Organizations widely utilize Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as tools to amplify the voices of underrepresented employees and to create an inclusive workplace. These groups become positive forces for female, BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, and veteran employees, as they create empowering spaces for people of shared, marginalized identities. But as we increasingly focus on scaling the business impact of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs, we must do the same for ERGs. Evolving your ERGs means increasingly expanding their influence, broadening their stakeholder engagement, thinking through leadership compensation, and understanding where the right starting point is for your organization.
Shifting the Center of Gravity: Expanding Charters and Activities
The discussion on evolving your Employee Resource Groups starts with 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.”
Upscaling the value of your Employee Resource Groups means directing their growth towards business performance and societal engagement. It’s time to expand their focus from creating comfort and connection to contribution. In terms of charter focus, this looks like moving 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 shift ERGs to be universally impactful if they lack universal stakeholdership? The way to stop siloing issues of diversity to diverse employees is to make those issues universal themselves.
The second issue to consider 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 women’s or Black ERG.
The answers to these issues lie within intersectionality and allyship. Tomorrow’s ERG ecosystems balance engaging groups in issues they don’t identify with while also creating groups around issues of common concern to members of different groups.
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 used as teams to innovate and build cross-functional solutions for customer and employee needs, not to mention develop 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, updating your ERGs successfully means having a clear plan of action beyond influence and stakeholdership. This starts with looking at how you view ERG performance as it stands, asking yourself 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. ERGs lie at the intersections of internal and external planning, stakeholders, and impact. Understanding how to leverage ERGs for both business and culture benefits can be a litmus test for the durability of your entire diversity strategy.