Most companies are interested in nurturing a more inclusive environment so that people of all backgrounds, perspectives and walks of life feel safe, seen, heard and valued in the workplace. But inclusive workplaces don't just happen - they take cultivation, nurturing and intentionality. Employee resource groups ("ERGs") are a key way for employees to create the kind of environment they want to work in, and companies that invest in ERGs in the right way can get many times the return on investment.
Here are the basic steps to building an ERG program:
Lay the Foundation
Establish criteria - what is an ERG? ERG's are different from interest groups, and shouldn't be about shared interests or activities. Rather, ERGs should focus on creating positive environments (safe spaces) for groups that face unique and systemic challenges based on shared immutable characteristics. By "immutable," I mean characteristics that are innate to one's identity, or aspects of one's self that cannot change. Immutable characteristics include gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, disability, veteran status, parental status, immigration status, and cultural or even religious affiliation. Defining what an ERG is and isn't is important before launching an ERG program.
[Related: Employee Resource Groups at Glassdoor]
Establish a Structure
ERGs should have a consistent leadership structure and processes. Consistency will help drive collaboration and organization across different ERG groups. Most successful ERGs that I've seen have a few consistent characteristics:
- Co-Chairs - Shared leadership responsibility lightens the load on any one individual and fosters collaboration, communication, and diversity of thought.
- Pillar Leads - ERGs should recruit at least 2-6 "pillar leads" that report to the co-chairs. Each pillar lead takes a different area of responsibility, such as:
- Business - adding value to business teams by ensuring that key business decisions are made with equity and inclusion in mind.
- Education - Plans and executes events that help educate the broader employee population about issues facing the community.
- Events - Plan and execute heritage month celebrations, social events, and outings.
- Community - Plan and execute community volunteering and giving events to enhance employer brand, and support communities in need with vital resources.
- Executive Sponsors - Each ERG should have at least one executive sponsor that reports directly to the CEO. Additional sponsors can be added as necessary.
- Diversity Council - Co-Chairs of each ERG are automatically added to a company-wide diversity council that meets regularly. At least one meeting per quarter should include the CEO. This fosters accountability and collaboration, and demonstrates company commitment to hearing underrepresented voices at the highest level.
- Budget - each ERG should have a budget to use at their discretion for training including conferences, swag, speakers, events, food, and outings. Additional budget can be allocated for community giving grants at the discretion of each ERG.
[Related: What Is Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging?]
Share the Vision and Start Recruiting
Establish credibility. In order for ERGs to form, the D&I/People/HR team must show they can create a positive environment (safe spaces). Make intentional outreach to diverse leaders across the organization, and start to share the vision for your ERG program.
Share the vision for ERGs at an all-company event and make sure everyone knows why they're important.The CEO should express visible, vocal support for the program, backed up by investment in time, money and influence.
Establish an easy, safe way for individuals to express interest in taking a leadership role with an ERG. Have clear job responsibilities, time commitments, and company support outlined.
Use a combination of formal and informal communication channels to get the word out and solicit volunteers. While announcements should be made in company-wide forums to ensure that information and opportunities are communicated broadly and effectively, also rely on leaders to leverage their personal networks within the company to encourage ERG involvement.
Set up regular meetings with each ERG, and with each group of pillar leads. Pillar lead meetings across ERGs are important to drive collaboration and an inclusive approach to the work that each ERG does.
Set up at least a quarterly meeting amongst the co-chairs (diversity council), and ensure that exec sponsors and the CEO will attend. Actively plan the agenda for each diversity council meeting so that time is well spent on topics that are timely and relevant to all parties.
Establish a process for ERGs to plan and execute events. The D&I/People team should advise on each proposed event to ensure the topic aligns with the overarching D&I strategy, and that the event will be conducted in an inclusive way. A close partnership with the facilities/events team is important.
Integrate with the Business
One of the major benefits that an ERG program can offer is through involvement and integration with key business decisions. Find opportunities for ERG leads to be seen as advisors, consultants, and decision-makers. Some common areas to include ERG leader input include - company-wide events & celebrations, marketing campaigns, product design, branding,
ERGs are often seen as a community building tool - and they are. But the vision for an ERG program can and should extend far beyond community building. I believe, and I've seen first hand that ERGs can do great things. They can be a source of innovation and inspiration. They can be activists for positive change. They can be advisors and consultants. They can be change makers, and visionaries. They can be signposts pointing the way to a more inclusive, equitable world. They should be supported and nurtured - there's no doubt the investment is worthwhile.
Learn more: Diversity & Inclusion Checklist