Employee resource groups (ERGs) are a highly effective tool for creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace. These employee-led initiatives provide space for people from similar backgrounds or identities to discuss their experiences, unpack shared challenges, and identify opportunities for improvement within their organization.
Although ERGs have existed for decades, they’ve become increasingly popular in recent years as more companies prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But getting an ERG program off the ground isn’t always easy, and failing to get it right can cause additional challenges.
So how can you make sure you avoid mistakes and develop effective and powerful employee resource groups?
To learn more, we sat down with a few leading experts in our recent webinar, Supercharging Your Employee Resource Groups. Here’s what they recommend:
4 Tips to Develop Highly Impactful ERGs
1. Invest Wholeheartedly
One of the biggest challenges DEI leaders face when building ERG programs is obtaining funding. And successful ERGs exist at companies with budgets of all sizes, financial support drives more powerful outcomes. It allows groups to create more meaningful experiences for their participants, which has a ripple effect across the organization.
“When folks have a little bit of coin, they’re able to do more things,” says Aisha Losche, Senior Vice President, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Hill Holiday. “That has been a huge key to success for our employee resource groups — to be able to form and have events, pay speakers to come in, and have our executive leadership participate as executive sponsors.”
Taking time to identify a few things you’d like to do and estimating costs for these initiative will help ensure you’re prepared for budget conversations with senior decision-makers. And that brings us to our next point.
2. Ensure Leadership is Engaged
When done well, an ERG can help pinpoint specific issues holding the company back from achieving DEI goals, ensure people from underrepresented groups are heard, raise cultural awareness, and promote allyship. But, if ERGs and groups’ missions aren’t adequately supported by leadership, participants often take on a significant amount of additional work without seeing meaningful change or results.
“You can have an erg that has a lot of parties, a lot of socials,” says Helon Hammond, Managing Director of Technical Operations, Maintenance, Execution, and Corporate Safety Programs at United Airlines. “But who can influence the actual change at your company? Who can turn the dial on the recruiting, the retention, the diversifying of your workplace?”
She explains that getting leadership involved means identifying their objectives and sharing specifically how an ERG will help achieve those goals with their support.
“You have to talk their language,” Helon says. “You have to say, ‘this is the value add, this is the return on investment’… so when you start saying, ‘Hey, this is what we're gonna do for the company, and I need your support,’ then you have their attention.”
Aisha recommends being straightforward with senior leaders about precisely what you need and even outlining the expected roles and responsibilities, so they know what their involvement will look like.
“One thing that we did was create an executive sponsor job description because sometimes folks who dabble in the ERG space may not understand what's being asked of them,” she says. By outlining the mission, values, and metrics necessary to measure performance on KPIs, leaders will be prepared to ensure the ERG’s success.
3. Focus on Storytelling
Sometimes DEI efforts lose steam because it can be difficult to determine whether or not your efforts are driving positive change. Participants, leaders, and the rest of the workforce can become disengaged if they don’t have clear evidence that ERGs are moving the needle.
And that’s where storytelling can offer tremendous power.
“Tell your story. Because if they don't see it, and they don't hear about it, sometimes they’ll question if it’s truly making a difference,” Helon says. “I make sure that, in everything we do, that we tell our story and hear from those that are being impacted. And I think any CEO would just relish in knowing their company is truly changing for the better because of this work.”
Devin McElhenny, Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Learning and Development at Bowery Farming, agrees. “You have the ability to tell your story with authenticity that will make space for others to share their story,” she says. “It's a beautiful domino effect.”
By combining qualitative data in the form of real employee accouts and quantitative data from your DEI platform, you’ll have compelling evidence to share with the organization and can prove your hard work is driving results.
4. Don’t Operate in a Silo
When ERGs operate in isolation, it’s easy for participants to become overwhelmed, overburdened, and burnt out. That’s because achieving diversity goals requires cooperation from the entire organization — not just from those in historically underrepresented groups. As a DEI leader, it’s crucial you encourage ERGs to share their challenges, efforts, and outcomes with other ERGs as well as with the whole company.
“We don't want to design for people in a silo,” Devin says. “We're really transparent about where we're getting it right and where we're not making enough progress. We do an organization-wide report every six months. And the purpose of doing that is to empower people to take accountability, and to keep DEI top of mind.”
And for companies with a distributed workforce, it’s important to leverage digital spaces — which has been one benefit of the new remote-first model many organizations have adopted.
“When we moved to working virtually, there were folks meeting each other across the board, and they were they were able to connect with people in other offices,” says Tony Martin, Senior Manager of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at TripAdvisor. He says ERG participation grew significantly. “We saw people being like, ‘Hey, I would have never connected with this individual in Barcelona,’ and now we're getting them engaged in these groups.”
Launching employee resource groups can be one of the most powerful things you can do to support your DEI initiatives and ensure people from underrepresented groups can be heard, seen, and experience a sense of community. And, sometimes, the largest hurdle to founding an ERG is the first step.
So how can you start to turn your idea into action?
“Schedule a Zoom meeting to start to like rumble with the idea,” Devin says. “See who can be your influencers across the organization who may have a passion for the topic, but might just need some structure or direction.”
By taking that first step, and following the other recommendations from these leading experts, you’ll be well on your way to creating an influential ERG program and meeting your most ambitious DEI objectives.