What Are Employee Resource Groups? And Why Are They Needed in the Workplace?

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger
The last thing you probably feel like doing at work is taking on more work — like joining a group. You already spend the bulk of your time in the office and regularly meet with colleagues for projects (not to mention the mental load you've been juggling and the mother-manager syndrome that's already hurting your career), so why would you want to spend more time meeting with coworkers when you've got a life at home you'd like to keep balanced?
Well, perhaps you'd want to join a work group because there are some tailored to people just like you: a parent, a woman, a person of color. However you identify, there may be a place for you in an employee resource group, which meet to solve the aforementioned stressors, setbacks and discrimination you may face.

What Is an Employee Resource Group (ERG)?

Sometimes called affinity groups, employee resource groups (ERGs) are "voluntary, employee-led groups that foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with organizational mission, values, goals, business practices and objectives," according to Catalyst. "Other benefits include the development of future leaders, increased employee engagement and expanded marketplace reach."

Companies first started forming ERGs in the 1960s as networking organizations for women and people of color, according to Working Mother. Typically, the company runs them with support from senior management, such as an executive sponsor, as well as the company’s Diversity & Inclusion Department. They each have budgets and goals for their members — employees from across the organization who recommend organizational changes when necessary.

What Are the Benefits of an ERG?

According to The United States Census Bureau, minorities are expected to reach majority status by 2044 due, in part, to the projected growth of Asian, Hispanic and multiracial populations. Companies are therefore looking to increase diversity and promote more people in marginalized groups. And perhaps that's why, according to a 2014 survey by The New Talent Times, almost half (48 percent) of the 1,554 adults in the age range of 18 to 34 were “very interested" or at least “somewhat interested" in joining an ERG to push for these types of changes.
Here are some of the benefits of joining one:
  • Members of ERGs share knowledge.
  • Peers in ERGs support one another in dealing with issues that come up in the organization.
  • ERGs have power in numbers that can change the organization for the better.
  • ERG members can develop leadership skills by taking initiative and working together.

How Can You Start an Employee Resource Group?

If your company does not already have an ERG for you, you can likely start one. Here are some simple steps to getting one up and running:

1. Talk with the HR and Diversity & Inclusion department to inquire about starting a group.

Essentially, you'll want to figure out your organization’s policy toward such groups — does it recognize or provide support to these groups? Or are you fighting a bigger battle? If they do recognize these groups, what are the required steps for establishing the group within your particular company? And if there is no process in place for forming such groups, let them know that you'll be creating one.

2. Write a mission statement and goals.

Any ERG should have a simple mission statement (here are some examples of mission statements). You will also want to come up with and prioritize the goals for the short and long-term. For example, if your group is for the LGBTQ community, your goals may be to implement or change specific policies.

3. Cast a wide net for members.

You'll want to start looking for people who are also interested in your group because there is power in numbers. You'll also be able to better understand the goals of the group as a whole by listening to everyone's concerns, beyond just your own. Be sure to be inclusive. For example, if you're starting a caregiver ERG, be sure to be inclusive of adoptive, foster and same-gender parents and caregivers, as well as anyone who may fill these roles but are supportive of the need to help them.

4. Come up with a tentative plan to accomplish your goals and draft a budget.

Once you understand the goals of the group, figure out a general plan of how you're going to tackle each one. When you get a grip on your plans, you'll be able to draft a budget to take back to HR.

5. Promote your group.

Once you have a group in place and you've been given your budget, it doesn't stop there. Keep promoting the group the attract and retain members.
Remember that successful ERGs typically boast the following factors:
  • Both HR and management buy-in and approval
  • High numbers in terms of people (and leaders within the group)
  • Clearly delineated organizational structure
  • An agreed-upon plan
  • Realistic expectations

What Are the Potential Pitfalls of Employee Resource Groups?

Despite the many obvious benefits of ERGs, there are some potential pitfalls and signs that companies don't actually support diversity and inclusion, despite ERGs' efforts.

1. They may not be as effective as other diversity and inclusion efforts.

"Over the past several years, I have witnessed the advent, maturation and demise of numerous employee resource groups," wrote Isaac Dixon, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, associate vice president of HR at Lewis & Clark College, for the Society for Human Resource Management. "Many were founded with the admirable intention of giving employees who represent a protected class under the law a 'safe' place to air ideas, issues or concerns. Some had very prescriptive work baked into their charters, while others were less specific in their objectives.

"Soon enough, however, objections cropped up. Resource groups for women and minorities were challenged by white men who felt excluded, for example. This type of dissension led employers to try to sharpen their groups’ missions or purposes. The real problem, however, is that ERGs seem like relics of a bygone era. Organizations large and small, public and private, are reshaping these groups into diverse teams that are far more strategic and inclusive. One need only look at the proliferation of diversity, equity and inclusion committees to see how much of the work that ERGs used to do has broadened in both scope and depth."

2. Participants aren't all always active.

Dixon said that many members of ERGs lack participation, and they've cited the need for greater, effective leadership direction and commitment. He argued that employees of varying ethnicities and genders have different notions of success, which makes it difficult to achieve real benefits from ERGs' diversity and inclusion efforts, despite their intentions.

3. They give the false impression that the workplace is free of discrimination.

The mere existence of ERGs can give the false impression that a company’s diversity problems have been "magically solved," Dixon added.

"For example, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that white men perceived the mere presence of diversity councils, targeted mentoring and affinity groups as evidence that all employees were being treated fairly," he explained. "This perception persisted even when the men were presented with anecdotal evidence of discrimination and information that challenged the effectiveness of diversity initiatives at their companies."

So there are pros and cons to ERGs, and it's critical that companies implement them and run them with the right intentions.
ERGs can be hugely beneficial if carried out correctly. If you think your own ERG or your company's ERGs begins operating in ineffective or potentially harmful ways, speak up — these groups have been crafted with the intentions to help, and by being an advocate and a leader, you can create the change you wish to see.

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for starting an ERG? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!