- Harness the power of your firm’s employees to drive meaningful inclusion all throughout your organization.
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have been growing exponentially in popularity in the workforce. Yet the ERG concept is not new. They were originally called “affinity groups,” created to help enhance inclusion. Legend has it that the concept was pioneered by the Xerox Corporation to support, encourage, and retain Black employees.
Following the death of George Floyd, ERGs became even more widely embraced in the work world. A national conversation had been sparked. Understanding that action, supportive of equitable behavior and treatment that is not only interpersonal, but within institutions and systems, became clearer. ERGs are now recognized as important resources that can support, engage and empower historically marginalized groups. During the pandemic, as offices shut down face-to-face engagement, ERGs grew in popularity as organizations realized that they could effectively collaborate through meetings via Zoom, Teams and other virtual platforms. As meetings were held and business was conducted virtually, ERG online meet-ups became popular opportunities for employees who felt isolated to share common interests and connect with one another during the pandemic. In fact, the ERG that I founded developed and managed several corporate-wide programs during this period, including a leadership program focused on maximizing equitable inclusion in management that featured a question and answer session with the chairman of our corporation.
We currently have eight recognized ERGs at my corporation, consisting of approximately 6,000 employees in offices throughout the nation. Three years ago, I founded an ERG that supports women of color. We also have ERGs that support women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBTQ communities, veterans, people with disabilities, and an ERG for employees who like to keep up with the latest technology advances. Some ERGs, such as HOLA, represent new outposts of established and lon–existing national organizations. Others, such as Networking for Inclusion and Advancement of African American Women, are newer.
Starting an ERG: Companies have differing procedures for starting an ERG. In my company, an ERG can be started by three interested employees. The founders must prepare a charter, bylaws, and mission statement and submit these items to our Diversity Office for approval. The documents must specify the composition of their executive board, and how frequently the ERG will meet. Some ERGs may choose to charge membership dues.
As a core mission, the ERG that I chair seeks to create awareness of the unique challenges faced by women of color in the workplace. Although some women advanced greatly as a result of the “me too” movement, women of color did not similarly benefit; this fact is often surprising to many. Historically, major corporations have been largely run by Caucasian males at the highest levels of executive leadership. Corporate leaders who set corporate policy by and large do not have the valuable perspectives of women of color and other minorities. What does this mean? A large group of potential clients, customers, patrons, partners, etc., are ignored, which means business is not adequately reflecting or serving an organization’s or company’s best interests or their bottom line.
For example, my ERG seeks to educate the public concerning the extra barrier (often called the “concrete ceiling”) that women of color face in the workforce. It is an extra barrier that women of color must break through to get into management positions. This is quite different from the glass ceiling (seen through and easily shattered) that other women break through to rise into management positions because one’s ability to break glass, metaphorically speaking, is far more probable than breaking through concrete. Women of color need someone to open doors for them. Women of color have traditionally lacked “corporate mentors” (highly placed executives who can help them navigate and move up the corporate ladder). Studies have shown that this is largely owing to the phenomenon that people have a tendency to mentor or sponsor people with whom they feel most comfortable – and that tends to be people who look like they do and/or family members. For this reason, the guidance suggests that ERGs engage and include high-level sponsors who are top-level managers in a company. Leading business publications suggest that women of color should have white male executive managers sponsor (EM sponsor) their groups.
The EM sponsor is helpful because he typically has the chairman’s ear. This sponsor is able to facilitate access to people and resources, and share his or her insight regarding company vacancies, initiatives and programs due to his status and relationship with the highest level managers at the company. He or she can leverage connections and access for the benefit of the ERG when planning corporate-wide programs. Our EM sponsor helps us navigate the necessary steps to attain approval for our programs, as well as attain the necessary resources (graphics, posters) to promote programs at the corporation. We have invited guest speakers who are women, and women of color, to speak about their journeys to leadership. They provided insight concerning career choices and “lessons learned” about how they strategically navigated and reached the positions that they occupy.
Challenges: A key challenge with ERGs is that the board members must invest a great deal of time and energy into sustaining the group. Board members at times feel “burnt out” when they find themselves sending out emails or performing other ERG-related work in the evenings. Board members must still complete their regular work, yet they receive no compensation for serving in the ERG. Most ERG leaders, however, commit their time and talent due to their passion for the task. The ERG promotes corporate diversity and inclusion goals and empowers members of the ERG to feel a sense of belonging. Recently, some private companies have decided to reward the ERG board members with bonuses or other compensation.
Benefits: I recently presented at a large university in Philadelphia with several other ERG leaders on the topic: “The Power of ERGs.” The title was right on point! As the saying goes, “knowledge is power” and it was a powerful presentation. One of my examples shared was that my ERG seeks to keep its members apprised of topics of interest, disseminate relevant articles, share news, advise members of relevant events, programs and conferences, provide support for our members, and contribute to the community. Recently my ERG board had a “Coffee and Convo” session with the chairman of our corporation. We had an opportunity to pose questions to him concerning his career, leadership philosophy, and DEIA perspectives. The event was broadcast to all of our offices so that interested members could tune in and view the program live.
ERGs provide a service to employees and the corporation to the extent that they educate and inspire employees who opt to attend workshops concerning career advice, as well as other topics of interest. My ERG has brought in many women of color who have reached great milestones in their careers (e.g. COO and other high-level positions) for question-and-answer sessions. The ERGs have access to the corporation’s human resources staff and career counselors, and they volunteer to prepare workshops on interview skills, resume writing and similar topics of interests for the ERG members. Such events are always open to all members of the corporation. We receive many notes of appreciation from the employees thanking us for developing and managing the program. Another ERG regularly offers American Sign Language sessions to our workforce. During Veterans Day, several ERGs collaborated to collect and send cards of appreciation to U.S. veterans. Our African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, and working women ERGs collaborated to put on a program addressing challenges faced by multicultural women in the workforce.
ERGs help a company’s leaders and management teams stay connected with the unique concerns of various groups within the company. Our ERGs are also often invited to do presentations to various divisions in our company. We share our unique perspectives and experiences in the workplace. They provide access for ERG leaders to voice and share concerns of their members in a manner that an individual employee would likely not have access. Open communication makes for happy employees who feel that their perspectives are listened to, and their voices are heard, irrespective of their position with the corporation.
ERGs also serve as valuable mediums to help companies recruit a diverse workforce. When our recruiters go to university and college career fairs, we see smiling faces and added interest when we tell students about our ERG that is led and managed by women.
Women continue to face unique challenges when they go on maternity leave. Commonly they have difficulty finding suitable childcare when they want to return to work. One of our company ERGs served as a platform for new moms with common challenges to share their tips concerning potential daycare options in a heavily populated city where many daycares with long waiting lists required that women get on the waiting list in the first month that they find out that they are expecting. The knowledge that our company had a group of moms and parents-to-be who were willing to share stories and techniques to survive and thrive while caring for infants and young children was of great interest to the college students.
Formation of an ERG also provides a voice for marginalized groups and access to corporate leaders. ERGs help company leaders (who often are not from diverse or marginalized groups) keep up with the unique concerns of segments of their employee population. For example, following the George Floyd tragedy, our ERGs made a joint statement expressing their collective feelings of sorrow. Our management had “listening sessions” with the employees and ERGs.
Employees bond through ERGs that meet and discuss topics of common interest (e.g., whether they need more support from their corporation). ERGs can be of great value to an organization’s growth in social capital and positive organizational culture. Multi-agency ERG meetups take place in Washington, DC. ERGs sponsor events, programs, and community service initiatives. ERGs can help transform corporate culture and trust. ERGs can and do proactively impact not only those who are active within the ERG, but by extension the entire business environment, and the communities that businesses serve. I recommend that your company, law firm, or agency consider sponsoring ERGs.
Tracey Simmons Fisher is a nationally recognized author, researcher, and advocate on DEI issues.