Are You Using Employee Resource Groups to Their Full Potential?

Organizations widely utilize employee resource groups (ERGs) as tools to amplify the voices of underrepresented employees. By creating empowering spaces for people of shared, marginalized identities, these groups can become positive forces for female, BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, and veteran employees. As businesses increasingly focus on scaling the impact of their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) programs, they should do the same for their ERGs.

Evolving your ERGs means expanding their influence, broadening their stakeholder engagement, thinking through leadership compensation, and understanding the right starting point for your organization.

Shifting the Center of Gravity: Expanding Charters and Activities

The discussion about evolving your ERGs starts with identifying where they currently land and where you want them to go.

Most ERGs currently operate somewhere between internal community building and advocacy and talent management. They focus on comfort and connection between employees, and their charters typically employ language about “employee well-being” and “culture shifts.”

To upscale the value of your ERGs, expand their focus from creating connections to contributing to business performance and societal engagement. In terms of charter focus, that means 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. However, internal tensions between different stakeholders can thwart your efforts to expand the influence of your ERGs, leaving them siloed.

To start, many representative ERG ecosystems struggle to obtain buy-in from in-group majorities, namely white men. How can ERGs be universally impactful when they lack universal stakeholdership? Rather than asking employees from underrepresented groups to shoulder matters of DE&I on their own, these initiatives must be universal concerns for the entire organization.

The second issue to consider is the friction between ERGs themselves. Identity is usually multilayered, yet we continue to match ERGs to singular identity characteristics. For example, Black women often deal with the intersection of racism and misogyny, a particular experience not necessarily met by participating in either or both a women’s or Black ERG.

Solving both these problems will require intersectional thinking and allyship. Tomorrow’s ERG ecosystems must engage groups in issues with which they may not identify while also bringing the members of different groups together around issues of common concern.

The Compensation Question

Compensating ERG leaders is a key part of the discussion around evolving our ERGs, but it requires a high degree of nuance. ERGs can be used 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 ERG leaders creates a series of incentives and disincentives that must be explored. On a larger scale, the discussion about compensating ERG leaders is just one part of connecting your ERG ecosystem with business outcomes.

Preparing for Evolved ERGs

To update your ERGs, you’ll need a clear plan of action for how the groups will move beyond influence and stakeholdership. Analyze your ERG performance in its current configuration, paying special attention to the following factors:

• 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?

DE&I Context: How (and how much) do ERGs contribute to your company’s overall DE&I strategy? What else is your company doing to pursue your DE&I-related goals? How important are ERGs to employees and 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 DE&I managers receive meaningful feedback and see the situation in a similar light? Are ERG members and your company broadly aware of 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 DE&I or other company goals? Is there any evidence of hidden costs?

ERGs are just one part of the DE&I 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. Leveraging ERGs for both business and culture benefits can affect the durability of your entire diversity strategy.

Jonathan Dyke is founder of FutureSelf Network.