- Employee resource groups (ERGs) can act as focus groups that advocate for different communities in your organization.
- Despite their helpfulness, ERGs are massively underutilized and often structured to be social groups and outlets — which isn't always beneficial for some employees.
- It's critical to have executive leaders for each group to promote inclusion and organize valuable events, programming, and community initiatives.
- Company managers should also devote funding to these groups to help them spearhead meaningful workshops and other forms of community engagement.
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Over 90% of the Fortune 500 companies had employee resource groups in 2014. When ERGs are properly established, they can impact much more than just the group's members. They can act as your customer's focus groups, advocate for your organization in the community, and be a voice for your workforce. However, many ERGs are underutilized.
They can be strategic assets that directly affect the bottom line, so why do companies struggle to utilize resource groups effectively? As part of National ERG Day, a day officially founded by Mogul, the company I'm the CEO of, I spoke with Dr. Matthew Harrison, vice president of HR of Jackson Healthcare. Harrison championed, launched, and socialized the organization's resource groups. He also currently serves as a clinical assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at The University of Georgia, is a published diversity researcher and is renowned for his research on colorism.
Harrison feels part of the problem is how a lot of ERGs are structured: "Most organizations set them up just to be a social group or social outlet, but don't receive any tangible benefits," he said.
His advice is to create each group with a purpose. "Make sure any programming, events, and community initiatives tie back in some way that will be meaningful either for the employees or the company."
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Once the structure is in place, Harrison explains two significant factors that all ERGs need in order to thrive:
1. Executive champions and allies
"We have executive champions for each group — not only as an opportunity to receive executive buy-in but also to enhance the inclusion aspect of the group," Harrison said. "These groups are as much about inclusion as they are diversity."
Because inclusion isn't just meant for members with similar backgrounds. At least one executive champion per group should be of a different demographic than the group represents. Harrison explained: "Our groups are open to everyone. You don't have to be a member of the demographic to be a member of the group. I feel the success of our employee resource groups is when the members [include] folks who are allies."
By including potential allies in events, it opens a new dialogue and a chance to incorporate teachable moments. Harrison agrees that companies that don't "emphasize inclusion" miss the opportunity to make events educational.
"People who are of the demographic get it," Harrison said. "They know what it's like to be Black in America. What it's like to be Black in the workforce. They know what it's like to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or how advancing in corporate America can be different for women. The key is getting other people to understand that experience. The goal is to give people who often don't have those experiences the opportunity to learn about groups that are different from themselves."
2. Funding and access to resources
Every associate network group should receive an allocated amount of funding a year that can be used for events and programming. Although many companies tend not to be open to sharing funding resources, Harrison said, "I don't know what meaningful things you'd expect these groups to do if you're not going to fund them."
Even though the health crisis has taken away previously provided resources like workspaces and community engagement initiatives, Jackson Healthcare is still finding innovative ways to provide access. At the beginning of this year, it allocated funding for a monthly podcast where each ERG chooses a meaningful topic related to their group and broadcasts to the organization.
"Our People of Color network group talked about the importance of Black History Month and why it's celebrated," Harrison said. "We've had several associates in our PRIDE network talk about their experiences in coming out and how that impacted them at work and in life. Our Women's Network celebrated Women's History Month by talking about "Women on a Mission," and how women (and others) could get more involved in community service. We've had some very meaningful topics, and it's not rare for a podcast episode to spark interest in someone joining the associated network."
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The opportunity for innovation
Workplaces have gone digital, and the role ERGs play is uncertain. Even though meeting face to face is currently less of the norm, virtual meet-ups still provide members with access to their community. Sharing a day of recognition for ERGs can provide companies opportunities to see the benefit these groups can add to their respective organizations and hear best practices of what other people are doing.
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