Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are vital platforms for identity affirmation and advocacy in the workplace; they are incredibly positive forces for female, BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, and veteran employees, as they create empowering spaces for people of shared, marginalized identities.
But as we face increased pressure to prove the value of ERGs to a broader set of stakeholders, it’s time for us to evaluate the ROI of current practices and identify where improvements could yield better results. Rethinking the ERG playbook means covering everything from existential questions about purpose to practical questions about investment.
Shifting the Center of Gravity: Expanding Charters and Activities
Start the discussion on evolving your Employee Resource groups by identifying where they currently land and where you want them to go. Most companies charter their Employee Resource Groups between internal community building and advocacy, and talent management. They focus on comfort and connection between employees, and their charters typically employ language around “employee well-being” and “culture shift.”
To upscale the value of your Employee Resource Groups, direct their growth towards business performance and societal engagement. Expand their focus from creating comfort and connection to contribution. In terms of charter focus, move from centers of engagement and development to business integration and responsibility.
A Model Under Pressure: Stakeholder Conflict
Maximizing the impact of your ERGs is no small undertaking– in fact, the larger the sphere of influence, the more personnel you need to execute your plan. But internal tensions between different stakeholders can thwart your efforts to expand the influence of your ERGs, leaving them stuck in an internally siloed arena.
To start, most representative ERG ecosystems struggle to obtain buy-in from in-group majorities, namely white men. How do you make ERGs universally impactful if they lack universal stakeholdership? Rather than siloing issues of diversity to diverse employees, make those issues universal to your entire organization.
A related issue is the friction between ERGs themselves. Identity is usually multi-layered, yet we continue to match ERGs to singular identity characteristics. For example, Black women lie at the intersection of racism and misogyny, a particular experience not necessarily met by participating in either or both a Black or women’s ERG.
The answers lie within intersectionality and allyship. Tomorrow’s ERG ecosystems engage groups in issues with which they may not identify while also bringing the members of different groups together around issues of common concern.
The Compensation Question
Compensating ERG leaders is a must-have part of the evolving ERG discussion, but it requires a high degree of nuance. ERGs can be teams that innovate and build cross-functional solutions for customer and employee needs, not to mention develop diverse talent. However, in the current context of siloed group ERGs, compensating leads creates a series of incentives and disincentives that should be explored. On a larger scale, the discussion on compensating leaders is just one part of the integration of your ERG ecosystem with business outcomes.
Preparing for Evolved ERGs
Finally, successfully update your ERGs by designing a clear plan of action beyond influence and stakeholdership. This starts with looking at how you view ERG performance as it stands, asking the following questions:
- The “Why”: What benefits do employees expect ERGs to deliver for them? What benefits do you expect ERGs to deliver for your company? Who is your focus and what are your priorities? Is everyone on the same page?
- DEI Context: How (and how much) do ERGs contribute to your company’s overall DEI strategy? What else is your company doing to pursue your DEI-related goals? How important are ERGs to employees, and to your company, in the grand scheme of things?
- Patterns of Performance: To what extent are ERGs delivering the benefits employees and your company expect? Are the results consistent or uneven across ERGs? Do ERG leaders, executive sponsors and DEI managers receive meaningful feedback and see the situation in a similar light? Are ERG members and your company more broadly aware of the successes? Are we learning from what works and what doesn’t?
- Untapped Opportunities: How could you improve ERG performance? What else could ERGs (as an established platform) do for employees and your company?
- Unintended Consequences: What potential downsides, if any, do ERGs present for your company? Is there any evidence that ERGs are hindering progress against DEI or other company goals or that there are hidden costs?
Employee Resource Groups are just one part of the DEI overhaul taking place across companies and industries, but they are too important to neglect. Understanding how to leverage them for both business and culture benefits can be a litmus test for the durability of your entire diversity strategy.