Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), also known as staff networks, can make a powerful contribution to an inclusive workplace. ERGs usually begin with a group of enthusiastic, passionate people who are keen to offer support to their community and advocate for change. Over time, disappointment can set in, if there have been plenty of events and people have enjoyed themselves, but the impact on diversity metrics in the organisation is non-existent and team members are feeling overworked and discouraged.
Needless to say, that is a disappointing scenario, as ERGs can make a real difference to diversity, equity and inclusion in organisations and are often a vital part of a good EDI infrastructure.
McKinsey’s insights show us that effective ERGs can help boost feelings of inclusion for traditionally underrepresented segments of workers, improve the attraction and retention of employees who identify with these segments, and increase representation of diverse talent in line with the organization’s EDI strategy.
How to make an ERG work for you
Here are five things you can do to create a successful voluntary employee resource group:
1. Set a clear vision and strategy to give focus and manage expectations
When setting up an ERG, think about what you are aiming to achieve and what benefits members will get from it. That way, you can set achievable aims, all work together to the same aim and communicate clearly to HR, EDI and senior leadership what you are about. Potential members will also know what they can expect, and what is expected of them. This avoids future disappointment. One member of an ERG group for women stated, ‘I joined to meet other women, and feel supported; instead the group has now been opened to men and we mainly advocate for equity to senior leaders. I am disappointed about the lack of social events’.
2. Set a realistic remit to help you stay motivated
When thinking about your strategy, be realistic about what is achievable. Consider resources available, people and budget, alignment with EDI mission and expectations of your organisation, and current connections into senior leadership, EDI people and HR. Then decide what is possible within the current set-up, and which direction you would like to develop in future. For example, offering sponsorship opportunities requires access to senior leadership and advocating for equity in recruitment and progression requires close alignment with HR.
‘In the past we wanted to do too much. Now we have set a much more modest objective, that aligns with the EDI mission of our organisation. This means we could also set clear objectives and now all our volunteers can see the result of their efforts, and we have noticed a real change in motivation of volunteers as a result.’
3. Agree the terms of engagement to manage expectations and amplify impact
Some ERGs are set up by leadership to function as a focus group and provide feedback. Other ERGs are set up by volunteers to provide a community for like-minded people or to advocate for change in the organisation. Make sure you discuss your ERG’s role within the organisation and agree the support that’s required. The role can depend on the maturity of EDI in your organisation and where you are on your EDI journey. When EDI isn’t high on the agenda, a support or campaigning role is quite appropriate. When EDI is already a strategic target, close alignment with the EDI ambition of the organisation is vital, as is a clear agreement on the respective remits of HR, the EDI team and the ERG.
‘We set up a mentoring programme, and training programmes to advance careers of women. Now men have complained to HR that similar opportunities aren’t offered to them. We then opened up our ERG to all staff, including men, but it became too big for us, and it led to a lot of friction with HR. Our programmes are now integrated in the L&D strategy and offered to all and have even more impact.’
4. Plan for succession to ensure continuity
Even the most enthusiastic founders of an ERG acquire other priorities, or move on. Plan for succession from the start, by involving a wider range of people in the leadership of the ERG and actively recruiting people to organise an event or a subcommittee. New members are essential to keep enthusiasm high, keep a steady influx of new ideas and stay relevant to current staff. Help new members integrate, stay in touch with them and encourage them to step up to an active role.
‘After 3 years of running the group, I realised it was always the same people stepping up. We had been very successful and had grown quickly. Meanwhile, my workload from the day job had increased and I just couldn’t fit it in anymore. I was exhausted and needed support. We should have started earlier, but we then made a concerted effort to engage more people in leading activities and that gave me the chance to eventually step back.’
5. Ensure you are rewarded
Many people do start an ERG voluntarily and in their own time, which is laudable. However, if this is you and your ERG is offering a valuable resource to the organisation and/or taking up your work time, it’s worth discussing it with your line manager and leadership and seeking to reflect your ERG role in your work objectives.
‘My manager resented I was often away for meetings of our network. Leadership really valued my contribution, but I had a negative review from my direct manager, colleagues resented my absences and I eventually had to move teams. My contribution to the organisation wasn’t acknowledged. With my new manager I discussed my internal role, and we formalised the hours I could spend on it and how it would be evaluated and remunerated which worked much better.’
ERGs can make a real difference to equity, diversity and inclusion in organisations and provide vital support for people, but they are only impactful and fun to lead if they function well. These five tips should help your ERG get off to a good start and continue to thrive and have a positive impact.