Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) Need Better Support

More than seventeen years ago, while a young, pregnant Vice President, I got asked to co-chair our company’s diversity council. My co-chair was an Asian woman from the newsroom side of the organization. We held regular meetings and tried to advise the rest of the executive team on how to make the company a better place to work, particularly for women, underrepresented minorities, and LBGTQ employees. We created a safe space for people to share their stories and feel heard and supported. However, most importantly for my own journey in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), we brought in a group to speak to the top 200 managers of the company about inclusion and belonging. 

They used a behavioral framework that completely reframed how we thought about inclusion. They talked about “in the house” and “out of the house” behaviors, or basically, the little things we do to make people feel part of a group or not. Who you sit with at lunch. Invite for drinks. Add to a meeting. Add to talent programs. What blew my mind when we discussed it for our own culture was how exclusionary behaviors went so far beyond race and gender. In our culture, union vs non-union may have been more overtly exclusionary. Even having a heavy Boston accent was mentioned. That feeling of being “out of the house” was also something everyone has suffered from. Get rid of exclusionary behavior broadly and everyone in a culture benefits.

Employee Resource Groups Best Practices

Fast forward to today and ironically, I lead a company that helps large corporations with inclusion and belonging. In our inclusive culture module, we focus particularly on improving psychological safety for all employees, knowing that psychological safety is key to high performance and behavioral in nature. However, we also support the organization, programming, and reporting for Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), one of the best opportunities for improving inclusion in a workplace.

ERGs, also called Affinity groups or business networks, originated in the 1970s to help employees who share an identity or interest, or who want to support people with that identity and interest, connect. Like the aforementioned diversity council, they offer a safe space for support and community. But they also can serve as a resource to senior leadership on policies, programs and practices, help with recruitment, and help develop future leaders. Data shows that Employee Resource Groups help with retention and performance.

Through our platform, I’m able to see how ERGs are structured at our customers and what programming they offer. Frankly, I’m often envious. I wish there had been a parent ERG at our company when my son was born, especially for that tough first year. I’ve always tried to be an ally to the LGBTQ and Veterans communities, but likely would have been more effective by participating in their ERGs. 

ERG Challenges

Unfortunately, I also get to see firsthand where ERGs struggle. Before using WeSpire’s platform, most Employee Resource Groups were managed via a mix of posts or home grown tools on the Intranet, Excel spreadsheets, channels in Slack or Teams, and signs on the wall. Visibility for what was happening, or not, is low. Once people have the platform, we see very high jumps in participation and visibility is now high. But it also shines a spotlight on which ERGs aren’t actually doing anything. Which given they are often volunteer led, with minimal to no resources for support, happens. In a compelling article in HBR last year, the author identified what Black ERGs need for support. Much of what was recommended, from executive sponsorship to budget and administrative support, would benefit all ERGs.

ERGs are a powerful tool to build inclusion and belonging and psychological safety when they are open to all who want to support that group, when they have tools to make organization, programming and communication easier, and when they get active moral and financial support from leadership. Given the significant impact on retention and performance, supporting stronger, better ERGs should be a win-win for all.

Quote of the Week: “Do more than belong: participate. Do more than care: help. Do more than believe: practice. Do more than be fair: be kind. Do more than forgive: forget. Do more than dream: work.”

William Arthur Ward

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