Studies show that cultivating belonging in the workplace is crucial to employee happiness, retention, and overall productivity. In an inclusive work environment, employees feel like they can show up as their true selves—leading to more honest communication and less staff churn. One of the best ways to build inclusivity in the workplace is through Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs.
What is an ERG?
At its core, an Employee Resource Group (sometimes called an Affinity Group), is an employee-led club. Although ERGs focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion are perhaps the most well known, an ERG can tackle any cause employees feel strongly about. ERGs can also be a way of celebrating a shared identity, or a way to invest in the professional development of historically marginalized or underrepresented groups.
According to Aiko Bethea, equity consultant and founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting, “ERGs are the glue to the culture of an organization.”
Examples of some hypothetical ERGs:
- Working Parents
- LGBTQ+ Employees
- Latinx Employees
- Mental Health Advocacy Group
- Followers of Islam
- Employees for Fair Pay
- Remote Workers
- Immigrants and Expats
- Sustainability Committee
- Differently Abled Employees
- Young Professionals
If you feel like something is missing in your company culture and your coworkers feel similarly, consider starting an ERG.
Why ERGs matter
A report from Bentley University found that almost 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have ERGs, and that on average, 8.5 percent of employees at U.S. companies are ERG members. ERGs make employees feel more welcome at work and offer an opportunity to be heard and valued by leadership, building a sense of loyalty and connection.
“ERGs are a great way for C-suite leadership to be mentored by their own employees about topics they may not encounter every day,” said Bethea. “ERGs can help leaders understand how their own actions may indirectly impact individuals they don’t have proximity to. It can also help them keep their finger on the pulse of the company culture.”
ERGs offer anyone, regardless of job title, the opportunity to build valuable leadership and problem-solving skills. In certain cases, they can even function as focus groups for product testing. At their core, ERGs help build companies that better reflect the demographics of this country; they are, therefore, the perfect tool for guiding business decisions that promote more inclusive products and services.
VF Corporation, the parent company of The North Face and Smartwool, treats ERGs as a way to “foster diversity of thought and help transform individual differences into insights and capabilities that fuel growth.”
Since 2017, VF has made a serious effort to promote ERGs within the company. VF leaders have developed toolkits for establishing and maintaining groups, held quarterly ERG steering committee meetings, offered regular communication and learning opportunities related to ERGs, and worked to engage ERG members with VF’s board of directors.
The company has benefitted greatly from its efforts to promote inclusion and foster the creation of ERGs. Follow the steps below, and you can help your organization reap the same rewards.
Getting your ERG started
To start an ERG, you need at least two passionate individuals at your company and a desire to create a better company culture. Although ERGs often grow over time, bigger isn’t necessarily better—what’s important is that your ERG fills a need and that participants are actively invested.
If there are no (or few) existing ERGs at your organization, make sure you speak with HR and obtain buy-in from leadership before getting started. If possible, try to recruit an executive sponsor—someone in a position of leadership with access to the C suite—to empower your group and give it visibility, without taking away its autonomy. Although not strictly necessary, getting leadership on board can ensure the success of your ERG in the long term.
“Leadership needs to bolster and support ERGs, to be ambassadors for them, as if they were a critical part of their strategic plan,” said Bethea.
If you’ve underscored the value of your ERG to leadership and still have trouble obtaining buy-in, you may need to recruit more people to show that it’s not a niche request but one with widespread support.
Next, assemble your ERG team and establish a communication plan. Workshopping ideas and getting to know each other over lunch is a good option. When recruiting members, identify some people who are willing to take on leadership roles.
Remember: ERGs are not cliques. They need to be accessible to anyone who wishes to join.
“ERGs need to be inclusive,” said Bethea. “If you have a Black ERG, it needs to be open to anyone who’s Asian, anyone who’s white. The trick is to make sure your ERG is inclusive enough that learning is happening, so you can really have an impact on the organization.”
Hammer out the logistics, such as when and how often you’ll meet, how you’ll communicate, and what roadblocks you might potentially face. Recruit others by advertising the ERG in your company newsletter, at your next all-hands meeting, or even with posters around your office.
Once you’ve recruited your first members and have secured company support, assess your company’s needs and set goals for your ERG. Are you trying to attract more diverse talent to your company? Is there currently a pay gap? Do you have ideas for making your office and operations greener?
A mental health advocacy ERG, for example, might seek to reduce stigma around mental health through social connection, education, and peer support, leading to a more productive workplace. Although ERGs will foster community, they should never just be about food, fun, and festivities.
“ERGs are about people saying, ‘We’re here for it’—acknowledging that there’s a problem and being part of the solution,” said Bethea.
Your ERG should align with your company’s broader goals. As you craft your mission statement and charter documentation, make sure to include how it would support core company values. By defining your group’s purpose and scope, you’ll draw in new members, demonstrate its value to the company at large, and maintain a focused agenda.
Finally, launch your ERG, identifying long-term goals and definitions of success. Get to work brainstorming possible events for your first year.
Avoiding common mistakes to ensure your ERG succeeds
There are several pitfalls that can kill an ERG in its early stages. Here are the issues to avoid.
Lack of funding
From an operational perspective, it’s critically important that your company provides financial support to your ERG.
“Organizations shouldn’t force ERGs to be happy with crumbs off the table,” said Bethea. “They shouldn’t feed them a narrative of scarcity but rather one of abundance. They should invest in ERGs willingly.”
Individuals should create budget proposals that outline the potential impact of any funding, Bethea said. It’s also important for those taking on the labor of running ERGs to be compensated for their time: “ERG leaders are doing critical work for an organization, and often it’s the people who are the most underrepresented taking on the lion’s share of the effort. What happens is, you end up getting free labor from people who need the most support.”
Lack of collaboration
If there are multiple ERGs at your company, it’s helpful if all groups communicate and coordinate regularly. ERGs should avoid the tendency to isolate themselves from one another.
“Companies should require ERGs to share their strategic plans so they can identify opportunities to collaborate and avoid duplicative work,” said Bethea, who suggests that ERGs share budgets and work together on events at least twice a year. “You really want ERGs to function as a collaborative group of culture-keepers.”
ERGs that isolate themselves have a tendency to become territorial, said Bethea: “You can get people feeling like they own a topic.”
To avoid the problem, ERG leaders should make a point of appreciating intersectionality and welcoming a diverse membership. Help encourage diversity by advertising your meetings publicly and holding them at times when working parents can participate.
“The last thing you want is for your ERG to become an echo chamber,” said Bethea. “The way you start your ERG is the way people are going to perceive it down the road.”
That said, ERGs can—and should—simultaneously preserve safe spaces for members to connect exclusively with others who share their experience.
“There’s a big tension with saying ERGs should be for everyone because there’s an assumption this means taking away safe spaces,” Bethea said. “I definitely believe that those safe spaces need to be preserved. You can still have activities that are only for specific groups of employees to support and connect with one another. You can say, ‘We’re having an event where Black employees can connect and share in a safe environment.’ Usually when you say something like that, people honor it.”
Lack of accessibility
An ERG that doesn’t make it easy for newcomers to get involved is doomed to fail. Participation should be made as easy as possible for ERGs to thrive.
ERG leaders can support strong engagement by convening regularly, publishing agendas, and sending notes to members who aren’t able to attend meetings. If your company uses Slack, you can create a channel in which members can ask questions, share relevant articles and ideas, and maintain regular communication.
If all else fails…
If your ERG hits a roadblock or you’re in need of advice, consider seeking out an expert consultant like Bethea. Since ERGs are volunteer-led, it’s important to remember that you might not nail everything immediately. Follow all the steps outlined here, and you’ll be off to a good start.