society, especially one adopting remote or hybrid work environments, finding friends and connections can be difficult. ERGs provide much-needed opportunities for extracurricular activities — volunteering together, fun social gatherings, discussion groups — all with people who have a shared interest. Not only can these interactions help employee members feel happier and more satisfied, but it's likely that positivity will translate into their work in the form of improved engagement, thus, making an ERG a solid retention strategy.
- Community growth. Volunteering to help community organizations that share similar interests and goals are often a staple activity of an ERG. Employee resource group efforts in the form of food drives, mentoring, fundraising, or helping at community functions can be valuable to a community organization and are important contributions to helping a community grow and thrive. These efforts also help a business expand its name and brand within the community through its ERG members who can serve as ambassadors of the business.
- Professional development. ERGs are more than a social venue and a safe place. They give employees opportunities to develop skills and explore roles that can help them grow their careers and serve an organization. Leadership roles, project planning, and mentorship can give members a channel to realize and expand their potential. Additionally, as ERGs bring issues of diversity and inclusion to the attention of all employees, everyone in the organization may expand their perspectives and insights to further their own professional and personal growth.
- Recruitment. As job candidates research a business to see if it may be a good fit for them, they are likely to judge a business not by what it says, but by what it does. Not only do employee resource groups play an important role in improving an organization's corporate culture, but the existence of diverse employee resource groups demonstrates a business's commitment to its workers and an DE&I philosophy. This kind of positive growth environment can also keep talented employees around longer as well as attract top talent when new positions become available. Moreover, ERGs can also play a key role in the recruitment process itself by connecting HR and hiring managers to a more diverse talent pool, including groups of people who may have been previously overlooked.
- Business innovation. When employees feel engaged, comfortable, and valued in the workplace, they are more likely to share their ideas and creativity openly, which is a benefit to the business. Moreover, having a diverse workforce that celebrates inclusion exposes all employees to new ideas and different viewpoints, which can generate fresh ideas and inspire new ways of thinking. Finally, ERG members represent staff members across all departments serving an important role in breaking down organizational silos. It's worth mentioning that the input of diverse and multicultural employee resource groups can also provide insights into the concerns and needs of an untapped customer base.
Starting an Employee Resource Group
Starting an employee resource group program can result in big dividends for employees and your business. ERGs are not a new concept and many companies already have them. At the formative phase, understanding how to start an employee resource group helps ensure maximum impact.
Ask for Employee Input
Given that employee interest groups are built on voluntary employee participation, employers should solicit feedback from staff on the types of ERGs that interest them. One way to gather feedback is with a survey. Take care to create and administer an inclusive survey — one that gathers feedback across all departments, locations, and workers. The survey can also be used as a tool to gather names of employees who express interest in potential roles within the ERG.
During this process, be thoughtful about which employee resource groups you create. Understand that an ERG cannot be formed for every subset of employee interest delineation. An ERG is meant to encourage participation across employees and solicit working and socializing together. Typically, they are formed around gender (e.g. women, LGBTQI+), race (e.g. Black, Asian, Indigenous, or Hispanic people), or groups that face significant challenges in the professional sector (e.g. employees with a physical disability, veterans, working parents, or mental health issues).
Get Leadership's Buy-In
Employee resource groups need support from top-level management and executive leaders to succeed. DE&I initiatives help employees gain varied perspectives, better problem-solving skills, and a greater sense of optimism due to working alongside colleagues with different backgrounds and ways of thinking. This translates into greater innovation and profitability, which can be measured in a business's key performance indicators. Ideally, top management will demonstrate its support of DE&I and ERGs in the form of meaningful action. They can serve as an executive sponsor to an ERG, step into a mentorship role, or participate as an active member, promoting and advocating the group's efforts within the organization and the larger, external community.
Evaluate Company Needs and Set Goals
To ensure success in an ERG, take time to determine how the ERG fits within the organization and why it's needed. Is there a lack of diversity in leadership that an ERG can help fill? Could recruitment strategies benefit from more creative solutions to reach a more diverse candidate pool? Are there internal obstacles for advancement for women, people of color or other groups such as disabled or veteran communities, for example? Is the business struggling to understand how it can serve its minority customer base? Evaluating company needs and goals can help an ERG develop strategies and benchmarks that align with business needs.
Determine Mission, Expectations, and Structure
Developing an organized structure is critical to starting an effective and sustainable ERG. One of the first tasks of a newly formed ERG is to create a solid mission statement, set expectations, and prioritize activities. Use insights gained from employees as a guide as well as the ERGs role in the company's mission and needs.
A good place to start is by outlining an ERG's structure: complete with roles, responsibilities, and expectations from leaders, executive sponsors, mentors, and volunteers. While determining the structure, don't forget to think ahead to succession plans. How will leadership positions be filled to safeguard consistent leadership that moves the ERG toward its goals?
Spread the Word
Marketing is not just for businesses. The only way for other employees or community members outside the business to know the ERG has been created is to get the word out. Some of this will happen organically as members work together volunteering or hosting in-house events. Consider announcing ERG meetings, events, and activities in newsletters or company-wide meetings (when appropriate) and extending invitations to non-member employees for special events. ERG leadership should also work to nurture a strong network and relationships within the business (e.g. partnering with HR to expand recruitment efforts) and look for opportunities to partner with other ERGs in efforts that support employee and business growth.
Secure and Allocate Resources
Having an ERG program can be visually attractive to current employees, potential new hires, and even customers. Passion and volunteers can only take an ERG so far and an ERG needs more than words that profess value. For true success, an ERG needs a business to support it with resources, both financial and in-kind. Consider covering costs for professional development opportunities and special events, stipends for leadership positions, hiring a consultant to help an ERG in critical initiatives, or even giving an ERG cash to donate as a grant to an outside nonprofit organization of its choice on behalf of your business.
To measure success, employee resource groups should develop specific benchmarks based on their mission and goals, then identify metrics in which to assess and measure progress. Criteria will vary but can include actions such as recruiting 5–10 new members per year, hosting an annual company-wide continuing education event (and measuring attendance), distributing a monthly newsletter, tallying member volunteer hours, or tracking members' professional development achievements. Quantifying objective measurements such as these can go a long way in helping members feel their efforts are contributing to success and demonstrate to business leaders the value of supporting the ERG.
Invest in Employee Resource Groups
Whether you're overhauling your current ERG program or starting anew, investing adequate time and resources to establish employee resource groups in your business demonstrates an authentic commitment to DE&I. As such, employee resource groups can positively impact your business and make a meaningful, lasting difference in your employees' lives.