Making everyone in a company feel like an engaged member of the team has long been an important part of running a business. But inclusivity has become even more crucial over the past year-and-a-half, given the sometimes isolating effects of remote work, and rising awareness of various types of social injustice.
An increasingly popular approach to fostering workplace inclusivity is employee resource groups (ERGs). These voluntary groups of employees come together on the basis of shared characteristics, life experiences, or work enablement needs. Do you need more women in leadership? Make a group for that. Want to ensure that company initiatives are LGTBQ+-friendly? Form an ERG for that, too. Done right, the ERG can be an effective tool.
ERGs have been in the news lately around timely topics like Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) employee support and mental health. But just as often, ERGs can be effective for addressing more basic functional or operational support issues specific to an organization.
Take the case of a female leader at our company who was breastfeeding her first child and came to me needing help adjusting to the new challenges of being a working mom. She was getting scheduled for back-to-back meetings every day, which didn’t allow for the breaks and private time her maternal duties now required. This leader also knew of several other working mothers who could benefit from the company’s help, so she formed a group to find some of the support she was missing.
Such groups can make a difference—not only to the individuals involved but to the strength of the entire business. According to research from Chairman Mom, a networking group, nearly 90% of working women said ERGs made lives better at work. Nearly half said the existence of ERGs would influence where they choose to work.
And yet, while ERGs can provide value to an organization, I should add a word of caution: They’re not an end-all solution. At some point, for instance, there’s a scaling issue. A group can’t be formed for every possible delineation. What’s more, ERGs too narrowly defined can inadvertently exclude employees, creating the opposite of the desired effect. For example, an ERG established to support employees of a specific race or ethnicity should balance the opportunities to hear and understand the unique needs of the group while ensuring that all employees feel empowered to help create change and support inclusion.
The value of ERGs comes down to how they’re structured. They’re most successful when there is an internal locus of control and employees feel empowered to identify opportunities and effect change.
Here are the core elements companies need to focus on when creating or refining ERGs to maximize their value.
Establish a clear purpose for each ERG that aligns with a business need
Research from O.C. Tanner indicates that when leaders connect their people to purpose, employees are much more likely to feel a strong sense of purpose and be highly engaged in their work, and much less likely to suffer burnout. Clearly defining an actionable purpose is crucial. I once worked with a group that wanted to focus on culture and employee engagement. Leadership was supportive and the group started to meet. Quickly, I saw that the group wandered without purpose and started to complain about problems rather than solve them.
I worked with leadership to establish a charter for the group that both defined the area of focus but also delineated how the group could spark change. It was amazing how quickly the conversations shifted to focus on identifying business and culture problems, and ideating solutions to pitch to leadership. ERG members were actively collecting information and feedback from teams across the organization.
Ensure true inclusivity
I also once worked with an HR leader who was excited to launch a women-in-leadership group. But the way she approached and launched it conveyed an unwritten message that men couldn’t join. Male allies within the company came to her saying they wanted to contribute but felt like they couldn’t engage. This HR leader listened and acted quickly to adjust messaging, and empower all employees to support and participate in their women-in-leadership ERG.
This served as a reminder that it’s important in the process of creating something good that you try to mitigate those types of unintentional counter-reactions. A quick tip here: Think about the broader human need that transcends smaller groups. Perhaps having an ERG that promotes leadership across all genders and ethnicities allows everyone to participate. But you can still address unique needs, like ensuring you have a female mentor program for emerging women leaders.
Assign each group an involved executive sponsor
For employees to effect real change, there needs to be buy-in from the top. And not just at a “checked-box” level. The executive needs to actually be involved and passionate about the cause. Utilizing ERGs is not an “HR” activity. ERGs support individual and company success and, as such, executive sponsors bring the ERG goals into business strategy meetings and discussions.
In the case of our female leader who was also a new mother, I was able to represent facility needs at just the right time before we entered office lease negotiations. This allowed us to fulfill the vision we created of not just having dedicated spaces for lactation needs, but creating a restorative retreat that provided comfort and encouragement for our working mothers.
Make sure group leaders are sufficiently informed
When determining who should lead an ERG, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions. Do the leaders actually know what they’re talking about? Are they informed enough on the subject that they can bring something meaningful to the conversation? Do they have the skills to effectively lead a group and maintain charter and business outcomes?
If not, the ERG might be worse than ineffective—it might work at cross purposes with the organization’s business mission. I worked with a grassroots ERG once that had a passionate and outspoken individual willing to lead it. There was executive support, a clear purpose, and outcomes, but the group was unable to establish momentum and participation. Why?
With the best of intentions, this individual began to stray from the original charter and use the group as a platform to discuss topics of personal interest. I was asked to step in and see if I could help the group rally and refocus. But by that time, participants had lost interest. They felt it wasn’t a priority for the business, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. As with important business goals and initiatives, choosing a good leader and holding them accountable is important for ERG success.
In the new hybrid work settings that the business world seems to be evolving toward, with less frequent opportunities for in-person collaboration, fostering workplace inclusivity could prove more crucial than ever. That’s true, too, as previously marginalized groups are encouraged to bring their concerns forward in the name of employee solidarity.
In response to these and other issues, ERGs can have a vital and positive role to play. The challenge for human resource professionals is to make sure that the purpose of the ERG is well defined and that the appropriate people, at all levels, become involved.
Cassie Whitlock is the head of HR at BambooHR, an HR platform for small and medium businesses.