Sarah Cordivano
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Sarah Cordivano

Q&A: Common questions on Employee Resource Groups

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Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

I’ve given a lot of thought to how to run successful Employee Resource Groups with strong governance, clear strategies and realistic goals. I’ve put a lot of these ideas into a series of blog posts on the topic of ERGs which you can find on Medium.

Starting your Employee Resource Group: A Guide for Employees
Understanding Employee Resource Group: A Guide for Organizations
Recognizing and rewarding the work of Employee Resource Groups

But still, a lot of questions come up on the topic of ERGs, especially for people just becoming familiar with them. I’ll tackle some of the common questions to help provide a little more information and clarity on how to succeed with your ERG.

What is an Employee Resource Group?

Employee Resource Groups (or ERGs) are employee identity or experience-based groups that center around building community. ERGs are sometimes known as Employee Networks or Affinity Groups. ERGs are generally based on providing support and contributing to personal and professional development in the work environment.

How do ERGs fit into a diverse and inclusive organization?

ERGs can have many different roles within an organization depending on how the ERG program is designed. I’ve found these three roles to be most common.

  1. ERGs increase the inclusion of employees who are members of a specific community and give them a unified voice with which to make decisions
  2. ERGs collaborate with the business on projects that relate to their community. This could include HR-related topics such as an internship initiative or external projects such as a customer focussed initiative that impacts the ERGs community.
  3. ERGs build a strong community that supports the members and their particular needs which could include topics like representation, professional development, visibility or networking.

What do ERGs NOT do?

ERGs should never be the sole drivers of organizational DEI, they should be working in coordination with the DEI team. ERGs should not be delegated business-critical work or projects unless this is a specific collaborative project they’d like to support. They should not be in an ombudsman role or managing any sort of legal process such as harassment reporting. Organizations may have other specific areas that ERGs do not focus on, so it really may depend.

Can ERGs really have a significant impact on a big organization?

Yes, but ERGs are a small part of a much broader approach to impactful DEI. I don’t think they can be expected to accomplish broad organizational change, but that’s also not their role — ERG organizers have their own full-time jobs. They can not (and shouldn’t be expected to) launch company-wide strategic DEI initiatives.

In order for DEI to be truly impactful, the leadership team needs to be bought in on the work and need to show their commitment to top-down by dedicating resources, time and priority to drive DEI initiatives outside of the scope of ERGs. ERGs should never be the sole drivers of DEI within a workplace, it is simply too much of a responsibility. To understand more about what type of commitment is necessary for a successful approach to DEI, check out my blog on the trust cost of DEI.

What role do ERGs play in successfully implementing an organization’s DEI strategy?

ERGs should not be the drivers of an organization’s DEI strategy but they should be involved. Here’s how they can play a role:

  • Provide feedback on DEI initiatives such as what questions to be asked in a DEI survey or advise on the content of trainings
  • Get the word out about initiatives relevant to their communities such as a mentorship program
  • Represent ERG members on a relevant governing body such as a DEI council

How can a new ERG organize so that we are set for success?

In order to not become overwhelmed, start small with these simple steps:

  1. Find an executive-level sponsor who is willing to mentor your ERG and put their visibility behind your work (Check out this guide: Executive sponsors of High Performing ERGs — Jennifer Brown)
  2. Identify or elect a leadership team for your ERG (this could include a chair, co-chair and additional roles such as Communication, Event Organizer, Member outreach coordination and more)
  3. With the leadership team in place, discuss what you want to achieve. Then develop a strategy with 3–4 concrete and achievable goals for the year with one or two initiatives per goal. It’s better to start with very clear, concrete goals that you think you will be able to achieve.
  4. Meanwhile, take some time to understand what work on DEI is already happening in your organization. Make sure to not duplicate any of that effort but support or advise where appropriate.
  5. And lastly, begin working towards your concrete and achievable goals. You can grow your ambition moving ahead, but starting small will make sure you have a few early wins to be proud of.

What can allies do to support an ERG even if they are not part of that community?

Everyone can be an ally no matter who they are.

  1. Start by going on your own learning journey to really understand your own identity and privilege. Then take time to understand the community you want to support by reading about intersectionality, allyship and the specific challenges that the community faces through structural or systemic discrimination or inequality.
  2. Offer to support with your time, especially on the more tedious or mundane tasks that are less fun. This can be a big lifesaver for an ERG who has limited time from their members.
  3. Read into the concept of Sponsorship (as opposed to mentorship) to see if there are opportunities to support through sponsorship. (Ted Talk: Find the person who can help you get ahead at work)
  4. Rolemodel inclusive and supportive behaviors even when members of the community are not present. Make sure you set an example of what allyship looks like to others.
  5. Share information and opportunities to help change the reality of opportunities being locked within an exclusionary club.

How can ERGs organize virtually?

Virtual working unlocks a lot of opportunities for inclusion for ERGs.

  1. Organize monthly virtual meetings to check on the status of the initiatives Between meetings, encourage small working groups to drive projects on their own.
  2. Schedule for a time where many people can join, even if they are across time zones.
  3. Create recordings of important meetings so people can catch up after if needed
  4. Don’t forget to still organize fun, social events. For example organize a Recipe Night where everyone cooks the same recipe during a casual, fun video call.

What are some digital tools that ERGs can use to help them organize better?

  • A project management tool like Trello, Asana or Jira can help you organize your planned initiatives for the year and delegate ownership of tasks to members. This is great for asynchronous work because everyone can update the board on their own time.
  • Meeting platforms that offer captioning or live translations of meetings which will make them more accessible
  • A Miro board (or another type of virtual whiteboard) can help you brainstorm or collect ideas collaboratively virtually
  • Lastly check Teleparty, a netflix app that lets several people synch up and watch the same movie together and chat along the way.

How can the leadership team support ERGs?

The most obvious approach would be to serve as a sponsor for the ERGs. If those spots are already taken, leaders can also offer to mentor the ERGs (through on-the-spot mentorship or guidance sessions) or make connections to key stakeholders to unlock doors for the ERGs. Also, leaders can give visibility to the ERGs by lending their names for blog posts or acknowledging the networks in company meetings. And lastly, leaders can champion the ERG to their peers by talking about their success and how other leaders can get involved.

How can an employee contribute to an ERG without investing too much time?

It’s so easy to over-invest and get burnt out on ERG work. Here are a few quick ideas to be protective of your time and careful not to over-commit:

  • Be realistic and manage your own expectations — the possibilities of what ERGs can achieve in the workplace is not the same as what grassroots activist organizations can achieve out in the world. Start small and build your ambitions over time as you accomplish your first projects and establish more stakeholder relationships.
  • Identify very self-contained initiatives that support the ERGs strategy and are also interesting and fulfilling for you. Here are a few to consider: Post a once-per-month month blog series, curate a resource list of books and videos, organize a book club, conduct a simple Interview series where you ask leaders a short number of questions and publish in regular blogs

Final thoughts

Remember: make sure the work you do is impactful for your community, your company and personally fulfilling for you. And of course, do everything you can to make sure you are recognized for this work and it is perceived by others, especially your manager, as contributing to your professional growth!

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This publication explores practical diversity, equity and inclusion guidance for driving change in a global working environment. Header photo credit: @aznbokchoy on Unsplash.

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Sarah Cordivano

Sarah Cordivano

Community Building, Equity, Inclusion and Maps. Former Philadelphian, Current Berliner. Twitter @mapadelphia & LinkedIn.

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