Census data shows that the US will become a majority minority country by 2044. Companies have begun to see the need to build a stronger and more inclusive culture that genuinely addresses the concerns of groups that make up their staff. It also clear that their market and customer base will be impacted as well. As the shape of the future has begun to reveal itself, these companies have welcomed creation of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to help understand and utilize the groups that make up their organization to better chart a course reflective of the reality.
An ERG is a group of employees who join together based on shared characteristics or life experience. While these groups have been around for over 30 years, their value and influence has grown considerably. And in many companies, ERGs not only provide a social environment for members, they have become a key aspect of company culture and an avenue to building stronger overall diversity and inclusion.
Most ERGs will have a defined mission with goals centered on the core makeup of the group. These missions help build and advance company reputation, impact overall company culture and serve as conduits of communication for executives. Strong ERGs can even influence the design and focus of company products and methods and help provide cultural and social context for products that impact the group’s members.
All ERGs sponsor events. These may be internal, aimed at building strong bonds and inclusion within the company, or they can be external, with community outreach with members acting both according to their shared personal experience as well as those that benefit the company. These events allow members to bond with one another and the community they serve. Events also empower members to define their mission in a way that aligns with their company’s core values and to help shape those values along the way. And they allow the members of the ERG to find avenues to extend their influence outside the company and into the community, thus building links to existing, and new, customers.
But what is the value of these events? When most people hear of events they think of bowling leagues or picnics. They think of movie nights or get together. However, because the focus of an ERG is built on networking, creating an inclusive environment and influencing the company at a foundational level, events for ERGs are effective not because of WHAT they do, but HOW they do it. To create an event that will move the ball down the field and advance both the interests of the group and the company in a common direction, an ERG event that makes people buzz will have high-value content and not just focus on social.
Ideas that make for truly productive ERG events include:
· Include Executive Sponsorship – While the goal is to have the ERG plan, execute and run its own mission and events, having an executive sponsor shows that the ERG isn’t simply a collection of people, but a group that has the attention, and ear, of decision-makers. Sponsors at events seen as participants rather than leaders and as interested parties rather than “hall monitors” will go a long way in building confidence among members that their ideas and voices matter. It can foster communication and ideas and help members feel as though they have an advocate and an ear.
· Allow ERGs to Use Company Communication Channels for Promotion – By granting access to company communication avenues, ERGs can increase their outreach to other employees. Through email announcements, newsletters and bulletin board announcements companies can send a strong message to all employees that the group is considered a key part of the ecosystem. This benefits both the group’s core mission and event while helping deepen the feeling of inclusion within the organization. This is also true of granting access to the company’s social media platforms, both by approval of the group’s social media presence, but also directly through the company link. This shows trust and lets employees and customers alike know that the group is considered an important company asset.
· Lead by Example – A truly effective event can offer insight to the company as to how it can align its goals with the community’s perspective rather than expecting the community to align with the company’s. Like how including an executive sponsor as a participant flips the relationship, an ERG leading by example can show the company the direction and path to reach into a community and can trigger a positive reassessment of company goals to position themselves within that community through understanding of its core.
· Open the Doors and Let them In – Events should be open to non-members of the ERG. Other staff, witnessing the free-flow of ideas and seeing the two-way interaction between executives and in defining how the company should proceed, can experience the effectiveness of the event and be encouraged to start their own ERG or join the one hosting the event. And regardless the decision of non-member on joining a similar group, the mission, values, message and direction of the group will be carried with them afterwards.
Managing events in complex work environments is not easy. And managing numerous events across a calendar year can be exhausting. But the benefits of effective ERG events can be enormous. Start by having a well-defined mission and creating a calendar that everyone can access. Make sure to make the topics and outreach programs relevant to that topic. Let the members lead and encourage participation by all. And keep the momentum going.
ERGs have become so important in many companies that they not only help build inclusiveness, they have also become powerful business tools providing unique market information. They have even helped provide insight that leads directly to the launch of new products aimed at the core communities of the group. The power of events sponsored by an ERG and the progress companies have made by making them truly a part of company culture shouldn’t be underestimated. But it isn’t the what of the event as understood in a traditional sense. It’s how they are conducted and what value they offer to anyone who attends, member…or non-member.