Use employee resource groups to build workplace inclusivity

Use employee resource groups to build workplace inclusivity
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Workers who feel included and seen are more likely to engage positively with their employers.[1]

However, many employees don’t feel supported by their companies.

Your workforce consists of people from varied backgrounds and perspectives – a result of your focused efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in hiring. But are you experiencing a high turnover? Is productivity slipping among specific groups of people?

It’s time to start bringing your workforce closer together with employee resource groups.

Supportive and inclusive workplace ERGs, running alongside culture add testing, help to:

  • Create more cohesive workplaces

  • Bolster diversity recruitment

  • Ensure employees feel valued

  • Retain diverse talent

  • Improve productivity

But what are ERGs in practice? How do you tailor them to your specific goals and DEI initiatives? 

Read our guide to the pros and cons of employee resource groups and how to manage them below.

What are employee resource groups (ERGs)? 

Employee resource groups, or ERGs, are volunteer organizations led by staff who aim to increase workplace diversity, promote inclusivity, and reduce bias. Some are called inclusion resource groups (IRGs) or affinity groups (AGs).

ERG programs started in the 1960s owing to racial tensions in US workplaces. Xerox’s National Black Employee Caucus was the first of its kind in 1970 – and they’ve only evolved from there.[2]

Typically, ERGs represent workers who have shared backgrounds, common needs, or similar characteristics.

An ERG often provides a psychologically “safe space” to discuss issues of discrimination, inequality, and career development.

Types of employee resource groups

Different types of ERGs represent backgrounds, lifestyles, career interests, and even pastimes. Here are some examples.

Type of ERG

Who’s represented

Purpose

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I)

Individuals from particular ethnicities, sexual orientations, identities, religious affiliations, disabilities, and other demographics

Sharing common experiences, addressing workplace concerns, cultivating allyship, and working alongside leadership

Affinity

People with shared interests and backgrounds (for example, hobbies, and life experiences)

Encouraging socialization outside of work, building rapport within work on common ground

Volunteer and Community Service

Employees aiming to give back to their communities and take on charitable work

Helping people do good for others and improving brand reputation

Professional Development

Workers interested in career development, networking, and finding mentors

Supporting motivated people to develop skills, find opportunities in-house, and boost team morale

Health and Wellness

Staff with shared health concerns or desire to improve mental and physical wellbeing

Improving awareness of healthy working practices, proposing initiatives to management, and offering support

Focus areas of ERGs vary from company to company, as shown here:

Focus areas of ERGs in surveyed companies graph

Source

Examples of employee resource groups

Here are some successful ERGs to serve as inspiration:

King (“Kicking Glass”)

King, the mobile app developer famous for producing “Candy Crush Saga,” offers a gender equality ERG.[3]

The company’s research showed that women in their company wanted to feel more valued and supported, have increased opportunities to express themselves and promote greater gender equality.

Kicking Glass supports women and nonbinary employees, focusing on leadership development, networking, knowledge-sharing, and promoting “highly visible projects.”

Workplaces can follow King’s diversity and inclusion example by applying skills-based hiring to close gender gaps.

Microsoft (“HOLA”)

Microsoft has multiple ERG programs, with “HOLA” promoting talented Hispanic and Latino employees within the business.

HOLA works behind the scenes to improve hiring diversity, retain Hispanic and Latino workers, and support those who feel poorly represented.

The corporation’s ERG provides an HOLA scholarship to promote talent from Hispanic and Latino backgrounds. It’s a great example of a company keeping its DEI commitments in clear sight.

Bank of America (“Military Support & Assistance Group”)

Bank of America’s Military Support & Assistance Group helps to develop, support and retain veteran talent.

This ERG offers a network to former service people and their families, promoting their skills and building awareness of the service ethos (to build positive experiences within the financial sector).

The bank received the Defense Employer Recognition Scheme Gold Award in 2016 for its commitment to those who have served in the military.[4]

Amazon (“Black Employee Network”)

Amazon’s Black Employee Network is one of 13 affinity ERGs under the e-commerce giant’s umbrella (others promote women, LGBTQ+ employees, and diverse ethnicities).

It promotes Black talent, retains employees, and offers personal development. For example, the network works with historically Black educational systems to create recruitment drives.

The ERG drives the creation of brands and stores via Amazon, like Textures & Hues, which specializes in Black hairstyles.

The many benefits of employee resource groups

Employee resource groups greatly benefit workers and their companies alike. However, it’s never wise to hastily establish ERGs for the sake of it. 

Research shows that, in some cases, ERGs reduce feelings of inclusivity.[5] 

It’s all the more reason to take time to carefully plan and implement support groups rather than to rush through a box-ticking exercise.

Here are a few benefits of running organizations thoughtfully and purposefully:

Workplace diversity improves

ERGs give workers from different backgrounds opportunities to change policies and influence management. Diverse workforces are more creative, solve problems more efficiently, and hold stronger reputations than those that aren’t.

Companies that invest in diversity benefit from a broader range of talent. A more diverse workplace encourages diverse applicants, too.

Of course, there are still diversity recruiting practices you should follow carefully – you can’t leave these employee groups to carry DEI on their own.

Decision-making is better-informed

ERG programs help senior leadership and HR (human resources) make more well-rounded decisions by presenting external viewpoints and experiences beyond their own.

Companies benefit from a wider pool of innovation by better representing workers at risk of marginalization.

Staff members bond easier

Employee resource groups help with onboarding and make workplaces more friendly, welcoming, and supportive – which nurtures a sense of belonging.

New hires benefit, too, because they feel more comfortable:

  • Joining cultures

  • Sharing knowledge

  • Showing experience

  • Raising concerns

  • Developing skills

A welcoming work environment thriving on peer-to-peer recognition helps to improve talent acquisition and employee retention.

Improved morale and confidence equals improved productivity, efficiency, and quality in collaborative working.

Employee retention increases

Studies show that a lack of support networks for minority and underrepresented groups leads to increased turnover.[6]

By offering workers more opportunities to develop, make changes to corporate policy, and enjoy working with others, you stand to retain talent.

ERG programs help promote talent for internal mobility opportunities, enabling workers to find support for areas in need.

Cultural awareness improves

Resource groups act as “bridges” between employees and the boardroom. They raise shared concerns to management’s attention.

ERGs can help companies understand how to better respect workers’ cultural needs in inclusive environments (for example, by permitting culturally sensitive workplace attire).

Brands become more visible and drive social impact

Corporate social responsibility is vital for brand survival. Consider that 77% of consumers are motivated to buy from socially responsible companies.

Ultimately, brand visibility and ethical reputation improve when companies and ERGs work with charities and social causes.

The potential issues of employee resource groups and how to avoid them

Hosting ERGs sometimes presents challenges, but thankfully, these can be minimized with careful planning. 

Here are some examples of pitfalls you might encounter:

ERGs often take too much on at once

ERG founders often have grand designs to change multiple workplace aspects at once. Such an attitude can be overwhelming, resulting in poor efficiency and productivity.

When setting up an ERG, founders should start slow and focus on broad policies and urgent principles.

Having a long-term list of targets is healthy, but charging ahead leads to poor results and disengaged ERG members.

The answer: 

Create centralized “hubs” to share information (e.g., through intranet and Slack channels), improving organization among all members.

Employees sometimes feel pigeonholed

Resource teams must carefully balance who they represent and how. There’s a risk of positive discrimination distracting from deeper problems.

People represented by caucuses want to know their groups legitimately protect their interests and share their concerns with management.

The answer: 

  1. Appoint well-respected staff directly impacted by an ERG’s theme to head groups.

  2. Clearly outline a series of objectives and show members how they make an impact on the business.

Non-ERG members feel disadvantaged

Some of your employees might feel like they don’t “fit into” any ERG. As a result, there’s a risk of “cliquing” within a business.

The answer: 

  1. Encourage teams not to divide but unite. Produce clear membership requirements, but create groups anyone is free to join.

  2. Ensure all resource blocs follow the same power structures, purposes, and share the same level of influence.

  3. Unify ERGs further by opening discussion forums and enabling all members to access the same tools.

Employees lack the confidence to share

Resource unions are great concepts on paper – but they demand people willing to speak up and share ideas. Some staff might feel unsafe raising issues for fear of reprimand or workplace backlash. Employees can also feel like their voices make little difference.

The answer: 

  1. Focus on creating psychologically safe work environments for staff to share ideas without fear.

  2. Outline a clear chain of command.

  3. Share evidence of employees making positive changes.

Everyone’s needs and ideals are different

One of the challenges to managing resource unions is ensuring everyone is working towards the same goals. You always need clear and fair collaborative systems in place.

The answer: 

  1. Allow ERG members to raise concerns via an open platform and bring up individual issues in group discussions. 

  2. Take unbiased democratic votes (where appropriate) on actions to take – potentially removing the leader from a position of bias.

  3. Regularly share feedback with ERG members on actions taken regarding decisions that were agreed upon.

  4. Support a continuous feedback channel if a group’s majority doesn’t agree with the progress made.

  5. Establish clear, fair codes of conduct to ensure individuals, the ERG, and the company ethos receive due respect throughout the membership.

How to support the establishment of employee resource groups in 8 steps

Employee groupings need careful setup and maintenance, but knowing where to begin can be taxing. Remember, you’re facilitating – not recruiting.

Here are some key steps to take when considering ERGs for the first time.

Building a healthy ERG from scratch

Step

Why/How

Create transparent laws that apply to all ERGs

Ensure all groups wield the same influence and remove potential bias

Set up a clear process for staff to present ideas for ERGs

Keep your role as a facilitator and let staff build their own unions

Choose an unbiased leader

Remove your influence from running resources

Assist in goal-setting that matches your ethos

Maintain your DEI approach and set clear boundaries

Appeal for executive support and sponsorship

Assure staff and members they have backing from upper management

Create meeting timetables

Allow for diversity in topics and regular contact, empower staff to create their own initiatives

Promote your ERGs

Ensure the whole organization has equal opportunity to join and volunteer if they wish

Maintain a culture of transparency and inclusivity across all employee-led groups

Provide all cohorts with the same tools and access to support (preventing “cliquing” and resentment)

1. Create transparent laws that apply to all ERGs

Start by designing a “template” of rules and guidelines that establishes where ERG influence starts and ends.

Ensure these rules apply to all groups you create, thus avoiding unconscious bias and unbalanced influence.

Then, draft bylaws that respect the authority of leaders and members’ rights but further draw clear boundaries and expectations for said members.

2. Set up a clear process for staff to present ideas for ERGs

Don’t take on the ERG setup solo. Doing so gives an impression that you “know best,” which is a counterproductive message.

Instead, allow staff to present ideas on what they’d like resource blocs to discuss and represent. Provide clear communication channels and opportunities for employee feedback.

Doing so shows staff that their unions build around their needs and wants, not on what HR believes they should be doing.

3. Choose an unbiased leader

Try to choose non-HR leaders for ERGs, preferably staff with tenure and the respect of employees. Choose leaders affected by the problems their groups fight against.

Consider a democratic process decided upon by employees via private ballot. Alternatively, to avoid workplace division, request equal opportunity nominations from across the floor.

4. Assist in goal-setting that matches your ethos

You should encourage members to brainstorm ideas for goals and targets they’d like the company to achieve in line with your corporate ethos and DEI initiatives.

For example, an affinity ERG could request that you reduce your carbon footprint through carpooling or subsidized public transport. These suggestions work hand-in-hand with sustainability pledges.

This step helps to prevent unreasonable demands from staff “taking flight.” Always set clear boundaries and expectations.

Opt for broad goals (that are more focused on quality than quantity) to prevent employee burnout and disorganization.

5. Appeal for executive support and sponsorship

Nothing happens without executive and director approval. Once you’re clear on an ERG’s goals, members, and leaders, start seeking support from your executive sponsors.

Show ERG members and prospects that you care about their voices by regularly reporting progress within executive meetings.

6. Create meeting timetables

Once you establish approved goals, identify discussion topics, and create flexible schedules, your workforce is ready to meet regularly.

Open up a forum to allow everyone to submit ideas and topics, with the potential for a democratic vote or discussion (if appropriate). Remember to keep such channels moderated by supervisors to keep the discussion civil and on track.

7. Promote your ERG

Only launch your ERG once it’s fully approved, hierarchies are in place, and you’ve scheduled meetings.

Start promoting your ERG via group discussions, 1:1 coaching, and intranet channels. Actively involve employees in spreading the word.

Show members that your executives have bought in and are ready to support. Create fun, engaging events (in-person or remote) to celebrate the launch and foster a sense of community.

8. Ensure groups remain transparent and inclusive

Keep regulations and hierarchies identical between different unions. An imbalance in influence and advocacy leads to accusations of bias.

ERGs should remain inclusive at all costs, with level plateaus for discussion and development (with leaders being spokespeople and chairs).

6 employee resource groups’ best practices

Make sure not to take a “set and forget” attitude. Resource teams need constant resources and attention. 

Here are a few ideas for how to keep your groups thriving once they’re established.

ERG health check essentials

Practice

Why/How

Keep ERG membership purely voluntary

Ensure only people who want to join take part (no financial incentives)

Offer support to ERG leaders (and align with DEI efforts)

Provide resources for events, software, time off-schedule, and psychological assistance; assure members of equal treatment, executive support, and equal funding

Keep expectations clear

Mitigate risk of workers breaking the rules or getting disappointed

Make professional development a key topic of discussion

Help members upskill, reskill and find opportunities within the company

Allow ERGs to collaborate and work together

Remove boundaries and increase the potential for innovation

Keep hiring processes unbiased, diverse, and inclusive

Boost ERG memberships, broaden hiring pool, encourage talented applicants looking for specific support

1. Keep ERG membership purely voluntary

Volunteer groups increase employee engagement and attract those who genuinely want to make a difference. Monetizing membership or promoting ideas within an ERG can lead to bribery and extortion. 

Those who remain, volunteers, do so if they want to influence employer-employee dynamics and create legitimate change.

2. Offer support to ERG leaders (and align with DEI efforts)

ERG leaders need to work hard to keep their members stimulated and on target.

You should provide willing leaders with resources to create varied discussions and help them engage with members.

Allocate budgets to ERG leadership for things like events, software, and time off-schedule. Provide physical and financial support. Meet regularly to check how ERGs are running and how they impact leaders.

When first setting up resource groups and establishing frameworks, approach executives at the same level. 

Ensure checks are in place so no groups go without when others are thriving. Encourage an inclusive company culture with open communication and mutual respect, where members and leaders raise concerns without reproach.

Aligning ERGs with your DEI framework helps to keep both facets well-informed and working towards the same goals. An ERG-informed DEI policy taps into the needs and interests of people actively participating in workplace change.

Think carefully about how to support your ERG leaders through DEI initiatives and apply them to all groups established.

3. Keep expectations clear

It’s unhealthy for workers to join ERGs with the expectation that they should immediately make sweeping changes to their company or to the detriment of executives.

With a clear understanding of legal and operational limits, members know what they can hope to accomplish.

Clear expectations help members measure potential influence in time, an important promotional tool.

Make chains of command, roles and responsibilities, and communication channels clear so members know who to turn to with concerns and when.

4. Make professional development a key topic of discussion

It’s a common misconception ERGs purely serve the “greater good” of the wider workplace. They work hard to represent individual workers who are potentially marginalized, too.

Open up individual professional development opportunities as key benefits for members. Consider implementing 1:1 coaching sessions either alongside or as part of membership.

Provide leaders with the tools to help members upskill and develop in line with their career prospects and interests and those opportunities opening up within the company.

Grant all ERG leaders access to talent mapping information, clearly showing where redeployment and promotion prospects lie.

Then, ensure ERGs offer mentorship opportunities between leaders and members and from one member to another.

Empower members to raise individual concerns and express their “employee voices.” 

Above all, show members and leaders that your employee resource groups bring people together to share knowledge and experience, and help others find their feet.

5. Allow ERGs to collaborate and work together

Barricading ERGs creates unhealthy cliques, resentment, and leads to potential bias. Moreover, creating rosters from scratch for each group is labor-intensive.

Opening up groups of employees with shared rosters removes the need to build new lists for each group.

Many work toward similar goals, too. Groups representing specific ethnicities and those representing women and nonbinary workers, for example, seek greater representation and more equality.

Working together enables a wider pool of innovation and ideas. Enable groups to interact through online channels, in-person events, and conferencing.

Keep goals and team structures clear between employee-led groups, too. Sometimes, resource unions encourage others toward their goals. This allyship creates a more cohesive working culture and boosts morale.

Ultimately, ERGs boost a company’s output (in terms of productivity and efficiency), and improve its internal and external reputation. Encouraging collaboration boosts this effect.

6. Keep hiring processes unbiased, diverse, and inclusive

You should already have a strong DEI strategy rooted in hiring without bias. Ideally, hire for skills instead of focusing purely on background, experience, or “meeting quotas.”

Continue to keep your DEI efforts and ERGs working towards the same goals. Let one help define the other and promote resource blocs by attracting a more diverse pool of talent.

Keep organizations inclusive and your hiring likewise. Remove barriers, and maximize the talent you bring onboard.

By maintaining groupings successfully, you encourage highly talented people to join and feel better represented than they could be at competing firms without ERGs.

Employee resource group planning: Help your workers help themselves

No inspiring DEI strategy is complete without at least a discussion about ERGs.

ERGs are more than just “unions.” Workers rely on them for career development, emotional support, and morale boosts.

The benefits of employee resource groups help business owners achieve:

  • Lower turnover rates

  • Happier workforces with more employee engagement

  • Higher rates of productivity

  • More intuitive talent mapping

  • Wider pools of talent to recruit from

  • Stronger DEI reputation (internally and externally)

Of course, the DEI puzzle is much more complex, though ERGs play an important part. Read our further guides to DEI initiatives elsewhere on our blog.

Then, take the first step towards a more unbiased hiring process, and start recruiting for skills as a priority.

Sign up for your free plan with us today, or why not book a free, 30-minute live demo with a member of our team who can show you what our software can do to improve your hiring processes and answer any questions you may have.

Sources

  1. Nobes, Caitlin. (February 7, 2022). “2022 Engagement and Retention Report”. Achievers. Retrieved May 22, 2023. https://www.achievers.com/resources/white-papers/workforce-institute-2022-engagement-and-retention-report/

  2. Casey, Judi. (2016). “Employee Resource Groups: A Strategic Business Resource for Today’s Workplace”. Boston College Center For Work & Family. Retrieved May 21, 2023. https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/centers/cwf/research/publications3/executivebriefingseries-2/ExecutiveBriefing\_EmployeeResourceGroups.pdf 

  3. “Customer Case Study: Building a more diverse and inclusive organization through mentorship”. (2022). Together. Retrieved May 21, 2023. https://www.togetherplatform.com/case-studies/king-games 

  4. “Military Support & Assistance Group At Bank Of America”. Vericada. Retrieved May 21, 2023. https://www.vercida.com/us/features/military-support-assistance-group-at-bank-of-america?company=386 

  5. Catalino, Natacha, et al. (December 7, 2022). “Effective employee resource groups are key to inclusion at work. Here’s how to get them right”. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved May 21, 2023. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/effective-employee-resource-groups-are-key-to-inclusion-at-work-heres-how-to-get-them-right

  6. Chambers, Steve; Ezeokeke, Emmanuel. (October 4, 2011). “The Contribution of Support Programs on Ethnic Minority Employee Retention”. Diversity Officer Magazine. Retrieved May 21, 2023. https://diversityofficermagazine.com/cultural-diversity-factoids/historical-issues/the-contribution-of-support-programs-on-ethnic-minority-employee-retention/

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