Pitting inclusion against diversity

September 13, 2017

Deloitte has made the decision to phase out employee resource groups over the next 18 months. As you read that sentence, you’re probably wondering: “What’s the big deal?”

It’s a move that doesn’t only affect its nearly 250,000 employees worldwide. It potentially affects hundreds of thousands of employees outside of Deloitte because of its reputation as a company that knows what it’s doing when it comes to diversity. Deloitte has been, according to the press release, “a recognized pioneer in female promotion and social inclusion initiatives” and a DiversityInc Top 10 Company for Global Diversity. So now that it’s done something that pulls the foundation out from under the building blocks of diversity, I wonder what to do about it.

First, let me explain what employee resource groups (ERGs) are, and then I’ll make the case for why I believe getting rid of them isn’t one of Deloitte’s better ideas.

Many ERGs began as affinity groups. Their purpose was — and still is — to leverage the ideas and experiences of a company’s employees to tackle a problem, while providing a space for those employees to feel more engaged with and connected to the company. As these loose collections of employees became more structured, they transitioned from affinity groups to ERGs and in many cases, to BRGs (business resource groups).

ERGs have a long-standing history of increasing the bottom line of the company, increasing employee engagement, improving workplace diversity through recruitment and increasing brand awareness. Don’t believe me? Ask Mattel, Disney, Best Buy and many more.

In 2011, 90% of Fortune 500 companies reported having ERG groups and, according to DiversityInc, participation in ERGs has increased significantly between 2011 and 2017. Reviewing data from companies that participate in the DiversityInc Top 50, employee participation in ERGs has increased from 23.4% in 2011 to 35.5% in 2017. The data also shows that white employees are the majority of members in these resource groups.

Dell reported that members of its ERGs had the highest engagement of all its employees. So, when nearly 70% of employees in the U.S. and 87% of employees globally are disengaged in their workplaces, removing one of the things that keep them engaged is probably not a great move — unless it’s being replaced with something better.

And therein lies the question: Are inclusion councils the next step in the journey? Change is good, but change merely for the sake of change doesn’t work. In Deloitte’s case, it is changing because, according to Deepa Purushothaman, the firm’s managing principal of inclusion, “By having everyone in the room, you get more allies, advocates, and sponsors. A lot of our leaders are still older white men, and they need to be part of the conversation and advocate for women. But they’re not going to do that as much if they don’t hear the stories and understand what that means.”

This statement tells me a lot. It tells me they weren’t using employee resource groups in the way they were originally intended. It tells me they weren’t including men in conversations about women — and that tells me it’s a failure of execution.

Dismantling an ecosystem that hasn’t had the chance to completely fulfill its purpose is premature. I believe in including men in the conversation about women, white employees in the conversation about black, Latino and Asian employees, heterosexual employees in the conversation about gay, lesbian and transgender employees, and including all employees in the conversation about disabled, deaf and blind employees. The problem that arises when you try to have a conversation about everyone at the same time is that no one gets heard.

My hope is that Deloitte will restructure its ERGs rather than dismantling them so that employees don’t end up feeling as though they won’t be heard for a long time to come.

By Stacey Gordon

Source: Forbes