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Abolishing ERGs: A teachable moment from Deloitte?

ExecsMy social media feeds are all abuzz with the news of Deloitte replacing its Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) with “inclusion panels.” The move reportedly seeks to address the concerns of Millennials who have a much different view of diversity issues than Gen Xers and Boomers. And then there was the perspective of the [mostly white, predominantly male, likely cisgender, not particularly Millennial] executive team. Deloitte executive Brent Bachus said that he and other white male executives ‘don’t know that I necessarily felt like I knew what role I was being expected to play, or if I even had a role.”

My Gut Reaction Was Not Very Productive

Can I be honest? My initial response to Bachus’s remarks looked a little like this:

Frank Costanza airs his grievances.

So I sat down and reflected on my gut reaction, as I have advised others to do. Then I talked to my straight, white, cisgender male husband about the feelings I had and asked for his point of view. Finally, I am ready to respond to this situation thoughtfully, in an attempt to make it a teaching moment from a non-executive perspective.

Potential Impacts of Eliminating ERGs

From the Company’s Perspective

If your company is considering eliminating ERGs, allow me to remind you why ERGs are so important for companies:

  • Finding and attracting diverse talent
  • Introducing new employees to the corporate culture
  • Identifying and retaining top talent
  • Expanding into new markets and customer segments
  • Including fresh perspectives in the corporate conversation

Abandoning ERGs can send a message to stockholders, customers, and prospective employees that these issues are no longer priorities for your executive team. Certainly, ERGs are only one part of a company’s talent and marketing strategies. Remember that they can also be the most visible indicator of your company’s commitment to diversity. For example, a lot of job seekers I know filter out companies that don’t tout ERGs on their career web sites. At a minimum, be ready to tell your candidate pool and customer base — clearly and often — how you will address these issues without ERGs. Specifically, how will you fill the gap that will be left in the wake of successful ERGs?

From the Employees’ Perspective

Next, let’s remind ourselves of the additional benefits of ERGs for employees:

Maximum Effort

  • Professional development opportunities for employees at all levels
  • A sense of belonging for employees who feel like outsiders
  • Ability to address ignorance and stereotypes head-on

Many diversity practitioners and a good number of my own colleagues cite ERGs as a primary driver of employee engagement. ERGs require tremendous volunteer effort from a company’s employees. ERG work is usually unpaid and often unrewarded; sometimes it even goes unnoticed. Yet employees show up in droves to work extra hours, stretch beyond their respective comfort zones, and pour their hearts into this work.

Why do they do this? Because it means something to them. It gives them an opportunity to be and to celebrate themselves because of who they are, not in spite of it. Instead of asking them to downplay their differences in a corporate environment, ERGs provide a safe space to leverage that difference. I’ve had colleagues tell me that their ERG involvement is frequently what keeps them going when things get rough in their “day jobs.”

Where will all this discretionary effort go if you eliminate the opportunities created by ERGs? My guess is that many employees will spend that time on their résumés and job searches instead.

Teachable Moments for Executives

At the risk of getting permanently blacklisted from the Deloitte hiring machine, I believe these executives have done themselves some great disservice. For other executives, let’s break this down with a view from the middle of your organization. This particular view comes from a cisgender, white, bisexual, college-educated, highly ambitious, female middle manager from a blue-collar background.

To the rest of us, the C-Suite looks like an ERG for cis, straight, white men

To the rest of us, the C-Suite looks like an ERG for cis, straight, white men Click To Tweet

First, some numbers:

Deloitte executive Brent Bachus said he didn’t know “if [he] even had a role” to play in the company’s ERGs. I hope executives elsewhere recognize that this is how a majority of their employees feel about their companies’ executive teams

While no one person bears the responsibility for executive demographics. we each have a responsibility to understand our role in perpetuating them.

Furthermore, we all owe it to ourselves to sit somewhere we don’t feel like we belong. Everyone can benefit from the experience of being “other,” at least occasionally. What does it say to your employees if you are unwilling to experience briefly what they live daily?

Being an ally is a responsibility, not a birthright

Being an ally is a responsibility, not a birthright Click To Tweet

Mr. Bachus’s remark was reported without full context. Still, it is a microcosm of the sense of entitlement that so many people with privilege convey. I get it, you run the company. Would you show up to a facilities management meeting and then dissolve the maintenance department because you didn’t have a clear role? Would you eliminate the cybersecurity team? The Human Resources department? Accounts payable? Given all the benefits of ERGs to your company and your employees, why treat those organizations differently?

Allies need to stop seeing ourselves as the rich, white saviors who liberate disadvantaged masses in every single Hollywood movie ever.

Do you know what all these groups need? We need allies of all backgrounds to show up and listen. Again, and again, and again. We need allies to listen whether they like what they hear or not. Even when there are no answers. Especially when no one else is listening.

And, as much as we need allies to listen to us, we need to listen to each other. After we’ve listened, and only then, can we authentically ask, “How can I be a better ally for you?” Whatever the answer, we need to be ready to act with courage and conviction.

Proposed Alternative: The “Both/And” Perspective

Inclusivity and allyship is critical to the success of ERGs, and every effort to include more perspectives deserves positive reinforcement. To that end: Deloitte, I’m glad you’re including white male executives in your diversity and inclusion conversations. By being more inclusive, and especially by including those with great organizational power, you ensure that more people are participating in the conversation. You should continue having conversations about inclusiveness. And I invite you to go even deeper by including ERGs in a multi-faceted approach to diversity and inclusion.

We need male leaders to be engaged in and pushing for inclusive conversations. AND we need avenues for employees at all levels to feel welcome to and engaged in our companies.

What You (Yes, YOU) Can Do Right Now

Corporate executives

  • Fill your talent pipeline with intentional diversity
  • Work with your senior leadership teams to quantify the value of your company’s diversity initiatives
  • Carefully consider the internal and external messaging that comes with any changes to your diversity strategies
  • Conduct listening tours within your company that include ERG representatives
  • Ensure ERG activities are promoted and rewarded within your company
  • Consider adding ever more perspectives to your corporate conversations
  • Download Jennifer Brown‘s Diversity Starter Kit for CEOs and start a conversation

Customers, stockholders, college students, and potential job candidates

  • If diversity work within a company is important to you, speak up
  • Ask salespeople and recruiters about their company’s diversity initiatives and results
  • Don’t underestimate your influence

Employees

  • Build your network with intentional diversity
  • Talk to your manager, ERG chairperson, and others in your company about the impact ERGs have, from your perspective
  • Join an ERG if you haven’t already
  • If you are a member of an affinity group ERG (one that’s “for you”), invite an ally or potential ally to join you
  • Speak up, whenever you can, wherever you can, about who you are and why it matters. Be the role model you needed five, ten, or thirty years ago.
  • Ask a colleague how you can get involved in an ERG that’s outside your affinity group
  • Listen to others’ stories and learn how to be an effective ally from their perspectives

Please, share your perspective

I’m open to learning different perspectives on this topic. If you have a different take, or there is more to the story than I found in my research, please, share your comments!

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