How to foster workplace belonging through successful employee resource groups

February 12, 2019

For companies today, diversity and inclusion are often listed as top organizational priorities. It is great that more companies are investing in diversity and inclusion efforts, however many have yet to grasp the complexity and scale of the practices that should guide this focus. Efforts sometimes end up looking more like diversity hiring programs, without enough emphasis on equity and belonging once employees are in the door. When companies focus exclusively on bringing employees in, without creating a space where they feel safe and empowered to bring their best selves to the table, we risk lowered productivity and heightened churn rates. This can make overall progress in this space slow. For a company to successfully scale, it must maintain a culture of empowerment and community.

One initiative that is particularly impactful in creating a sense of belonging is the formation of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). ERGs, which Catalyst defines as “voluntary, employee-led groups that foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with organizational mission, values, goals, business practices, and objective,” are important because of their shared purpose of bringing employees together. ERGs were created by former Xerox CEO Joseph Wilson in the 1960s in response to racial tension. The first group to be launched was the National Black Employees Caucus, developed to address the issue of workplace discrimination. Many companies today have active ERGs, including EY, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and Co. and KPMG. After several decades, ERGs are still an effective strategy to help all employees feel a sense of equity and belonging at their workplace. The most effective employee resource group programs often have a few attributes in common.

Supported by Corporate Policy

While some ERGs may start as grassroots efforts, those that have the support of company leadership can be more impactful for employees. Formal support can result in permanent ERG program budgets to spend on programming for their members, support for employees to use work hours on group activities, and open communication channels for them to influence business decisions.

Function Across Geographies and Job Functions

One of the biggest benefits of ERGs is their power to connect people across physical offices and organizational groups—they can bring together employees at different levels, across departments and build a sense of community and belonging across the entire business. I know first-hand of employees who have traveled to a new office and immediately had friends to grab lunch with because of their ERG connections.

Defined Charters

In order for ERGs to be most effective, each one should have a clearly defined charter that their leadership and members agree on. Common themes and important areas of focus across groups include belonging, recruitment & retention, internal and external awareness building, impact on business decisions, community engagement, intersectionality and career development. These charters help ensure that the ERGs are not only creating a strong sense of community, but that they are also deploying meaningful change.

ERGs can be very beneficial for a company when they are aligned with business objectives. They can influence processes like recruiting and career development, as well as business decisions like product launches and marketing strategies. Candice Morgan, Head of Inclusion and Diversity at Pinterest, shared with me how Pinterest aligns its ERGs with business objectives by “aligning with goals like recruiting diverse talent, expanding customers, or employee development. We do this to both improve our business and further employees’ sense of belonging. For example, our Women@Pinterest, Latin employee group Todos Pincluidos, and Black employee group blackboard@Pinterest have each curated in-product experiences for our Pinners to find culture-specific content during heritage months. Women@ also founded our company-wide mentorship program, inclusive of all genders.”

Open to Everyone

Effective ERGs provide a centered space for the communities that they support, as well as opportunities for allies to get involved, build community and learn about how to support the group. Anyone can be an ally, regardless of their identity, and a focus on intersectionality can result in many employees being members of multiple groups. The more people that are actively involved in ERG efforts, the more impactful the groups can be for employees and the business.

Dedicated Liaisons

Having dedicated support for ERGs helps to empower the networks, takes some of the burden off of the group leadership and gives them direct channels to influence business decisions. There are a few support roles that can be valuable, including executive sponsors, HR Business Partner liaisons, and full-time employees whose job it is to support the networks. Taylor De Rosa, the president of Zillow Group’s Asian/Pacific Islander Network shared, “Having executive sponsors who are true advocates — those who will take steps to influence leadership, are willing to go to bat for you, and who practice equity & belonging daily – has been extremely effective in pushing our initiatives forward.”

Given so many potential benefits, all companies should be investing in ERGs as an integral part of the employee experience and their diversity and inclusion efforts. When executed well, ERGs create a better sense of community and belonging for employees and also create healthier and more innovative businesses. They can help grow the leaders of tomorrow, inform better business decisions and improve employee retention and productivity.

By Rebekah Bastian

Source: Forbes

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