Supporting Employee Resource Groups through mentorship [an interview with Michelle Ferguson]

Learn how mentorship programs support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and promote diversity, inclusion, and career advancement with expert insights from Michelle Ferguson, author of "Women Mentoring Women".

Ryan Carruthers

Published on 

May 1, 2023

Updated on 

Time to Read

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Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a must-have in today’s workplace. A McKinsey article indicates that ERGs help companies foster inclusion, improve diversity, and promote external impact. 

To support employees of underrepresented backgrounds within ERGs, organizations can accelerate their growth with purpose-driven mentoring programs. 

To unpack how mentorship can support ERGs, we interviewed Michelle Ferguson, a mentoring expert and founding member of Chief.

To catch the full conversation, find it here: Supporting employee resource group through mentorship.

Who is Michelle Ferguson? 

Michelle Renaldo Ferguson is many things: a global transformational executive, a self-proclaimed serial mentor, a founding member of Chief, and a strategic advisor. Most of Ferguson’s mentoring experience comes from her time at S&P Global McGraw, where she joined forces with a colleague to launch a global mentoring program.

Building the mentoring program kindled her interest in mentoring, specifically for women. This interest led to her becoming an author. Leveraging her experience, she wrote Women Mentoring Women Strategies and Stories to Lift As We Rise.

Below, you’ll find many of her insightful best practices for aligning ERGs and mentoring programs.

What are the benefits of having a mentorship program specifically for employee resource groups? 

Employee resource group-focused mentorship programs offer numerous benefits for both the organization and its employees. By promoting inclusivity and breaking down traditional hierarchies, these programs can help to counteract the systemic favoritism that has persisted for decades.

Below, we list 4 ways mentorship can advance the goals of ERGs.

1. Career advancement opportunities 

For years, many companies have restricted most senior roles to white males. This systemic unfairness has prevented qualified employees of underrepresented groups like women and people of color from pursuing these opportunities. 

Growing up, Ferguson found herself in a male-dominated environment, and she saw no change, even in college or the workplace. She shares, 

I am somebody who spent my life in corporate America, sort of rising through the ranks, you know, for the good part of my career, I was one of the few women in senior positions.” 

ERGs exist for members to connect, share ideas, and support one another. Introducing mentorship into these groups enables ERG members to interact with mentors holding senior positions. This should make them visible for promotion to a higher role. Specifically, this is called sponsorship. But Ferguson highlights that you can't expect ever leader who has an underrepresented background to be a mentor. Unfortunately, there just aren't enough. She shares tips on how to address this in a clip from the interview.

2. Builds employee engagement 

When employees realize they aren't advancing in the company or even getting the chances to apply for promotion, they'll unsurprisingly become disengaged. Not only will they feel less eager to perform daily tasks, but there's a high chance of them spreading that sense of discontent to other workers.

Conversely, offering mentoring opportunities to ERGs is an effective way to elevate engagement levels which means improved workplace well-being, better mental health, and greater organizational productivity.

Ferguson shares how to show the impact mentorship has on engagement and retention rates. She stresses that these take time to collect.

3. Promotes diversity and inclusion 

Belonging to an underrepresented group can be challenging primarily because of the limited growth opportunities. Ferguson further states, 

Individuals in underrepresented groups have challenges that those of us who are white and straight don't have. And certainly, women have challenges that men don't have.” 

A Yale Insights article reveals that women are less likely to be promoted despite gaining higher potential ratings because they're wrongly “judged as having low leadership potential.” 

Getting a senior executive who is Black or Asian to mentor one or more junior employees from the same race goes a long way in making everyone feel included.  

Ferguson sees great potential for mentorship in ERGs, claiming, 

Mentorship plays a major role in dealing with the challenges of the individuals in underrepresented groups.

4. Serves as a conduit for building meaningful connections 

Through mentoring, ERG employees can connect and network with colleagues outside their immediate team or department, which can be invaluable to their long-term careers. 

Although an ERG member affords one the chance to meet other people and grow their careers, mentorship can hasten the process. 

Employees from underrepresented backgrounds can connect with leaders and start sustainable relationships. The relationship can lead to new opportunities for collaboration, learning, and professional growth and development.

What are some best practices for designing and implementing mentorship programs for Employee Resource Groups?

Mentoring is a proven strategy for increasing job satisfaction and reducing turnover while building a positive workplace culture. To ensure the success of implementing a mentoring program for ERGs in your organization, here are six key best practices. 

1. Have a clear goal

ERGs consist of individuals with one or more collective objectives, so an ERG-focused mentoring program should have a clear purpose. 

This helps to structure the program accordingly. For instance, diversity and inclusion are common themes in ERGs, and program managers will likely make it their pursuit when planning mentorship for members. 

However, Ferguson believes mentoring program coordinators should be more specific in defining their goals. She shares, 

Even within the goal of DE&I, what exactly is it? Is it getting them into leadership positions? Is it retaining them?” 

If you want to get underrepresented employees in leadership positions, that will likely look like a high-potential sponsorship program. If it’s to retain diverse employees, then maybe a group mentoring program among peers would work best. 

In short, goals will determine everything else.

2. Start registration before the program launches  

While mentoring programs can run for months, opening enrollment early is always best. This is because the potential mentors and members are employees who, as expected, will be occupied with work-related activities.

Announcing a call for participants weeks or months before the program officially starts will allow them to decide whether to sign up. It also builds suspense which you'll need, especially if the program is brand-new and not a reboot.

3. Promote the program widely 

Even if you open registrations early, many prospective participants — mentors specifically — may not be keen on indicating interest. To avoid apathy, develop a solid advertising campaign that not only conveys the program's benefits. 

Learn how to promote your mentoring program that gets your employees excited to participate from our 12 easy-to-follow strategies to promote your mentoring.

4. Allow mentees to pick their match 

While it’s a common approach to pair participants manually or through software where the mentees are assigned a mentor, ERG members should have a say on who will work with them for the program’s duration. One surefire way to do this is following the mentee-led approach, which advocates pairing mentors and mentees via our software algorithm.

The software creates a list of potential mentors using the registration information provided by the mentee. This process ensures mentees select someone they feel comfortable with. 

5. Explore reverse mentoring 

Reverse mentoring is better suited for ERGs primarily because it allows a two-way exchange of knowledge and insights between junior and senior employees. 

Having experienced great trouble with group mentoring in her workplace, Ferguson endorses a traditional one-on-one style, whether peer-to-peer or reverse. 

“[Something ] that can help DEI efforts is reverse mentoring. In reverse mentoring, you have the less senior person mentoring the person in the ivory tower." 

Reverse mentoring, she believes, can help program directors achieve their goals. If the goal is diversity and inclusion, then pairing a white male executive with an Asian female employee could allow the leader to learn from the unique lived experience of an underrepresented employee. 

"While the goal is to get the senior person to be more aware of what it's like to be in an underrepresented group, the reality is that the person in the underrepresented group has access to a senior executive. So, while it's technically reverse mentoring, they do have access that they wouldn't normally have.”

6. Actively support the mentoring program

Ferguson believes company leaders should promote a friendly atmosphere that makes mentoring possible. 

For instance, if a mentee’s manager schedules a meeting at the same time they're meant to have a mentoring session, then the mentee should feel confident to decline that time slot. In explaining this further, Ferguson shares,

...part of it is getting the mentees comfortable enough. And that's something the organization can do: creating that environment where [making time for mentorship] is valued.”

She also believes management, especially HR, should make it known that they fully support the program, and as such, everyone, including the managers of the mentees, should do the same. 

How to start an ERG mentorship program 

When planning a mentoring program for an ERG, it’s best to adjust it to the ERG’s goals. For instance, a women-centered ERG will gladly welcome a mentoring program spearheaded by a senior female executive. 

Companies often struggle to decide whether to begin the program immediately or wait until everything is in place. When asked for a comment on this dilemma, Ferguson believes in launching the program and closely monitoring participants' progress. She recommends, 

Keep focusing on the mentee's needs. And if that means you start with five mentees and five mentors, and then it grows from that, [that’s fine]. Start small and manageable; start with something that has a reasonable chance of success, whatever it is.” 

Regardless of your ERG-centered mentoring program's goal, Together software will help you manage your program with ease. If you’re ready to start an impactful mentorship program, connect with our team to learn more.

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