Employee Resource Groups: What you need to know

Author’s note: This article is adapted from my book, Network Beyond Bias.

What are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)?

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have started cropping up in companies. You may know them as Employee Affinity Groups (EAGs), Business Resource Groups (BRGs), or by another name. These groups are usually launched to help employees, particularly those who face cultural headwinds, connect with one another. And there are many other benefits for companies and employees alike.

How do Employee Resource Groups benefit companies?

Finding and attracting diverse talent

There is a significant talent shortage in many industries. Many companies have aggressive recruiting goals they are struggling to meet. These companies may be in a rut: recruiting from the same professional networks, schools, or geographic areas for decades.

By engaging current employees, companies can expand their reach to find and attract talent in areas they haven’t approached before. People tend to know others who are similar to them. So companies can find new pools of talent by leveraging the connections of employees from non-traditional backgrounds.

From a recruiting perspective, Employee Resource Groups offer an attractive selling point to job candidates. Many new employees want to believe they will feel welcome and accepted in a new company. The company with Employee Resource Groups can demonstrate cultural understanding and acceptance before the candidate has even applied for the job. Having an ERG tells the job candidate, “There are successful people in the company just like you. They want to help you be successful, too.”

Introducing new employees to the corporate culture

Once hired, new employees may need help understanding cultural norms of the company. Fellow ERG members may be helpful in this process, especially if the corporate culture does not readily translate to the subculture of the affinity group. For example, Asian-Americans may find it difficult to tout their own accomplishments due to values instilled in them since childhood. Women may have been taught to downplay their intelligence in group settings. In a large company, these professionals may need to find ways to adapt that are both advantageous in the workplace and culturally acceptable. Employee Resource Groups can help with provide integration strategies from a first-hand perspective.

Identifying and retaining top talent

Employee Resource Groups give a voice and sense of community to employees who may otherwise feel isolated or underrepresented, helping companies to retain talent in their organizations. When people feel isolated, they are not as engaged. Connected employees are more productive, more loyal, and better brand ambassadors. Connected employees stick around.

Rewards and recognition are also a key factor in employee retention. Research shows that managers are more likely to reward and promote employees who are like them. This is especially true when those managers don’t recognize their own biases. If a company has a high percentage of managers with similar demographics, it is likely that those demographics will not change much over time. Employee Resource Groups offer a different avenue for those managers to recognize talent they might otherwise overlook. They can also help mitigate against the default mode of hiring, recognizing, and promoting only within their existing inner circles.

Expanding into new markets and customer segments

Breaking into new markets can be tricky. Many companies have struggled to set the right tone in their advertising. Others may not even recognize that they have a potential niche customer base. In a recent interview, Howard J. Ross reminded us that it’s hard to sell to someone you’ve just insulted. It’s perhaps even harder to sell to someone you don’t know exists.

A diverse employee base can give an insider perspective on different markets and customer preferences. For example, a Latinx ERG might help a company translate both the language and the “feel” of commercials so they seem natural to the target community. An ERG for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) employees may help a financial services company create new products or services tailored to the legal issues faced by this consumer group. By working with management and marketing teams, Employee Resource Groups can provide a competitive edge in under-performing market segments.ERGs can provide competitive advantage in underperforming markets. Click To Tweet

How do Employee Resource Groups benefit employees?

Professional development opportunities

As companies seek to develop new talent pools, employees can use Employee Resource Groups to position themselves for success. Participation in Employee Resource Groups can provide opportunities that may be missing from the employee’s “day job.” For example, an employee who plans an ERG networking event gains project management experience. Another employee who attends the networking event may meet managers from other areas of the company. Employee Resource Groups provide endless volunteer opportunities and chances to be noticed by management.

A sense of belonging

Most employees are happier and more engaged when they feel connected to others at work. Employee Resource Groups can provide a sense of community and connection, even in very large companies. By meeting others with similar life experiences, people feel more supported. These relationships often go beyond transactional, into deep friendships and mentorships. Project work, problem solving, career management, and other daily realities of corporate life are much easier when you have strong relationships.

Address ignorance and stereotypes head-on

Individual employees often find themselves on the receiving end of harmful stereotypes. Many will find that even well-meaning coworkers can be insensitive to or ignorant about deeply-held cultural norms. By themselves, they may be uncomfortable addressing or combating these situations. However, an ERG can organize entertaining “mythbusting” sessions, cultural awareness events, or expert panels that educate the larger corporate community. Doing so not only improves the environment for affinity employees. Everyone benefits from having a broader perspective and greater empathy.

Including everyone in the conversation

When you look at your company’s executive team, do you see someone who looks like you? Do you see someone to whom you can easily relate? If so, you may take this representation for granted. For those who aren’t part of an underrepresented group, this isn’t about being “politically correct.” And it’s not about offering special treatment to certain groups of people. It’s about recognizing that certain interests and perspectives are represented by default. Employee Resource Groups help expand the circle to include new perspectives at all levels of the organization.ERGs help expand representation to include new perspectives at all levels of the organization. Click To Tweet

Think about a time when you felt different: new kid in school, new on the job, dressed informally for a formal event, visiting a different office, visiting a foreign country. Can you imagine feeling that way every day of your career?

We can all benefit by educating ourselves on the experience of being different and by opening ourselves up to the value that experience offers.

Get involved as soon as possible!

If your company has Employee Resource Groups, I encourage you to join a group with which you identify. Especially in large companies, this can provide a sense of belonging that you may not even know you’re missing.

And, more important, sign up as an “ally” in an ERG that is outside your own identity. If that makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why — and be brave enough to answer yourself honestly. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to learn more … from a different perspective.

You have nothing at all to lose, and so much to gain.


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