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Iryna Viter

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) & How They Can Transform Workplace Culture

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) contribute to a more inclusive, engaged, and innovative workplace, ultimately benefiting both employees and the organization as a whole. Here's all you need to know about ERGs.

Employee resource groups herald a new age in the workplace culture. They go in one bucket with 4-day business week, flexible work hours, remote work opportunities, workplace transparency, and extended paid parental leave.

All of these adjustments are meant to enhance workplace productivity and job satisfaction by putting employees in the center of attention, making them a higher or at least an equal priority next to the company's commercial success.

Employee resource groups have been around for a long time and now that they are exponentially growing in popularity, more and more communities are recognizing their value both to employees and employers.

Let's find out why.

What are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)? 

Employee resource groups are voluntary employee-led communities that aim at uniting people in the workplace depending on their shared interest or characteristic, like lifestyle, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc.

In their core, employee resource groups are all about developing a sense of belonging, diversity, and inclusion. These groups serve many purposes and are being promoted by leading market employers. They help people unite around a common denominator, giving them support, safety, and a sense of belonging.

In fact, the first ERG dates back to the 1960s. It was a race-based employee group created during the time of racial tensions with the support of Xerox and the company's CEO at the time, Joseph Wilson.

According to McKinsey, 90% of Fortune 500 companies already have ERGs, which are key for ensuring inclusion at work. ERGs are not just a valuable place of belonging for employees — it is also a way for employers to identify the special needs of their people and find ways to meet them.

With the long way they have come, many EGRs today tend to be well-organized, driven by specific missions and strategies.They also help companies achieve their DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) goals.

So how do these groups work?

It all starts with the volunteers who either initiate the group or choose to join an existing one. In these groups, you have participants and their leader elected by the group or appointed by the supervisor. Such groups organize events and activities, participate in recruitment campaigns, assist in employee engagement plans, and act as advisors in business decisions and activities. They also act as advocates for social change, throwing light on the topics that deserve more attention within the organization.

Are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) important?

The value of employee resource groups is multi-layered, and it is both the ERG leaders and the ERG members that benefit from them.

For employees

  • Improving work conditions for alienated groups. Not all groups are able to be physically present with their colleagues - some because they are working remotely, while others because they are not able to be there for some other reason. This often results into a marginalized community and underrepresented groups where employees feel detached from each other and the company they are working for. Inviting them to join a group can help their sense of belonging intensify and create social opportunities that are tailored to their unique life situation.
  • Boosting overall work setup for all employees. There is a standard for what an office should be like. However, many groups feel excluded because their needs, like a gender-neutral bathroom, special diet company meals, or visually accessible working place are just not accounted for. Instead, they need to make do with what is provided for the general public, putting their special needs to the side.
  • Uniting people and giving them a safe place to speak. Want it or not, things like sexual harassment (often coming from the senior management group), racial or ethnical discrimination, and hate speech are still present in the workplace. Creating these intimate groups where people can speak freely about their workplace experiences helps identify and tackle workplace challenges, giving employees the type of workspace they can actually enjoy and thrive.
  • Fostering leadership skills. It's not easy for people to show and develop their leadership skills, whether it is because of fear of being judged, insecurity, lack of experience, or other reasons. ERGs help people feel at ease and take a lot of pressure off, which helps people share their unique capabilities and feel the support of other group members.
  • Giving people a voice. Effective employee resource groups encourage people to talk about their concerns and give them this collective voice which can influence organizational initiatives, policies, and practices.
  • Promoting inclusivity, diversity, and representation. One of the main benefits that comes along with these business network groups is that it encourages diversity initiatives and reinforces fair representation within the organization. For example, an ERG group could participate in the company's talent acquisition campaign to bridge the gender gap in the workplace. It could also stand for bringing transparency into the issue of gender pay gap in the workplace and solve it should that prove to be an existing issue.

For employers

  • Solving company challenges. It's not uncommon for company issues to get silenced and backfire when there is little that can be done to improve the situation. Employee resource groups give employees that safety to speak about the issues at their onset so company management has enough opportunities to take action.
  • Improving employee morale. Employee resource groups help people feel heard and cared for, they show that employers care about what their people are interested in, passionate about, and concerned with. They give employees a clear message that they are valued and appreciated in their workplace, that they will receive help, support, and understanding when they need it.
  • Improving recruitment and retention. As a company that encourages ERG groups, you are always more competitive on the job market. These days people choose their next workplace not only based on the job description, but also based on the values the company stands for. Being clear on what you believe in and how you treat your employees is a strong statement for an employer. Besides, having a healthy environment that encourages career development as well as personal growth makes people want to stay around for longer.
  • Building up cultural competence. Being part of a community, members gain insights into different perspectives and experiences, contributing to a more culturally aware and sensitive organizational environment.
  • Encouraging professional development. ERGs often stand as a source of networking opportunities, mentorship, professional development, and cross-team or even cross-department communication. Members can benefit from shared knowledge, experiences, and guidance that can enhance their careers.
  • Boosting employee engagement. Engaged employees are more likely to be productive and satisfied in their roles. ERGs contribute to employee engagement by creating a sense of community and connection, which can positively impact job satisfaction and overall morale.

How to start an Employee Resource Group

Now that it's clear just how much value well-organized EGRs can bring, where do you actually start with one and how do you ensure its continuous success?

For any kind of EGR to be successful, it needs the buy-in from all the stakeholders involved. In other words, employees should be genuinely interested in joining the groups, while senior management should be able to see clear value in funding and promoting such groups. This means that the type of groups should, before anything else, be tailored to properly support employees and tend to specific company goals, like improving employee retention or increasing productivity in the workplace.

Step 1. Gather relevant data

In order to be able to measure the impact of your EGR, you need to set clear purpose and goals. For this, you need to see where the starting point is using an employee survey. This survey usually helps you figure out what the current employee experience is like and what you can do to improve it. On top of that, the survey will help you identify the shared interests or characteristics people have, the type of communities they would want to join or are already missing in the workplace.

For example, if you are an IT company and you run this survey, you might find that women feel underrepresented in the workplace (which is not uncommon in this specific industry). With that in mind, you could initiate a group "Women in Tech", where all the female employees can come together to talk about their experiences at work and the daily challenges they need to tackle. At the same time, you can use their help in your next talent acquisition campaign to give priority to female applicants and bridge that gender gap in the workplace.

Step 2. Establish rules and principles

Get clear on the group's mission, vision, purpose, and goals. What does it take for someone to join the group, do they need to meet a specific set or criteria? After all, group admission can be as broad or as niche as you decide. It's important to talk to the group's members, or potential members and see what expectations they have from it, how they imagine governance and leadership development, daily operations, etc. Here you can also define the target audience, activities, and how the ERG will align with the organization's values and objectives.

Coming back to the previous example, you need to make it clear whether the goal of the group will be to give a voice and a safe space for female employees to talk in front of the people they trust or bring about a larger organizational change, like a shift in gender representation within the company. Once those goals and expectations are aligned, it will be easier to plan relevant activities that will help the group see their desired outcomes.

Step 3. Get leadership support and sponsorship

One of the best practices you will encounter when starting an ERG is ensuring that it's not only junior-level employees that participate in it, but also senior management and maybe even a few representatives from the C-suite.

Having senior leaders as participants will help bridge the gap between different managerial layers, make it easier to get leadership buy-in, and reduce the levels of hierarchy within the workplace. Employee resource groups are always meant to be an inclusive environment, welcoming all employees that want to become part of the community.

Step 4. Plan out the agenda & measure the impact

The activities that go into you ERG agenda can range from training sessions and upskilling courses to parties and team building activities. You need to fill up the calendar with events and activities that will help the group reach its goals, raise interest from potential members, and increase participation from existing ones.

Once some progress is made, it's important to revisit the journey and see if some adjustments need to be made. It's a good idea to gather feedback from the members of the group and make an improvement plan accordingly.

However, keep in mind that the whole concept of EGRs is that they are voluntary-led and voluntary-participated. People need to have the time and reason enough to attend all the planned events without them stealing from productivity time or eating into their personal space.

Finally, measure impact of the work done. Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the impact of the ERG over time. You should also consider evaluating its influence on employee engagement, diversity initiatives, and overall organizational culture.

To conclude

According to recent research, 80% of workers want be employed by a company that values diversity, which means that ERGs are also a major asset for businesses that want to attract and retain top talent.

Employee resource groups satisfy one of the most basic human needs — social interaction (with like-minded groups). At the same time, they promise to bring about a happier and more devoted workforce, responsible employers, and a culture of overall cultural respect and awareness.

So, whether you're considering launching a new ERG or enhancing an existing one, remember that these groups are not merely initiatives; they are vibrant communities that hold the potential to reshape the very fabric of how we work, interact, and thrive.

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