Enter the ERG
“The social object that unites people isn’t a company or a product; the social object that most unites people is a shared value or purpose.” ― Nilofer Merchant
If you’re considering creating an employee resource group for your company to empower a diverse community of employees across disciplines and locations, this guide is for you.
Welcome to the employee resource group – a dedication of time, space, and resources for the purpose of intentional inclusion. Never prescriptive, establishing an ERG (ideally multiple) depends on both grassroots initiative and executive sponsorship.
This guide will help you understand the value of employee resource groups in two posts: the theory, and then the practice. This first post explores how ERGs provide value, and a follow-up post will show why ERGs are more relevant than ever in the context of digital workplaces and remote employees.
If you like to start with “the why”, feel free to jump to the second ERG post in which inclusion initiative strategies are offered for multi-campus, partially-remote or fully remote companies.
Take the time to peruse this first guide if you want a contiguous understanding of how the theory enables the practice of employee resource groups, as an understanding of context is important if not crucial for effective ERG initiatives.
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
– James Baldwin
No two employee resource groups are the same, as their function and purpose depend substantially on the company culture and who is participating in the groups. Likewise, there is no formula or universal definition for the ERG, furthermore, the concept has evolved over time and continues to adapt to the changing landscape of digital work.
History is unambiguous however when it comes to where the ERG began – in response to racial tensions within Xerox, former CEO Joseph Wilson sponsored the first employee resource groups.
In their debut within corporate America, ERGs were initially called “Workplace Affinity Groups” which were implemented shortly after the race riots in Rochester, NY in 1964.
In collaboration with black employees, leadership at Xerox also launched the National Black Employees Caucus in 1970 to call attention to the problem of workplace discrimination and to ameliorate tensions within the office.
Fast-forward to today, ERGs are found in 90% of Fortune 500 companies. Typically voluntary and employee-led, employee resource groups assemble organically based upon the shared experience of employees. Common interests, backgrounds, and demographic factors such as gender, race, and ethnicity provide the foundation for ERG cohesion.
A haven of belonging and solidarity, the ERG provides a space for underrepresented employees to validate who they are.
Whether their shared identity is oriented around age, or mental health, or ethnicity, the ERG can stave off isolating feelings and offer commiseration from misunderstood difficulties that minority groups might face in the workplace.
Before employees can align with business goals, employees must align with themselves. The ERG is a place to reduce any cognitive dissonance amongst employees who might otherwise feel out of place or at odds with who they are while working.
By providing dedicated resources for employee groups to organize, employees can be themselves entirely and therefore do their best work.
Open to all employees to participate in, a healthy ecosystem of ERGs is the foundation of a positive workplace, fostering meaningful company values, helping to inform a company’s mission statements and goals especially in terms of inclusion, recruitment, and retention.
How employee resource groups can best accommodate intersectional categories of identity and belonging will be discussed later, but the long in the short is that any number of permutations are welcomed (and there are many).
For example within the same hypothetical software company, an ERG for single-mothers isn’t redundant alongside an ERG for women in tech. Each group exhibits its own unique intersections of lived experience that warrant their own respective groups.
Humanizing the Workplace
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA
By interfacing employees of different backgrounds in a myriad of safe spaces, the contradictions we all carry as individuals are open for new opportunities of conversation with others. What might be points of contention in the context of an ERG can become vertices of rapport.
But without such spaces, it’s easy to only ever see other people as a walking category, what they are, instead of who they are. Goes without saying, but belonging is not a box to check off once all the identities are accounted for within the company; belonging requires active cultivation through community building and inclusive social engagement.
Humanizing begins with reserving a space that allows employees to express the many dualities and contradictions that make a whole person, “power, poison, pain, and joy” to say the least.
While workplace rituals or company norms might be indifferent to who we are as individuals, the ERG opens the floor for all of our shared complexities to find relevance and commiseration. As Chloé Simone Valdary puts it, “To humanize a person is to treat them in a way that honors this complexity”.
The Big 8
As mentioned above, when considering intersections of characteristics and not just singular categories, there are a staggering number of possibilities for ERG formation.
Generally speaking however, the eight main characteristics consist of:
- Sexual Orientation
- Economic Classification
Computing 8 factorial (8 × 7 × 6 × 5 × 4 × 3 × 2 × 1) results in 40,320 possibilities of intersectional ERGs. And of course “The Big 8” is not written in stone either, so in reality, the permutations of characteristics and possibilities for group identity are infinitely diverse.
Groups, Councils, Mentors and More
Taking account of your company’s unique distribution of characteristics is the best way to begin organizing ERG titles and policies, but seeing what’s already out there can be helpful too.
Emulating the ERG charters of other companies can also open up the possibility of inter-organizational reciprocity.
Creating groups that are already popular within your industry can open up opportunities for ERG engagement during virtual or in-person conventions and events as well.
Every employee resource group begins with core organizers. The number of ERGs in a company and their membership size depends largely on the organizational structure and scale of the company. But no matter what, there’s never such a thing as too small when introducing a new group to the organization.
Just as ERGs are founded by organizers who are personally invested in the mission of their group, volunteers are central to their maintenance.
As discussed later, however, many organizations support their ERG volunteers with paid time, meaningful recognition, leadership development opportunities, and group budgets.
Without listing the all 40,320 ERG possibilities derived from the eight main characteristics of employee identity, here is a list of some popular group titles across various companies:
- African, Black, American, Caribbean (ABAC)
- Asian Pacific American (APA)
- Latin American and Native (LANA)
- Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender Queer (LBGTQ)
- Millennials (MM)
- Women in Technology (WIT)
- Cognitive, Developmental, Intellectual, Mental, Physical, Sensory (CDIMPS)
- Boomers and Beyond (BAB)
- Single Parents and Caregivers (SPAC)
- Christian Employee Network (SALT)
- Jewish Employee Network (CHAI)
- Muslim Employees Connecting and Contributing to All (MECCA)
- Zoroastrian Employee Resource Group (ZORO)
- Sikh Employee Network (GURU)
- Hindu Employee Network (WAY)
- Inter Belief Network (IBN)
- Military and Veteran Employee Network (MVNET)
- And many more!
Grassroots Groups and Leadership Councils
Because every group will have a different notion of what constitutes success, which ERGs should form, and how they establish metrics should be up to the group organizers. But the responsibility is initially on leadership and DEI councils to make it known throughout the company that ERGs are encouraged and supported.
As Isaac Dixon suggests, however, ERGs without strategic integration can result in siloed resource groups that risk inciting regressive attitudes amongst employees who are not participating in group charters.
In order to best facilitate ERGs and align them with business initiatives, leadership DEI councils can oversee their resource groups to ensure that they are actively engaging in building a holistic inclusive company culture.
Just because ERGs need to be given their own agency and measures of success does not mean they are exempt from the universal goals set forth by an executive DEI council.
In short, creating a more welcoming workplace in which all employees can belong in their own way is the pluralism that DEI-guided ERGs can facilitate.
When grassroots advocates coordinate with leadership councils within their organization, big-picture goals are attainable without compromising the particular needs of any group’s participants.
For many organizers, running an ERG is as time-consuming as a second job. In order to ensure that organizers are best integrating their efforts with their daily responsibilities, it is essential that leadership financially sponsor especially the ERG admins and anyone who is substantially committed to their inclusive missions.
While compensation for ERG participation could be gamed as an easy and potentially unproductive raise, it is nonetheless important for leadership to budget resources for sincerely dedicated resource group facilitators.
In order to prevent the gaming of ERG compensation, it is important for ERG admins and leadership DEI councils to establish accountability and alignment with the greater company culture and goals. When the grassroots volunteers and leadership work together, the ERG becomes valuable for everybody.
Providing financial support for ERG admins, facilitators, and dedicated volunteers can also involve conference sponsorship. Paying for interested employees to attend such events as the National Black MBA Conference, Corporate Counsel for Women of Color Conference, and AfroTech are all ways to validate the requisite time for maintaining successful ERGs.
Leaders and Mentors
Effective ERG leaders are anyone who is committed to humanizing their workforce and validating especially underrepresented colleagues. As the value of any resource group is closely associated with fostering inclusive belonging, solidarity, and cognitive polyphony amongst minority personnel, ERG leaders typically exhibit an exemplary character of their own.
Admins and ERG leaders often exhibit similar characteristics, also known as The Six Signature Traits of an Inclusive Leader:
- Commitment: True for anyone who is engaged in an ERG, whether they are a participant, someone just checking it out, a facilitator, admin, or leader, it’s important to fully be there for the right reasons – the group’s specific mission. Regardless of one’s intended duration and amount of involvement, working with and especially leading an ERG requires commitment.
- Courage: ERG leaders are willing to address the status quo, speaking up but also remaining transparent and vulnerable.
- Cognizance of Bias: Fully aware of the privileges and pitfalls of cultural relativism, ERG leaders understand that projected biases are unavoidable, and therefore active listening is always prioritized. Embracing ambiguity and keeping an open mind is essential for effective ERG leadership.
- Curiosity: An understanding that the boundaries of any group are always porous and never rigid allows ERG leaders to remain radically inclusive and interested in involving new participants while also continuing the dialogue about what it means to be a member of their group.
- Culturally Intelligent: Often misunderstood as “with it” in the sense of already knowing what a different culture consists of. Quite the contrary, cultural intelligence is an acknowledgement that the positionality of different people is significant and therefore actively listening always precedes a presumption of what their norms or values consist of. To paraphrase Kwame Appiah, culture is not a proprietary gold nugget, rather a gold dust that rubs off on anyone who respectfully engages with other groups.
- Collaborative: Inclusive leaders are first and foremost advocates who default to the assist instead of the score. Empowering others ensures that ERGs remain diverse and engaging for everyone.
Leaders don’t come from anywhere, however, and mentoring is proven to both ameliorate workplace bias and empower underrepresented workers who can then administer their own resource groups.
Integrated mentoring programs that can be facilitated by various participating ERGs are known to break down stereotypes within the company. In short, prejudice cannot withstand direct interpersonal relationships.
In addition to developing ERG leaders, integrated mentoring initiatives (often orchestrated by an executive DEI council) significantly increase the diversity of company management. Black employees, Hispanic, Asian-American women and men are all promoted by 9% to 24% with the implementation of integrated mentorship programs.
Lessons and Risks
There’s no doubt that creating and supporting an active ecosystem of employee resource groups within your company improves leadership development, drives bottomline results, forges new relationships, and ensures the alignment of diversity and business goals.
Some risks are real, however, and learning from past examples can help new ERG leaders to keep an eye out for counterproductive effects. The simplest is allowing ERGs to become siloes that speak to inclusion but rarely invite others or interact with other groups. In this case, the DEI council should assist with facilitating transparency and alignment between groups and brand strategy.
Most of the problems that surround ERGs result from not fully supporting them or encouraging employees to engage with them.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that many employees regard the enactment of ERGs as sufficient, presuming that all employees were then treated fairly. Inclusion is an ongoing process, and companies must walk their DEI talk in order to mitigate undesirable ERG ramifications.
ERGs Empower Everyone
Not everyone in the company will have an employee resource group that is made for them, but that doesn’t mean anyone is left out. Inclusion and belonging require an articulation of diversity, but don’t depend on participants adhering to any particular categories of personhood.
From their establishment to their growth and promotion, ERGs place the agency on employees to define DEIB priorities through dialogue amongst themselves and with the c-suite.
Through this process of ERG creation, new relationships are forged, managers are born and previously overlooked leaders are discovered within your workplace.
Enable Employee Agency
Since the emergence of employee resource groups in the 1960s, diversity initiatives have taken on various approaches, some more successful than others. Much later in the 20th century and into the 21st, implementing a top-down approach to diversity such that a specialist is brought in to announce the dos and don’ts is still seen in corporations of all sizes.
This commandments of diversity approach is the easiest way to check the box of diversity, but because these initiatives often involve outside consultants and are temporary, they might not enable employees to advocate for their own groups.
Furthermore, a command-and-control approach to diversity flies in the face of social science research which has shown time and time again that people are motivated by empowerment and encouragement.
While ERGs should always have executive sponsorship, they are entirely different from diversity training.
First of all, their purpose is different, even if both mandatory diversity training programs and employee resources groups can (in the best of situations) result in the same positive outcome of a more inclusive and less-biased workplace.
Because ERGs form organically and from existing relationships amongst employees, they are from the beginning driven by employee agency.
The responsibility of executives is to provide support in the form of positive encouragement for employee resource group formation and to make it known that compensation and budgets are available as well.
Compulsory vs. Voluntary
Training courses are often temporary and at worst an excuse for company leadership to ignore diversity-equity-inclusion-belonging issues within their workplace.
By no means mutually exclusive however, employee resources groups are nonetheless a safer bet for fostering an inclusive company culture and establishing a company framework for equity and diversity.
Studies have shown that the nuanced differences in how a topic is simply broached (not to say anything about the topic content itself) can have significantly different results on participants’ perception and behaviour.
As research from the University of Toronto has shown, even when reading the same brochure explaining prejudice, when people were prefaced with an obligation to agree with it, they typically become more biased and discriminatory. Whereas those who were told they had a choice to think for themselves, their bias was reduced.
Starting DEIB dialogues from a grassroots position that is sponsored by executives is an entirely voluntary approach, and avoids any of the risks that come with a compulsory training campaign. Just as ERGs are never mandatory (for anyone inside or outside of any given group), voluntary diversity programs have been shown to yield consistently positive results.
While compulsory diversity training can trigger a backlash, actually reducing the managerial ranks of minorities (declining by 3% to 11% over five years), voluntary programs have the opposite effect: increasing 9% to 13% of minorities in managerial positions over five years.
If you’re exploring options to supplement an ERG ecosystem within your company, avoid tactics of top-down control and focus on three basic principles: engage managers, expose them to different groups, and encourage accountability for progressive change.
When ERGs Work Best
Company goals for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are better served by empowering employees to engage with different groups, increasing contact, and sponsoring mentorship.