Is Your Organization Ready to Support Employee Resource Groups?

Dec 2, 2021 | All Blogs, Diversity, Employee Resource Groups, Leadership, Talent Advisement Resources, Values

There may be a group of exhausted employees within your organization. 

They may have begun gathering on their own time to offer each other support, networking, and a space for their shared identity. We’ve seen these groups form because employees need a space to be seen with their difference and their needs. We’ve seen groups form around many kinds of identities—people of color, women, LGBTQ, differently-abled, neurodiverse, parents, caregivers, etc.

Naturally, these groups need leaders to organize and sustain their meetings. These leaders carry a sense of responsibility for the group and its members’ needs, and they often do the work alone. Often, in addition to their day-to-day work responsibilities. 

Which means they get burned out. 

Connecting over our identities at a deeper level takes effort, commitment, vulnerability, and time. And it’s frustrating to know that your organization isn’t supporting or compensating these efforts, nor is the leadership incorporating the needs of their employees into the work culture.

These leaders are your exhausted people. They’re doing work that has a major impact on your organization because it’s supporting your people, and that work can no longer remain invisible. 

Today, we’re digging into how your organization can support or start Employee Resource Groups, how you can recognize, compensate, and institutionalize supporting your people, and what kind of impact you can expect when people who feel marginalized have safe spaces within work.

Defining Employee Resource Groups

You may be familiar with or even already have Affinity Groups in your organization. People organically form these unofficial groups because they are seeking safety. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are similar, in that they are a shared space for people with typically marginalized identities to find each other and find support. In addition to this function, ERGs can serve as a resource to the larger organization. They can, for example, organize recognition or celebration of Pride, Black History Month, APIA Month, Women’s History Month, Indigenous People’s Day, etc., that includes members’ own learning and experiences. ERGs can help shape HR policies, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and other kinds of strategic planning.

An ERG Case Study

A law firm we work with recently underwent an ERG transformation. The firm has offices in multiple U.S. cities as well as across Europe, and employees report that their roles can often feel siloed, without much cross-conversation or collaboration. 

A few years ago, a women’s group emerged in response to concerns and challenges around gender equity. The summer of George Floyd’s murder, Black employees formed a support group in response to the urgent crisis of employee distress and lack of safety. An LGBTQ group later emerged with the same kind of responsiveness and need for safety, solidarity, and resources at work.

Employees who started showing up in these groups began to break through their silos. Black attorneys across offices and across continents were now connecting. Female attorneys shared stories about promotions and raises. LGBTQ attorneys gained insight into new and potential clients, and all kinds of other issues that real networking gives you access to. Individuals came to their groups to leverage knowledge and help each other make better decisions about their careers.

While the firm recognized the work and the value of these employee groups, they failed to provide official support. The firm actually tapped individuals to take on the leadership of the groups, but without compensation, time, or funding. Then they offered a list of these leaders to engage with Leverage to Lead when we first began our values excavation. And we found, as expected, exhausted people burned out from doing unpaid work.

The Impact of ERGs

Helping each de facto ERG gain clarity and agency was our first task. We held sessions on how ERGs can be seen as a group with shared identities and collective power, but also how each person is an individual who can advocate for their needs within the larger organization. And the firm took steps to institutionalize ERGs, offering bonuses to leaders and making ERGs part of their larger diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. 

Today, the firm has seven ERGs, including neurodiverse, differing abilities, Latinx, and Asian groups. At a recent session, Leverage to Lead watched the leaders of these seven groups connect and coalesce in a new and exciting way. While they shared experiences of marginalization across ERGs, there was a breakthrough moment. The conversation turned toward action, planning, and solutions. Their stories connected them but didn’t trap them in the pain or trauma. Individuals began expressing desire for change, and suddenly there emerged a coalition of ERGs, steeped in solidarity and focused on leveraging their identities to improve the entire company culture.

On an individual level, one Black female employee notices a change in ERG leaders when they engage with the whole organization. The ERG has taught them that they have real agency over their experiences, which produces confidence, which in turn brings them more opportunities because people are drawn to leaders with agency. In the end, the whole firm benefits from better leaders who can bring out the best work in others.

Institutionalizing your ERG

Your organization’s ERG should be sustainable, proactive, resourced, and folded into the fabric of the work culture. There are some practical ways you can enact this—writing job descriptions that include ERG participation or leadership; ensuring that ERG work is part of performance reviews and accountability measures; making ERG work visible across your organization; compensating people for ERG work; offering leadership training.

Systemically, ERGs only work when your organization understands and acknowledges the impact of the dominant culture. Without understanding our own socialization, privilege, marginalization, or default dominant culture, we can’t fully grasp how oppressive and isolating our own workplace can be for some. The dominant culture, and certain identities who are made to feel outside the norm, are the reasons ERGs exist. 

Unless we identify the dominant culture, and make it part of our work culture conversation, the default behavioral expectation will be assimilation—the very expectation that may prevent people from joining an ERG in the first place, out of fear of being seen as a threat, a malcontent, a bad team player, a disruptor.

Why ERGs are Part of a Values Excavation?

We work in phases at Leverage to Lead, which means transforming organizations happens in steps and over time. In our work, ERGs are part of Phase III. Organizations shouldn’t just decide to form them, nor should they jump to institutionalize the ones that may have formed organically among employees. Instead, they should start with their values.

Here’s what we mean: we start with getting clear on your company’s values, then your commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Then we create a plan for supporting and living those values—ERGs might be part of that plan. In short, you have to know why you’re creating any ERG. You have to know what values this group will support. 

An ERG needs a direction and a purpose explicitly tied to your larger company values. It must be operationalized with intention and accountability. It must have complete buy-in from your leaders.

If your organization is ready to examine your values and support employees, reach out to anyone on our team. We would love to help make Employee Resource Groups part of your organizational transformation.

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