In today’s business world, now more than ever, people want to feel heard. According to a new Ipsos study, 88% of people agree that a sense of belonging leads to higher productivity and 76% indicated that a sense of belonging at work means being treated fairly and respectfully. “DEI is a top priority for many employees when considering where they want to work,” Dr. Kristal Walker, CPTM, vice president of employee well-being at Sweetwater and a Training Industry Courses instructor, says. “In fact, DEI has become one of the main differentiating factors for companies when it comes to attracting and retaining the best talent.”
With a meaningful and inclusive work environment on everyone’s minds, organizations must strive to hear their people better. This is where employee resource groups (ERGs) can come in. ERGs gained prevalence in the 1960s after Black workers at Xerox started an affinity group for marginalized and underrepresented workers to discuss racial issues in corporate America. Now, ERGs are regaining popularity as a forum to discuss an intersectionality of challenges and topics in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), shares Dr. Walker. “Because of the increase in awareness and conversation around DEI issues, there is a greater demand for resources, advocacy and allyship — all of which ERGs can provide.”
Let’s take a look at how ERGs can encourage an inclusive, human-centered workplace and actionable steps to starting one in your own organization.
What Are ERGs?
ERGs are voluntary, employee-led cohorts for underrepresented workers who share common interests and backgrounds. ERGs provide a safe space where employees can be their true, authentic selves while also sharing their perspectives to help the organization in their decision making. Janine Yancey, founder and chief executive officer of Emtrain, an online compliance training provider, explains that ERGs give people a voice that can help influence the course of the organization.
Organizations usually implement ERGs as an engagement strategy to help increase employee retention in diverse groups. ERGs are often used when people in a specific community do not find the organization to have a nurturing environment and as a result, leave the company, Yancey shares. To help promote a more inclusive work environment, organizations may choose to implement an ERG.
Dr. Theresa Horne, CPTM, director of diversity and equal opportunity at Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, shares that ERGs can encourage a culture of inclusion. “ERGs benefit organizational culture by adding nuances into the already growing quilt of different ethnicities, cultures, races, socioeconomic backgrounds that work together on a daily basis,” Dr. Horne says. Yancey also explains that ERGs can comprise a range of groups from LGBTQIA+ to Black workers, women and family members.
In many other cases, ERGs are used as a DEI strategy to promote representation. For example, due to the small pool of Black workers in one organization, Dr. Walker shared that they implemented an ERG to help enable a sense of community where these workers could share common struggles that impacted their employee experience as well as share to leaders within the organization who could help eliminate these obstacles. It also provided them a safe space to celebrate their personal and professional wins as peers.
Dr. Horne shares her experience in an ERG that was established as a networking group for Black professionals with shared experiences with the hopes to find opportunity and share resources. Though the group’s existence was not driven to spark huge change, the ERG met the needs of those professionals who were typically “the only one” in their office, field or industry, which remains a common challenge for minorities today. “Just the camaraderie and understanding played a big part in feeling encouraged to push through boundaries,” Dr. Horne says.
Due to the intersectionality in DEI, ERGs are not limited to marginalized racial groups. Dr. Walker shares her experience in an ERG for women in leadership. “At another organization, the group was formed because of the lack of gender parity in leadership roles. I’ve spent at least six years of my career in male-dominated industries, which often made it difficult for women to find their voice.” The ERG was created not only to help balance the gender parity, but to also partner women in leadership with male allies who could advocate for their knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) even when they weren’t in the room.
How to Start an ERG
Starting an ERG in an organization from the ground up can seem daunting. And with so much riding on its success, it’s crucial that the program starts off on the right foot. Let’s take a look at the three key steps to starting an ERG in your organization.
1.) Evaluate a Need
Starting an ERG first begins with identifying a need. Dr. Walker shares that before an organization can start an ERG of their own, they should recognize the purpose for the group’s existence. “This may require diving deep into the people analytics side of the business to see where the gaps exist,” Dr. Walker explains. Yancey shares that choosing what ERG to start in an organization is tied to the unique culture and demographics of that particular organization and what marginalized group of people need for their voices to be heard.
The organization must first consider where the need for an ERG is in the company. To do this, Dr. Horne suggests organizations to first assess the current climate and the general needs of the organization as well as its culture. Organization should also review relevant metrics, like employee turnover and participation levels, and evaluate opportunities for improvement across the company.
Dr. Walker explains that the organization will need to assess their current state to identify gaps and how the formation of an ERG might potentially address those gaps. For instance, if exit interview data for women workers in the organization reveal that many women are leaving due to a lack of leadership opportunity, that is a gap that an ERG formed to support career advancement opportunities for women in the workplace can fill.
2.) Establish Governance
Once the ERG’s purpose is defined, Dr. Walker advises that the organization create a committee to establish the group’s governance, purpose and goals. The committee will also need to identify who the group sponsor(s) will be to provide resources and support. “This sponsor should be someone in a leadership role with autonomy to make or approve decisions on behalf of the group,” Dr. Walker says. In addition to having a group sponsor, it must also establish a leader. Since ERGs are employee-led, the leader should be someone with a passion for the employee experience.
The ERG leader must reflect some level of representation and possess the emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills to facilitate discussion around sensitive subjects as well as advocate for the group outside of regular meetings. Dr. Horne shares that the ERG should tie in with a strategic plan that all members as well as the company can work toward. To help align the strategy to the ERG’s purpose, Dr. Horne suggests creating a charter to help with outlining roles and responsibilities as well as to help hold members accountable.
3.) Recruit Members and Spread Awareness
After establishing a group leader and sponsor, the committee can then proceed to recruit members for the ERG. To create awareness for the ERG, the group leader and sponsor can advertise it in a newsletter, company-wide email as well as during onboarding. Involving new hires in an ERG can help give them a voice early on. Dr. Walker advises that the recruitment process should be as inclusive as possible to ensure a great start in the right direction. This means ensuring that the perks, benefits and next steps for joining are clearly communicated to maintain clear expectations.
Another effective way to spread awareness is through your leadership team — but first you’ll need to ensure buy-in. This requires communicating the program’s value and how it can benefit the employees and the organization. Once your leadership team is onboard, you can leverage them as advocators to help influence potential recruits on their team.
To measure the program’s success, learning leaders can evaluate the same metrics that led them to form the group in the first place — by assessing employee turnover and engagement in a particular group. This is what makes an ERG such an effective strategy to creating an inclusive and human-centered workplace. The program’s purpose is aligned to business objectives, and its success directly benefits that company measurable. And through the ERG’s honest feedback and notes, leadership can learn how to make better decisions that benefit everyone.