Introduction to Employee Resource Groups: How to start one and keep engagement

In this episode, you'll learn all about Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) from what they are, history and evolution, as well as why they are beneficial.
We also discuss, how to start one, how to encourage people to join and how to keep engagement. Finally we explore if all businesses actually need an ERG.

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Karl Yeh:

So today, my guest, you've probably seen her before, her name is Janelle St. Omer. She is a social impact and DE&I professional. And today we're going to be talking about employee resource groups.

So, Janelle, I guess ERGs has been a hot topic in social impact, and we're hearing a lot about ERGs and why they're required, but let's bring it back a little bit. Let's take it back down to what is an ERG.

What is an Employee Resource Group?

Janelle St. Omer:

So basically an employee resource group is an employer-recognized, employee-led group of individuals who come together based off of a shared identity.

So typically this is to build community within the workplace to discuss personal performance, to discuss professional goals, and really just helping typically individuals from historically excluded populations to come together to really form that community at work.

So if you think of a women's group, a women's network, women in leadership, women in technology, or you think of a Black employee network or a Hispanic employee network, typically they're coming together based off of that shared identity and really helping to drive some of the business goals for the company, but then also drive some of the goals around growth and professional development for employees.

Karl Yeh:

Why would a company either encourage or enable people to have? What are the benefits, I guess, for both?

And you've touched on this a little bit. Benefits for both the employees and for the company.

Benefits of an Employee Resource Group

Janelle St. Omer:

So it's typically around empowerment and really building out that sense of community. Historically, a lot of companies...

As we know, diversity, equity, and inclusion has really been a thing that's been at companies for a number of years.

And employee resource groups were really designated to bring a voice to the employee, so where there was a disconnect in terms of how employees were actually feeling, the day-to-day realities of their lived experiences within the business, how they thought of opportunities or policies or procedures or any of those kinds of things in terms of was there inequity that existed, was there biases that existed.

So employee resource groups really came out of this need to give that voice to the employee and help them add to what a company is doing to actually enable a company to do it better.

So to really encourage a diverse and inclusive work environment, encouraging their employees to be themselves, providing them that space to come together to have that level of camaraderie and support and connection across the business based off of that shared identity.

So really it's for empowerment just to build that sense of community, and it's really to help the company tap into a group of people that perhaps they don't have that direct connection to, to allow them to actually do what they're doing better.

So if you think of things like materials or a website and things lacking in diversity, employees can really give voice to, hey, a lot of our images are actually not diverse and we really need to change that.

Or, hey, within my particular community, our company has a reputation for actually being really difficult to work with, difficult to get into, and exclusive.

So if from an employer brand standpoint, we actually want to be able to encourage more folks with disabilities to work here, or more people from the LGBTQ2 community, then we need to change some of these things.

So that employee voice that enables the company to make different decisions and changes in how they operate to actually be able to encourage a more inclusive and diverse employee force.

Karl Yeh:

And how has ERGs evolved over time?

Because I remember when I entered the workforce around what?

Like 2010 or so. I don't remember ERGs being a parent, but how has that evolved over time because it's been pretty prominent over the last couple of years.

Evolution of the ERG

Janelle St. Omer:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, ERGs have actually been around since the 1960s, and not a lot of people know that.

Xerox was the company I think that formed the first ERG.

So after the civil rights movement and stuff like that, and some of the riots in Rochester, New York, they were formed launching sort of their national Black employee caucus at the Xerox company at their headquarters to really advocate for change.

So it actually came out of that movement.

A lot of companies have had them for a number of years, but I think they've taken on various forms, some in terms of very formal and structured, others more informal within the business.

But I think to your point, over the last three years and really since the racial tensions of 2020, a lot more companies are tapping into really what it means to be a diverse and inclusive company to actually have equitable experiences for their people.

And as part of that, they're looking to actually bring in or start or structure an employee resource group.

And in many cases, it's actually coming from the bottom-up where it's the employees within a company who actually want to come together to this shared experience, shared identity.

In many cases, to actually encourage allyship across their company, so to help to educate and raise awareness of particular challenges for their communities within their company, but then also to really just come together and rally and support one another.

Karl Yeh:

So you mentioned bottom-up, and I think that leads to my next question about how do you start an ERG at a company that doesn't have one.

And maybe how do you know what type of ERG or the groups that would need to start one? And you mentioned this bottom-up.

Starting an employee resource group at your company

Janelle St. Omer:

Yeah, so typically it comes out of a need from employees, and it is supported by the company.

So if a company is looking to start one or an employees within a company are looking to start one, I really encourage you to...

There's many resources online around kind of an ERG charter and how you actually structure ERG.

And every company is a little bit different, but it's the kind of thing where most companies do encourage employees to come together to build community for a variety of reasons.

So it's not actually something that right out of the gate needs to be sort of company-sanctioned or any of those things unless you're trying to actually get at some of the DEI budget.

So in that case, I'm sure most companies will have some level of a structure around their DEI, an individual who's responsible for that.

So putting together a proposal, building out that employee resource group charter, and presenting it to that individual or that team within your business to say, this is the need that we've identified within the company.

This is how employees are currently feeling.

This is why we think an employee resource group could be important.

This is basically the level of support that we're looking for from you.

And having that conversation, that two-way dialogue around, does it fit within the mandate of the company, does it fit overall in terms of the culture of the company, and then kind of really starting from there.

I've certainly seen a lot of companies where it comes out of a particular event.

So if you think of a group coming together to do a campaign around Black History Month or International Women's Day, in many cases, you have groups of employees who want to come together to actually mark one of those cultural awareness dates and events, and then their group certainly evolves from there.

Karl Yeh:

Have you ever seen an ERG that maybe isn't aligned with the business goals?

I'm not saying they would be in direct conflict, but have you ever seen it where an employee resource group is not really connected to the business goals?

Has that ever happened before?

ERG Alignment to the Business

Janelle St. Omer:

Yes and no.

So I say yes in that, the reality is that with a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion programming strategy that some of the needs of employees from historically excluded populations and their lived experiences within the day-to-day of their business, there might be a misalignment in the true understanding as to a company's culture and how your employees actually feel.


So I certainly have seen and heard of examples where employees do want to come together to start a group because they recognize the benefits for themselves and for each other in terms of support and advocacy.

Really, you have more senior employees from a particular group mentoring more junior employees around just sort of navigating career challenges and all those things.

But the tension can sometimes come with the business where there is, well, there's not a need, ERGs are actually exclusive.

Or we don't have these sort of challenges around sexism or racism or homophobia or ableism within our company, so why are you trying to create a structure that's actually going to create division within a company?

But I think that in those cases, it's really where the employees from that particular group will start to really talk about the realities of the experience, ask about the employee engagement data, ask about the surveys that they have and some of the results.

And a lot of companies don't do a deep dive into their data to actually see that your employees typically from historically excluded populations, whereas your top line employee engagement data might be good and positive.

If you actually drill down one or two levels deeper, you'll actually, in some cases, see that there's a bit of a disconnect between what you're seeing at top line in terms of overarching employee engagement and how your employees from historically excluded populations might be feeling.

So I think that there's definitely a resolve that exists within that potential conflict and tension, but that's really only the time where I've seen it where there's just a mindset shift that's required in terms of the reality of the day-to-day.

A lot of companies hope and, of course, wish that everybody at their company is being their best selves and they're thriving and they're having these experiences that are super positive, but the reality is, in many, many cases, there's a lot of experiences of biases and microaggressions and there is not opportunities for career advancement.

And the individuals have challenges with their direct leader and don't feel like they can go to their leader's leader to have these conversations because they just haven't built out equitable structure or processes in place to make employees feel comfortable.

Karl Yeh:

What do you say to maybe some companies or people that would think, hey, if we have an ERG... And you touched on it a little bit.

Maybe it would lead to some internal division that maybe wasn't there because one group is specifically about, let's say, ableism, there's that group, but then there's one group about another topic.

They aren't in direct conflict, they're more about, here's an issue or here's a group that wants to learn more and be confident about this versus another.

So how would you answer that?

Could ERG’s be conflict with one another?

Janelle St. Omer:


So I mean, it's a great question and it's certainly something that I've come across quite a bit.

And the reality is I think that companies do need to be okay with the fact that employees from historically excluded populations typically are in the minority.

So global majority, but workplace minority.

So from that perspective, it's perfectly acceptable, okay, and should be encouraged and celebrated for those individuals to come together to support one another in whatever challenges that they're having.

And the reality is, if you don't actually want to see that or you do feel like it causes division, then perhaps having focus groups or conversations with those employees to really understand, well, why do you feel the need to create this group within the company?

There's usually a very, very real need that lies at the heart of the experiences they're having day-to-day within the workplace that they're a part of that is driving this, hey, we should actually form a group so that we can educate our colleagues or do more sort of awareness on the challenges that exist to be a person as I am coming from my particular sort of diverse dimension.

That's really what companies need to do, is like take a step back to really understand, well, usually these things just don't come out of nowhere.

So if it is coming up with our people, then maybe we should have some further conversations to understand why it's coming up, where is it coming from, and what can we do about it.

But the reality is, particularly in this hybrid world, and as we think of the future of work, companies are in this place where they really should be encouraging employees to build community at work.

There's science-based research to talk about if you have a best friend at work that you actually will stay longer, that if you feel purpose and engaged at work, then you'll perform better, all of those kinds of things.

So there's a lot of reasons in this war for top talent that companies are in right now to actually create the structure within your company that allows your employees to feel most connected and to really feel that sense of belonging.

That sense of belonging is so key in employee experiences.

So that would certainly be my recommendation or my advice if companies are thinking through it in that way, is to really take that step back, assess any data that you might have, have focus groups or conversations with individuals who are wanting to start it.

Because the reality is that even though a group is coming together to support one another, it doesn't mean that they're exclusive. And in many cases, they're completely open to allyship.

And there's a lot of allies that I've personally seen that are more... What's the word I'm looking for?

They're more focused and they're even more intent on driving equitable practices within companies because they recognize their power, their privilege, and their position within a company, and they want to do something good with it, so they are a part of those groups as well.

So it's not exclusive, and you usually see folks who, let's just say are part of your LGBTQ group who are also a part of your women in leadership group, who are also part of driving anti-Black racism in your company because they recognize the need to really drive diversity for everybody, and they want to be a part of raising that awareness.

Karl Yeh:

Once you have the infrastructure set up, and obviously, it's probably a bottom-up process, so there's a good number of people who want this group to exist.

If you're in like a large or enterprise organization, how do you encourage people to join?

Because you're going to have turnover, you're going to have new people coming into the organization, or people switch roles or whatever that is.

Let's say you're a global company too, and it's all over the place. How do you keep that membership?

How do you encourage people to join because sometimes you're like, "Ah, I don't even know that this group exists in my company?"

How do you encourage people to join your ERG?

Janelle St. Omer:

Yeah. So I mean, it's a really great question, and I think for the most part is very much in line with how you think about employee engagement overall and keeping that high.

So the same strategies that you use to keep your volunteers or your donors and all those is really the same kind of strategies that you use to communicate across the business to let folks know that your ERG exists.

So if you have a sort of structure where you have an executive sponsor, if you have the structure where you have champions across the business, where you really do want to implant these individuals so that they can be advocating for your particular group or advocating for diversity, equity, inclusion overall within the business.


And then encouraging people to get to know the different types of groups that exist, what those groups are about, and then encouraging their participation.

Encourage through events

A lot of times ERGs will drive their membership through events that they will do.

So they'll host an event within their workplace, and then the event is basically put on by your Black employee network as an example for Black History Month.

And then folks will say, oh, we have a Black employee network and they're doing these kinds of things.

What else are they up to? What are their goals? Can I actually join?

And then from a very tactical standpoint, you need to have a place where you can communicate.

Place to Communicate

So whether that's done through Slack or it's done through Microsoft Teams or email, or in Benevity's case, we have the Affinity Group product where we can actually have folks come together utilizing the technology.

But you definitely need to have a place where people can go to signify that they're a part of this group and then consume information from the leaders of the group, and then also kind of share and gather and learn together.

But whether that be Slack or otherwise, you really need to think about building that part out because folks often want a place to go to basically signal, hey, I'm a part of this group.

I've joined this Slack channel so I can be receiving information around the different events that they're going to do or the things that they're focused on, or how I can get more involved.

Karl Yeh:

And I think we're coming up to the question that I think a lot of companies who already have an ERG or just got their ERGs going is: How do you keep people engaged?

It's a tough thing to... People have different things going on in their lives.

And I would imagine there are some core members, but you need a lot more people to engage to keep that group going, right?

How to keep your ERG members engaged?

Janelle St. Omer:

Yeah, I think regular communication is so key.

For me, I always recommend that an ERG have a communications lead so that you can communicate out to the membership on a fairly regular cadence.

Thinking through I guess the two tracks of your memberships, so your core members who are a part of the particular group.

So if it's a women's group, let's just say, then you have your women who are a part of the membership, but then also you have your allies outside of the women's group within your company.

So thinking through what are the specific things that those folks will need and doing events or bringing folks together on a monthly basis, whatever sort of cadence to come together to really ensure that their needs are met and serving them to understand what are their needs.

So do they have needs around mentorship? Do they want professional development?

Would they like to hear from speakers or any of those things to really help their professional development as employees within your company?

So you're ensuring that you're kind of meeting the core members' needs.


And then from an allyship perspective, it's really getting allies involved to help to build their education, their awareness, asking them how they would like to be involved as well.

What are the types of things that they would like to do as being a part of this group that you can also help to drive? So that communications piece is huge.

I typically do encourage folks to think through those cultural awareness dates that happen throughout the year and use those as a nice marker to kind of collaborate or celebrate any of those types of events.

And then also working very closely with your people team or whomever is driving your diversity, equity, inclusion strategy as to, well, how often are we going to meet and what are the types of things that you might need from me.

Reporting back to the business

And then regularly communicating that back to the business so they can also see.

Maybe it's at a all-hands meeting around, okay, well, this is what this ERG is actually working on, this is how they're moving the needle on equity at my workplace.

And that's how you typically will encourage them to get and to stay involved.

A lot of companies will write from employee onboarding, let folks know that they have these ERGs at the company, and this is what the groups are all about, and this is how you can join them.

These are the roles that you'll typically need.

And then thinking through a succession plan on a annual or semi-annual basis as well. So how are you going to continue to have that core leadership group as part of your ERG structures that your ERG can actually stay in existence.

Because in many cases, ERGs are being done off of the side of individual's desks in addition to their day-to-day roles as an employee.

So it is difficult, where to your point, you move roles, you move teams, you move companies in some cases.

And so having that built-in structure where you're actually thinking about the longevity of the group and the types of things that the group is doing, that really helps to generally keep that engagement.

But I think communication is really, really key, and figuring out how and when to communicate and what.

So even if you're doing things like surveying on a regular basis, or if there's something interesting that's happening in your particular community, putting that out there.

I've seen companies that have had things evolve into book clubs where everybody is encouraged to come together and learn, or movie clubs where everybody watches a particular film and then has a nice discussion on it.

So things like that can really further the interest of the group, and they are also fun ways for people to come together as well.

Karl Yeh:

In your opinion,

Does you think every company or business really needs an ERG?

Janelle St. Omer:

No, I don't think that every company needs an ERG.

I think it really depends on the culture of your company and really are there employees within your company that actually have a need for it themselves?

So I would say your best case scenario is where to our conversation earlier about bottom-up, when you have employees who feel the need to come together or who feel the need to support each other, or who feel the need to commemorate some of these cultural awareness dates and stuff like that, they then will want to establish this ERG.

They'll work with the company to get the support and to establish it.

But I'm certainly not a proponent of creating ERGs just for the sake of creating ERGs, they really should be based off of a group who has an affinity towards each other, based off of a shared identity, based off of shared needs, shared experiences.

So if you don't actually have anybody who wants an ERG based off of need for their particular group, then I don't think that you need to create one just for the sake of creating one.

In those cases, if you do want to celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion, or you do want to drive diversity, equity, inclusion initiatives, you can have an inclusion council, you can have inclusion champions across the business of individuals who all... they want to step up to just ensure that diversity is top of mind for how the business operates overall.

So you can certainly have all of that without forming all these kind of small and separate employee resource groups specifically.

Karl Yeh:

So, Janelle, any final thoughts or comments on ERGs?

Janelle St. Omer:

Just that I think one done well, they can be a fantastic, fantastic resource to the business and to employees.

I think that what I've certainly seen in my time at Benevity and some of the ERGs that we have, it provides a safe space for employees to come together, for employees to collaborate, for employees to learn from each other in that safe way.

It provides a great sort of voice of the employee as well, where this is the reality of my experiences day-to-day.

It provides a mechanism for leaders to actually hear those stories and that voice as well.

And I think that they can be a fantastic asset to the company from a recruitment perspective, an attraction, retention perspective as well.

And I think that a lot of companies, for the most part, really do have their ERGs held to a great standard and they provide that support back to the ERGs as well.

But I think that there's an opportunity for some companies to really think about the structure. And do you reward and recognize your ERG leaders?

And do you actually provide them with the time in their day-to-day work for them to run the ERG?

Or do you have the full expectation that they're being run off the side of their desk in the morning and the evening on their personal time?

I've seen some companies like LinkedIn and others where they actually have a stipend for ERG leaders because they recognize the work that goes into creating and maintaining this structure is quite significant.

And I've also seen where companies have actually taken the results from the ERG and just the fact that an individual is running these ERGs into account in performance management time because then you're actually...

You are driving culture, you're driving some of the core business goals around building community and culture, and all those kinds of things as well.

So I think that they add a lot of value and then they add a lot of benefit to both employees and to the company but I don't think that they need to be had just to be had.

It really should be something that there is a need for and that there's going to be support for, and that there's going to be continuity in terms of individuals who do step up to lead the group.

So I think if you have all of those things in place, then absolutely, I think they can be a fantastic addition to culture at a company and really help to drive your DEI goals.

Karl Yeh:

So, Janelle, we can talk about ERGs for a long time, but if our audience wants to connect with you, what's the best place to reach you?

Janelle St. Omer:

Go ahead and connect with me on LinkedIn. That's the best way to do it.