Employee Resource Groups: A Guide

Creating an inclusive and engaging company culture requires strategic planning around diversity and equality. Employee resource groups (ERGs) offer a unique, employee-driven way to achieve a cohesive work environment. Learn more about the significance of employee resources groups below and how to set them up at your workplace. 

 
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What are employee resource groups?

Employee Resource Groups (ERG) are employer-recognized workplace groups voluntarily led by employees. These groups allow employees with commonalities to meet, support each other and produce a particular outcome that helps improve your business and their job satisfaction. Also known as affinity groups, employee resource groups give employees the opportunity to build community, have discussions about meaningful topics and share resources.
 

These commonalities normally include:
 

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disabilities
  • Social or economic causes
  • Shared interests

They are led by employees on a volunteer basis so that ERGs can be an empowering and safe avenue for employees to express themselves and seek support.
 

The first ERGs, originally called Workplace Affinity Groups, formed in the 1960s as a response to racial tension and workplace discrimination. After witnessing the 1964 race riots in Rochester, NY, the former CEO of Xerox Joseph Wilson, developed the idea to create these supportive employee groups and launched the National Black Employees Caucus in 1970, the first group of its kind. Since then, ERGs have grown in popularity as employers increasingly understand the importance of workplace diversification and equality.
 

The importance of employee resource groups

Employee Resource Groups exist to encourage diversity and empower employees to achieve their personal and career goals. ERGs generally focus on underrepresented groups, giving them access to additional support that they may not be able to get on their own. Company leaders use ERGs to learn how they can eliminate inequities and provide better support to their employees, while the employees use ERGs to network and promote their goals in the workplace. Some of the main functions of an ERG include:
 

  • Providing a platform for group members to share concern
  • Connecting group members with mentors and organizational support
  • Spreading awareness of how a certain identity intersects with workplace issues
  • Increasing cultural awareness among staff
  • Helping all employees feel accepted and valued
  • Increasing employee engagement and overall job satisfaction
  • Helping employers uncover employees with great leadership potential
  • Fostering better relationships between new and existing employees
  • Providing professional development opportunities

ERGs can also help with your company’s branding and marketing efforts, employee training and development and employee retention. ERG groups offer unique perspectives that allow you to grow your business in new ways. Successful ERG groups work towards goals that align with the overall mission, objectives and values of the business to advance the organization in a positive and forward-thinking direction.
 

Related: Cultivating Positive Workplace Behavior
 

Benefits of Employee Resource Groups

Having Employee Resource Groups in your workplace can benefit both the wellbeing of your individual employees and your business as a whole. Encouraging Employee Resource groups at your business supports positive company culture and adds a useful perspective to the company’s workforce. Some of the key benefits include:

 

Building future leaders

Employee Resource Groups exist to improve the experience of various identity groups in the workplace. By strengthening the workplace community with Employee Resource Groups, you can more easily identify employees with leadership potential and connect them with the mentorship they need to grow. ERGs provide optional leadership opportunities and allow people who want to be engaged with their work community to interact with leadership.

 

Attracting a diverse workforce

Having a diverse workforce allows you to better connect with a diverse audience and build an equitable business among many other benefits. Having thriving Employee Resource Groups shows prospective employees in that identity group that they would have organizational support for their career goals. Their focus on communication and shared growth provides an affirming environment for members of protected and underrepresented groups, increasing your value as an employer.
 

Related: Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace: Five to Consider

 

Alerting leadership to issues

Employee Resource Groups provide a collective voice for people’s concerns about issues that impact their identity group in the workplace. They help inform company decision-makers of its members’ needs and make recommendations for how the employer can help resolve issues. Single complaints may not have as much impact to inspire change as having a whole resource group of advocates. Employee Resource Groups open a line of communication between company leadership and their growing workforce.

 

Gaining expert insight

Employee Resource Groups can be a quality source of knowledge when developing a strategy to improve diversity or create more inclusive policies. Having an Employee Resource Group consult on project strategy can result in more impactful and effective practices that directly support the needs of an identity group. Employee Resource Groups can also consult on outreach strategies for attracting a more diverse customer base in addition to building a diverse staff.

 

Improving retention and reducing turnover

Having Employee Resource Groups at your business can help employees feel more supported and encourage them to stay with your company longer. Happy employees who have the resources to overcome challenges may feel more invested in their work and envision a future with your company instead of looking for employment elsewhere. Retaining employees can save your company money on hiring costs and build a strong community of dedicated, passionate professionals.

 

Types of employee resource groups

There are four common types of employee resource groups:
 

  • Diversity resource groups
  • Volunteer groups
  • Affinity groups
  • Professional development groups

Diversity resource groups

Diversity resource groups consist of employees within the minority of their workplace. Minorities can be distinguished by race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation and other characteristics that may unintentionally alienate someone from the larger group. The purpose of a diversity group is to build a genuine sense of inclusiveness for minorities and to provide a safe space where they can share their thoughts, ideas and challenges. Diversity groups can help employers identify the best ways to overcome cultural challenges in the workplace.
 

Related: Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace

 

Volunteer groups

Volunteer resource groups are for employees wanting to give back to the community and support causes. These groups focus on awareness, which may come in the form of asking for donations from the office or attending events to promote or support their cause. To help these groups succeed in their efforts, many employers will match the monetary amount of donations or help provide resources needed for events. Volunteer groups help employees from different backgrounds come together over a shared passion, which can improve relationships in the workplace, fostering a greater sense of community.

 

Affinity groups

Affinity groups, also known as affinity clubs, are employee-led groups created for individuals with similar hobbies who want to socialize. Walking clubs, biking clubs, book clubs and wine clubs are common types. These groups help bring a diverse group of employees together to share a love for a specific interest, which helps staff get to know each other better. Building connections outside the workplace can help improve the environment at the workplace, improving employee communication, engagement and teamwork. You can help support an affinity group by offering a stipend for resources if the group’s attendance reaches a certain number.

 

Professional development groups

The main purpose of a professional development group is to connect staff of all levels and business departments, allowing them to share knowledge, support those looking to advance into leadership roles and those wanting to improve their skills in a particular area. Some examples include groups where employees learn how to code or where employees looking to advance in their career learn valuable leadership skills.
 

Strategies for supporting Employee Resource Groups at your company

Help your employees get the most out of Employee Resource Groups by using these steps to empower and support ERGs at your company:

 

Create a plan with Human Resources

Take initiative by developing a process for establishing an Employee Resource Group. Making it easy for someone to form a new Employee Resource Group or sign up for an existing one will help encourage membership. Work with Human Resources to set up basic guidelines and avenues for organizational support. Your HR representatives should be able to walk employees through the process of creating a group mission and setting up a meeting plan.

 

Provide financial support

Consider dedicating some of your budget to funding Employee Resource Group events and initiatives. Decide on a fair way to distribute funds to each group and create a clear process for group members to access those funds. Supporting your employees by directing funds to Employee Resource Groups can be a worthwhile investment in your company’s long term health.

 

Assist with documentation

Help the employees who run Employee Resource Groups document membership and track their progress. Provide document management systems to help them meet reporting requirements and measure their impact on the workplace. Keep copies of the Employee Resource Group’s paperwork and mission statement in Human Resources so they will be easy to reference as the organization evolves.

 

Offer executive sponsorship

Executive sponsors are employees in leadership positions who advocate for an Employee Resource Group’s needs to the executive team. They act as a liaison between the Employee Resource Group and the company’s decision makers. Executive sponsors can suggest new initiatives to the leadership team and improve visibility of the Employee Resource Group’s contributions. Executive sponsorship can be particularly impactful if the sponsor is also a member of the Employee Resource Group, but anyone can choose to sponsor an ERG.

 

Advertise events

When Employee Resource Groups at your company host events and workshops, advertise them to the rest of your staff. Offer space to host meetings and provide other resources as needed to facilitate meetings and events. Send out email notices to staff and ask group leaders how you can sponsor their trainings and development opportunities. Help the group schedule their events at times when staff will be available to help them share their knowledge and perspectives.

 

Make details easily accessible 

Post clear information about how to join existing Employee Resource Groups or start a new one. Listing these details in the employee handbook, explaining Employee Resource Groups during new employee onboarding and posting flyers with ERG details in shared spaces are all great ways to increase awareness about Employee Resource Groups.
 

Frequently asked questions about employee resource groups

 

How do I start an employee resource group?

Follow these suggested steps to form an ERG:
 

  1. Determine company goals and decide if an ERG is needed. The first thing to do is assess which ERGs the company truly needs. Take a look at which groups of employees might be underrepresented, what type of employees you need help with retaining and recruiting and other organizational needs. Each ERG needs a specific purpose contingent on company needs and objectives.
  2. Secure leadership buy-in to implement an ERG. It’s helpful to have someone in senior management sponsor the resource group, assisting with the implementation and growth to help ensure success.
  3. Start with a small group. ERGs work best when they grow with time, attracting those who are passionate about the group’s goal. As long as the group fulfills its purpose it should work for your business.
  4. Spread awareness about the group. The last step is to promote the group throughout the company so everyone is aware of its formation and intent. It can be advertised in new hire onboarding materials, through company chat, emails or even formal letters.

Do employee resource groups have any disadvantages?

Employee resource groups are largely advantageous but may result in less positive outcomes in some cases. Sometimes, even in a group of similarities, different ideas of how a goal should be accomplished may reduce productivity and employee engagement. Additionally, if an ERG lacks close ties to the overarching values and mission of the company it may not provide the boost in business growth it should.

 

Where do employee resource groups meet?

Typically, ERGs meet during work hours on a pre-determined basis to complete work-related tasks tied to the group’s mission. Some groups may also meet outside of work hours during events, club meetings and volunteer opportunities.

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