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The hidden power of employee resource groups

People often call them employee networks, affinity groups, business impact networks and more. But most emplo...

Posted: Nov 2, 2018 2:59 AM
Updated: Nov 2, 2018 2:59 AM

People often call them employee networks, affinity groups, business impact networks and more. But most employee resource groups (or ERGs) share a common purpose: to bring employees together.

Companies have ERGs for a variety of different identities: what you do at work (groups for managers), what you do outside of work (groups for parents and caregivers) or how you see yourself (groups for women, Christians, Latinx employees, etc.).

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"You're there because you're connected in some way, because you have a common belief or background," says Lacey McLaughlin, CEO and cofounder of Flerish, a leadership development tool. "When they come together, role no longer matters."

ERGs aren't just good for the employees, McLaughlin says, they're great for the company, too.

These groups can act as a powerful tool to promote diversity in the company. Plus, they often connect lower level employees to decision makers in the C-suite, giving voice to employees with ideas that may otherwise not been heard.

The ERG mission

While socializing and networking are huge parts of the ERG experience, the groups are also well-positioned to expand their influence beyond happy hours and special events. ERGs can also push huge changes at the company, updating hiring policies and putting newer employees in touch with senior leaders.

But McLaughlin says there's an interesting dynamic between ERGs and firms. Some companies have great success in creating healthy, thriving ERGs, but they struggle to bring some of that energy back into the organization at large.

"Really what ERGs were in a lot of ways was a fun way to go hang out with people like you," McLaughlin says. "But if it's just an opportunity for people to come together and enjoy company, that's a missed opportunity."

ERGs can also harness their power to change the organization for the better. ENABLE, an ERG for ability issues at Fidelity Investments, recently did exactly that, proposing a business case that ultimately resulted in Fidelity creating its first Office of Accessibility.

"Because we have access to thousands of associates in our ERGs, we have access to thousands of innovative ideas," says Amy Philbrook, head of diversity and inclusion for Fidelity Investments. "I think it's where we leverage the ERGs as a strategic business utility versus a social club."

'Every invitation is an open invitation'

At Salesforce, employee resource groups are known as "ohana" groups, after the Hawaiian term for "chosen family." The groups orient around passion areas and identities, like BOLDForce, for black employees; Outforce, the LGBTQ group; and FaithForce, a community for all faiths.

The idea is that these circles create communities within the broader Salesforce workforce, and everyone is encouraged to join one, even if you're a white woman joining BOLDForce or a straight employee going to Outforce events.

"We wanted to start talking about allyship in our ohana groups," says Molly Q. Ford, senior director of equality at Salesforce. "If you very candidly don't see yourself reflected back, say if you're a majority culture cisgender male, [asking] 'Where is there room for me?' So we said 'We have a job for you. You're not off the hook. Your job is to stand up and be an ally.'"

Some say ERGs focus too much on one aspect of identity. Deloitte made the decision late last year to create "inclusion councils" to work alongside ERGs, partly for that reason.

"In addition to the support and connectivity our people receive from [ERGs], we are also moving beyond the confinements of a single defining characteristic by creating Inclusion Councils that reflect a diverse group of people with different experiences, talents, and perspectives," Deloitte US CEO Cathy Engelbert wrote in a LinkedIn post. "These councils complement our [ERGs] by focusing on solving some of the greatest needs of our people."

Ideally, says Philbrook, these events are open to everyone, so that people feel comfortable exploring Hispanic Heritage month with the Latinx ERG, for example, or marching in the Pride Parade with the LGBTQ group.

"These aren't groups that do programming and sponsorship for and of and contained within themselves," she says. "They do programming and sponsorship for everyone at the company who has an aligned interest or a curiosity and a desire to explore and expose themselves to differences. So every invitation is an open invitation."

Correction: A previous version of this story identified Amy Philbrook as the director of human resources at Fidelity Investments. Philbrook is head of diversity and inclusion for Fidelity Investments.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Deloitte had eliminated its ERGs. Deloitte created inclusion councils to complement the existing ERGs.

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