Glossary of HR Terms

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Employee Resource Groups

Employee Resource Groups: An HR Guide

What Are Employee Resource Groups?

Employee resource groups (ERGs) have been part of corporate culture for decades now, and for good reason: They provide key points of connection for employees from groups that have historically been excluded or marginalized, as well as those with similar interests or geography. Additionally, ERGs empower communities to create positive change within the business.

ERGs offer community and connection to everyone in your organization. They bring your diversity to life in vital ways, demonstrating the wide variety of identities and interests across your workforce through a tapestry of activities and education.

ERGs aren’t a new concept, but they’ve found new life in the modern workplace. We’re here to help you understand what these groups are, how they can benefit your workforce, and how to foster them in your organization.

Defining ERGs

An employee resource group is a voluntary, employee-led group that promotes a diverse and inclusive workplace. These groups, sometimes called affinity groups, are typically based on shared characteristics. Common ERG types center on race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability. However, they can also be based on shared interests or experiences (you might have employee groups for veterans, parents, or LGBTQ allies, for example).

ERGs provide employees with communities and support networks inside the organization. They also serve to raise broader organizational awareness of issues experienced by these employees.

ERGs aren’t purely social clubs, although socializing is an important element of what they offer to members. They’re serious groups that fill a need within your company culture and foster belonging for employees who are at a higher risk of marginalization. ERGs provide culturally significant benefits by connecting communities and contributing to more intentional culture adds.

While they shouldn’t be held accountable for achieving organization DEI outcomes, ERGs do make key contributions to DEI work by surfacing issues within the culture and cultivating a better employee experience. Employees who participate in ERGs join a collective that amplifies their voice and allows them to contribute to making the workplace better and more inclusive for everyone.

How Do ERGs Benefit Your People?

Now that you have a better understanding of what employee resource groups are, let’s take a look at what they can do for your workforce.

Connect Employees Who Share Characteristics

Connection is critical to building a strong, engaged workforce. ERGs bring people together through shared characteristics, experiences, and passions. They build a sense of community and help employees connect on a deeper level. This supports employee engagement and belonging.

Provide a Safe Space for Surfacing Issues

An ERG should provide a safe space for people to share their workplace experiences — good and bad. ERGs can help employees talk about feelings of exclusion or microaggressions without fearing retribution because they raise concerns.

When employees feel safe making such disclosures, you gain visibility into what’s really happening at work. From there, you can address those issues, improve the employee experience, and foster a truly inclusive work environment.

Help Employees Feel a Sense of Belonging

ERGs offer a place where employees can be themselves without fear of rejection or exclusion. That emphasizes a sense of belonging that translates into a better experience across the employee journey with your organization.

How to Start an ERG

Set your organization up for success when you know how to start an employee resource group. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Identify Needs Within the Workforce

ERGs are typically built around shared identities and characteristics. They promote community and an amplified voice for employees, especially those from historically marginalized populations. These groups also highlight longstanding problems with the employee experience.
To discover your workforce’s need for ERGs, assess your employee population in terms of important HR metrics. You can use surveys to collect feedback on your employees’ needs at scale. Are your LGBTQ employees less engaged, for example? Do employees with disabilities have higher turnover? If so, these groups could be good candidates for an ERG.

ERGs can help fill gaps in the employee experience that are causing disengagement. You might discover, for instance, that LGBTQ employees are sidelined or talked over in meetings, which is damaging their motivation at work. Implement an annual engagement survey and periodic pulse surveys to discover where your greatest areas of opportunity are.

Set Clear Goals for the Group

Just like any group, an ERG needs goals to guide its investment of time and resources. Start with a mission and a vision: What do you see as the ideal outcome of the ERG’s activities? Then, identify concrete goals for the group.

An ERG’s goals may focus externally on educating the wider workforce and celebrating the group’s culture or unique attributes on a larger scale within the organization. Or the group’s goals could focus internally on ensuring equitable opportunities for group members.

One of your goals for an ERG for employees with disabilities might be to eliminate microaggressions against team members with invisible disabilities. This could be achieved, among other ways, through a targeted course of education and accountability.

Find a Sponsor in Senior Leadership

Sponsorship from one or more senior leaders is essential for ERG success. Many organizations remember the struggle to gain C-suite level backing — especially in terms of funding — for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. The same applies to ERGs: Without the credibility of someone in a senior leadership position backing the group, getting the necessary resources will be difficult.

A group’s executive sponsor can advocate for an employee population without being a member. That said, shared characteristics (such as race, gender or sexual orientation) between the sponsor and the group can enrich their understanding of the group’s purpose and goals, which informs their advocacy.

4 Best Practices for Managing ERGs

To help your employee resource groups achieve their goals, follow these best practices for managing them — and empowering them to act.

Listen to What ERG Members Are Saying

ERGs provide a line of sight into aspects of the employee experience you’d otherwise miss. Take advantage so you learn what problems people are commonly experiencing in the workplace. Pinpointing those problems is the first step to addressing them.

Be careful not to lean on ERG members for unpaid labor. Although ERG members provide important insights, it’s not their job to fix organizational and structural problems.

Consider Paying Participants a Stipend for ESG Work

One relatively controversial practice is compensation for ERG leaders and members. Many organizations lack clear policies for who, when, and how to compensate people who participate in or help lead an ERG. Although nearly all Fortune 500 companies have ERGs, for example, only 5% pay ERG leaders for their time.

ERG leaders and members alike contribute to the company culture and drive equitable growth and change. That should count for something, and the most straightforward way to communicate the value of that work is to pay people appropriately for it.

Although ERG leaders are typically volunteers, consider their efforts when updating job descriptions for those individuals. Either make the role part of their job title and cut back on some of their other duties, or pay them a separate stipend for the work they’re putting in.

Host Targeted Professional Development Opportunities

Employees from historically marginalized groups often have less access to learning opportunities than other groups. Even if they have the same opportunities as their colleagues, they sometimes face external obstacles that put them at a disadvantage. Personalized professional development opportunities that are targeted to these needs can make a big difference in your people’s careers.

Women are more likely to be caregivers for children or other dependents, for instance. That means they’re more likely to take a leave of absence or drop out of the workforce than other colleagues. Making accelerated leadership courses available to your ERGs for women or parents can help fill those gaps in experience.

Invest in Developing ERG Leaders

ERGs are a great source of diverse, high-potential talent to power your succession planning pipeline. Mine that resource to find the next generation of leaders. Invest in developmental resources for employees who step up to lead ERGs. Work closely with them to understand their career goals and identify their strengths as leaders.

Spark Connection and Community Through ERGs

Ultimately, employee resource groups bring people together as people, spark connection, and encourage conversation about important topics. By building safe spaces where communities can share their experiences, you help people get to know each other better, foster stronger relationships, and show organizations where they can improve.