Employee Resource Groups (referred to as ERGs) are powerful tools for organizations to build inclusive cultures and support employee development. That’s why 90% of fortune 500 companies have ERGs. And it isn’t just the top companies that run employee resource groups; Sequoia’s 2021 Employee Experience Benchmarking report showed a 9% increase this past year in companies with ERGs. The number is now at 40%.
But if you’re reading this, you likely don’t need to be convinced of the importance of employee resource groups. You know their value—you want tips and best practices for running successful employee resource groups.
This article will break down a dozen employee resource group best practices while also covering:
- The different types of ERGs available,
- How to use ERGs for leadership development, and
- If they should be informal or formal
This article will be your toolkit for building an employee resource group (or groups) that drive impact.
Types of employee resource groups
Employee resource groups bring together employees across a company that share an affinity. Commonly, organizations will have ERGs for:
- BIOPIC employees
- Neurodiverse employees
- Employees with disabilities
- LGBTQ+ employees
- Families, single parents, or caregivers
When employees share a similar background, forming an ERG can give them a place where they belong. These groups offer a shared experience or background, support, and networking opportunities.
A new perspective on ERGs: leadership development
Although the primary case for employee resource groups is to support affinity groups within a company, these groups are usually within a wider diversity and inclusion initiative office.
However, studies by The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), a research firm, found that high-performance companies leverage ERGs for “strategic leadership development incubators” as well as DE&I initiatives.
They surveyed almost 400 firms in 2018 and found that those who consistently outperformed their competitors “are 2.5x more likely to describe their employee resource groups as experiential career advancement and leadership development vehicles.” Additionally, they’d require executive sponsors to “ help steer these groups and take steps to ensure their alignment with business goals.”
That’s a lot of business jargon. Essentially, these high-performing firms would leverage ERGs for succession planning. Interestingly, these companies think about employee resource groups as formalized groups, not informal gatherings that leaders are indifferent about. This leads to the next mindset shift: whether ERGs should be top-down or bottom-up.
Should ERGs be formal or informal?
Xerox, in the 1970s, started the first employee resource group. Joseph Wilson, the CEO at the time, responded to the racial tensions of the period by launching the National Black Employees Caucus. Black employees had a formal space to discuss their experiences and advocate for change with Xerox with this caucus.
ERGs started as formal groups of employees championed by a senior leader—the CEO in Xerox’s case. But over time, the idea of employee resources groups has shifted. For example, Great Place to Work, a global authority on workplace culture, defines ERGs as “voluntary, employee-led groups.”
Although many ERGs are started as grassroots initiatives, they can’t remain that way. For ERGs to reach their full potential, they need the support of senior leaders.
Elaine Montilla, a champion of diversity within the tech industry, cites in a Forbes article these reasons for why ERGs fall apart:
- They don’t have administrative support.
- They don't have a sustained budget.
- Volunteers have to run the ERG in addition to their full-time jobs.
- ERG leaders aren’t compensated for their efforts.
The thread that runs through these reasons is a lack of support from the wider organization. For ERGs to run well, they need all stakeholders on board—with proper expectations and resources.
Regardless of the pros and cons of employee resources groups, it’s still worthwhile to start one. Let’s look at how to do it successfully in the next section.
Best practices for employee resource groups
There are several different things to consider when starting an ERG at your company. Here are some of the key ways that you can help build a robust ERG in your organization:
Define goals and a mission statement
A mission statement is essential to give an ERG direction and clarity of purpose. Establish who the group is for and what the members can expect from participating. Define what issues or problems the group seeks to overcome. Perhaps it’s to give a voice to a group of underrepresented employees. It may also provide support and develop relationships between people with shared experiences.
An important point to note is that the mission statement should align with business goals for a successful ERG. To get leadership buy-in, you’ll need to connect the group's purpose to the business's success. For example, New York Life runs ERGs to connect members with leaders across their North American locations. Doing so impacts their succession goals and helps bring leadership opportunities to underrepresented employees.
Develop structure and guidelines
Having a defined structure will help members know what is expected of them and set the boundaries for the ERG. Things that should be covered in guidelines include:
- How funds will be handled,
- When meetings will take place,
- The structure of the sessions, and
- How leaders will be selected.
Clearly outlining how the group will run will make it much easier to run and give members a clear understanding of what they gain from joining.
Set a leader for the ERG
You'll need a leader to steer the group in the right direction. Usually, ERG leaders serve as the bridge between the executive sponsors and group members. This individual must be willing to put in the time and effort needed to guide the ERG. While often these groups are developed at the grassroots level, organizations seeking to set up ERGs may opt to appoint a leader.
Have executive sponsors
ERG leaders should seek to find executive sponsors for the group. These sponsors can be advocates in the workplace for the ERG and can grow support among other executives. They can also serve as mentors to group members.
Mentorship is one of the most important elements of a successful employee resource group. What better way is there to accelerate the growth and development of its members? Let’s take mentorship within a women's group as an example.
Elaine Montilla’s TedTalk argues that to make tech more equitable for women—especially non-white women—they desperately need mentors. She recounts her own experience having a mentor in college whose guidance helped direct her career trajectory. She also cites research proving that women in engineering who had female mentors were more likely to remain in the field with a greater sense of belonging.
It’s crucial to have an employee resource group that provides mentorship to women or underrepresented employees. The format of ERGs lends itself to mentoring opportunities. There are a variety of ways this can happen, including peer-to-peer mentoring activities, group mentorship for future leaders, or even reverse mentoring to support DE&I by making diverse employees the mentors to executives. These formats are a great way to give existing leaders new perspectives and support members of the ERG in their careers.
Let other employees know about the ERG, what it is focusing on, and what they can gain by being a part of it. Internal memos or emails are good ways to promote the group. Some companies may want to hold information sessions so potential members can find out more details about the ERG.
Measure ERG progress
Groups can tell how far they have come by looking back at the change in metrics over time. Some of the vital data to track include:
- Participation, and
Keeping track of the ERG’s impact on company initiatives can also reveal its success. Data on retention, turnover, employee engagement, recruitment, and promotion rates may also demonstrate the group's impact on the organization.
Encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing
At large organizations, there may be several ERGs for different affinity groups. Rather than letting these groups operate in isolation, encourage them to meet together for special events. It can encourage networking and knowledge sharing, which will further support the business goals of the groups.
Some practical ways to do this are exchanging information and encouraging employees of different backgrounds to work together.
Clear communication with members and executives must underlay every aspect of ERGs. Invite members to offer feedback about ERG activities, suggestions for future actions, and ways to engage company leadership.
Both ERG members and leaders should be encouraged to have some training to develop critical skills such as constructive communication. Training opportunities should cover areas like competency, teamwork, and outcomes. Efforts like these will help cultivate successful leaders within ERGs, which, in turn, can enhance the effectiveness of ERGs in an organization.
ERG may start small and only hold social activities for the first little while. That is okay. Keep in mind that getting everyone in the group comfortable with each other is a crucial goal. For the group to be fully effective, each member should be willing to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. These things take time.
As the groups get more comfortable and they begin to trust one another, you can expand to offer events beyond social activities.
ERGs are voluntary, but you can access some company resources, such as funds for activities and events. Once ERGs reach a certain level, some companies may want to hire full-time staff or offer some remuneration to volunteer leaders.
ERGs can be an advantage for both employees and employers to improve diversity in a workplace. But, it can take time and effort to develop a successful ERG plan. By employing some of the ERG best practices, companies can set themselves on the path to benefit from ERGs.
Build an employee resource group strategic plan
This article has broken down a ton of steps to build a successful ERG. When building your own employee resource group make sure to include most, if not all, of the best practices we've listed here. At Together we've helped dozens of leading companies launch diversity and ERG focused programs to help them build more equitable and inclusive workplaces.
If you're ready to take your ERG to the next level by connecting members together through mentorship, our mentoring platform can make it easy. Using our pairing algorithm, ERG members can be matched with relevant mentors based on the skills and experiences they want to advance their careers.