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  1. Blog
  2. Employer Resources
  3. June 2, 2021

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): What They Are & Why They’re Beneficial

And how employers can ensure they serve a real purpose

women in a circle touching hands
Photo courtesy of Hannah Busing

Many companies create employee resource groups as a way to empower workers and build a sense of community. As a leader, have you ever wanted to ensure that your employees feel safe to voice opinions? To encourage a diverse and inclusive work environment? To encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work? To strengthen employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention? If you answered yes to any of those questions, keep reading to learn why employee resource groups are integral to your efforts in all of these areas. 

Read more: Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference in the Workplace?

What are employee resource groups?

Employee resource groups (ERGs) are employer-recognized, employee-led groups that allow people with shared identities to build a community forum to discuss business and professional goals and share resources. The membership basis is typically formed by marginalized, underrepresented, or minority populations based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, parental status, and other defining characteristics. 

How did these groups first begin? In the 1960s, the first ERG was formed as a response to racial tensions and riots in Rochester, New York. Former Xerox CEO Joseph Wilson launched the National Black Employees Caucus alongside his employees in 1964 to create a space for Black workers to discuss their experiences at Xerox (headquartered in Rochester, NY) and advocate for change. Years later, Xerox founded the Black Women’s Leadership Caucus, an employee resource group to acknowledge the intersection of gender, race, and career aspirations. ERGs focusing on LGBTQ+ employees and allyship began forming in the 1970s and 80s, first introduced by HP.

Read more: Succession Planning: Building Diversity, Equity & Inclusion into Your Company’s Leadership Pipeline

What are the main types of ERGs?

Groups typically fall under four categories:

Diversity

These groups provide a safe space where minority employees can share ideas and anecdotes with a common goal of identifying how to raise awareness and overcome cultural, racial, ableist, and gendered challenges in the workplace. 

Volunteer

Employees who want to give back to the community may join a volunteer group to raise awareness for a social cause, promote special events, and collect charity donations. 

Affinity

These groups allow individuals with shared interests and hobbies like reading, bike riding, or cooking to build deeper personal connections and socialize outside work. 

Professional development

Employees looking to develop and advance their careers join professional development groups to network with coworkers across various experience levels, learn valuable leadership skills like public speaking or coding, and find mentors

5 benefits of employee resource groups

Employee resource groups have a myriad of advantages that not only benefit the individuals within the groups, but also positively affect the entire company and workplace culture, sending a message that leadership is dedicated to propelling diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and building a culture of allyship. 

1. Employees can elevate issues to leadership

Employees who feel their voice is heard at work are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work. And oftentimes, an issue raised collectively to management from a group will be more effective and impactful than a single complaint from an individual. By coming together in smaller, more intimate settings, employees and their sponsors, advocates, and allies are empowered to speak more openly about their concerns, spurring discussions on how to create solutions and long-lasting change.

Read more: 9 TED Talks That Will Make You a Better Ally

2. ERGs increase employee engagement and job satisfaction

More than one-third (36 percent) of organizations view employee engagement as a top workforce management challenge. The good news is that research shows that offering ERGs is one of the most popular methods to actively manage and drive employee engagement since they create a sense of community and belonging. “We spend so much of our time working, and with opportunities for socializing at an all-time low this year, the connections that we have with our employers and coworkers are even more meaningful. When employees feel belonging, they feel supported, seen, and more comfortable to engage and be productive in their work,” Dana Hundley and Jenna Richardson, the cofounders of Career Cooperative, told InHerSight in December 2020, amid the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

3. Companies can attract and retain more talent from underrepresented groups

ERGs make happier employees, and happier employees stay at companies longer when they are part of a strong community.(Also, turnover is expensive.) Since ERGS are a tangible way of showing how employers genuinely care about and prioritize DEI, they’re vital to attracting a more diverse pool of talent, not just retaining current workers. 

Read more: 7 Hidden Ways Companies Can Buy Into Gender Equality Fast

4. ERGs build a leadership talent pipeline

DEI isn’t just about getting people in the door to reach a quota, it’s about enabling them to climb the ladder to the C-suite. By fostering a learning environment within these groups, employees from underrepresented groups are able to deepen their expertise in the soft and hard skills required for leadership positions. Plus, employees who are networking with senior executives within ERGs have more chances to get recognized as a qualified candidate for a promotion or raise. 

5. ERGs increase visibility of identity and intersectionality 

Intersectionality looks at the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, sexual oritentation, and gender, and offers a way to understand the complexity of identity and compounded discrimination. Diversity resource groups provide an avenue for educating other non-minority employees on how certain identities intersect with workplace issues and how more privileged employees can use their positions to help enact positive changes. 

Read more: Introduction to Intersectionality: 8 Ways Identity Affects Employment

5 ways employers can help create successful ERGs

Leaders should use their positions of power to create employee resource groups that serve a real purpose. Creating the group is just the beginning—here are five ways employers can follow through to help their employees get the most out of their groups. 

1. Offer executive sponsorship

Executive sponsors are employees in senior leadership and management positions who act as the liaison between the group and the company’s leadership team, advocating for an ERG’s needs to the appropriate decision-makers. Leadership buy-in is vital to the success of an ERG since sponsors can suggest new initiatives to the leadership team and improve visibility of the group’s contributions. An executive sponsor should feel personally committed to the group’s cause and be comfortable putting their privilege on the line for the benefit of the group.

2. Provide financial support

When starting an ERG, executive funding is a top priority. Consider how much of your company budget you’re willing to carve out for your employee resource groups and how you plan to distribute funds among multiple groups. You’ll need to lay out a plan for how groups will access money and how often they’ll receive payments. Dedicating money to your employee resource groups will strengthen your business efficiency in the long run, so investing more money in groups now might yield higher profits in the future. 

Read more: 10 Questions to Ask a Prospective Employer About Their Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

3. Develop a plan with human resources

Map out a SMART plan with human resources to ensure goals will be met. Keep in mind that in order for HR to provide proficient guidance, support, and education, they’ll need a clear mission to follow. When creating your plan and mission, start by asking questions like:

  • Who is the company trying to reach, market to, employ, and retain? 

  • Where do group members think missed opportunities are? 

  • How can we engage groups as problem-solvers and resources? 

  • What can we provide that’s critical to the business in the short-term and long-term? 

  • What unique, transformational role can we play? 

Offer organizational resources (charter documentation, workshop exercises, roadmapping templates, budget tracking tools, communication platform access, etc) to your groups to help them document membership and measure their impact on the workplace. 

4. Advertise and promote events

To ensure maximum awareness, promote your employees’ special events, workshops, conferences, and activities. Create an email newsletter or landing page dedicated specifically to ERGs to keep both members and the rest of your staff updated on happenings, news, and thought leadership content. When possible, assist with the scheduling of events to coincide when other employees are likely to be free to attend and offer to help find event speakers. 

5. Ensure employees feel safe & heard

Since two of the main points of these groups are community and increased visibility, it’s important that employers create open lines of communication so that employees feel safe enough to express themselves and know that they’ll see visible change stem from the feedback they provide. (Aka, be prepared to listen, advocate on their behalf, and report back with updates in a timely manner.) Additionally, in order to be authentic, it’s imperative that sponsors offer mentorship, financial support, and guidance without ever taking any autonomy away from the group. Although this experience involves you, it is not about you, and that’s important.

Read more: 3 Essential Steps to Allyship in Times of Crisis

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Photo of Cara Hutto

Cara Hutto

Contributor

Cara Hutto is a freelance writer and the former assistant editor at InHerSight. Her writing primarily focuses on workplace rights, job searching, culture, and food, and she holds a bachelor’s degree in media and journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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