As workplaces focus more on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), many organizations are realizing the importance of the “I” in that equation—inclusion. Representation is key, but ultimately, employees need to feel valued and included in order to live up to their full potential and remain at an organization. Building and supporting Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) is one tried-and-true way that companies can foster a sense of belonging among workers.
Employees who feel a high sense of belonging are far more likely to be engaged, loyal and to promote their organizations as good places to work than those who feel lower levels of belonging, according to research by Coqual.
What are ERGs?
ERGs are voluntary grassroots groups that offer an opportunity for people with common identities or interests in the workplace to come together. These groups, which may also have other names, including affinity groups, business resource groups (BRGs) or business resource networks (BRNs), offer forums in which employees can share experiences, information and resources in a supportive environment. ERGs often focus on underrepresented or historically disadvantaged groups, for example women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA, veteran or disabled employees. But they’ve also evolved to focus on working parents, mental health, wellness and beyond.
Among Fortune 500 companies—such as Amazon and PNC— 90 percent utilize ERGs as an employee engagement strategy. While ERGs are most often employee-led, formal company support is crucial for them to thrive and contribute to the organization as a whole.
How ERGs Support Employees
ERGs foster a sense of belonging in several ways. These groups offer a psychologically safe space for discussion, solidarity and support, in which people can feel free to self-identify and be their authentic selves. They create a sense of community, which can have a huge positive impact on employees’ feelings of trust and engagement.
ERGs also provide opportunities for participants to simply be heard, not only by other members of their group, but by the larger organization. Group members can also learn from one another and take advantage of resources for personal and professional development, whether formal and informal.
How ERGs Benefit Organizations
By supporting ERGs, companies foster a diverse, inclusive work environment and cultivate a culture of allyship. Working with these groups can help companies:
- Better understand employee needs and perspectives
- Glean important insights on company processes, products and performance
- Foster employee development and identify potential leaders
- Enable important conversations such as those around race, gender, etc.
These results not only cultivate employee well-being and engagement, but benefit organizations as a whole with a higher level of internal awareness and cohesion, which can lead to greater employee retention.
Examples of Best Practices for ERGs
While ERGs are a valuable tool for increasing inclusion, not all are created equal. Companies can increase the effectiveness of these groups by following best practices to maximize impact.
ERGs should be established with a clear sense of mission and specific goals connected to business impact. Goals can include priorities such as growing employee engagement, increasing retention, or deepening diversity among leadership and management. Goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based), and progress should be measured regularly, using defined data, to demonstrate impact. This ensures the program proves impactful, and the ERGs will stay aligned with organizational objectives.
Build in Mentoring
Mentoring and ERGs go hand in hand as proven tools to increase a sense of belonging within the workplace. ERGs bring together a select pool of likely candidates for both mentors and mentees, and mentoring forms relationships that contribute to accomplishing the overall goals of the ERG.
Mentoring offers ERG participants deeper opportunities to build skills, engage in crucial conversations and build accountability. This can be in the form of one-on-one mentoring relationships or group formats that appeal to the existing setup of ERGs such as mentoring circles or group mentoring.
ERGs have been an important resource for employees battling isolation and seeking to maintain connection during the pandemic. With remote and hybrid workplaces seemingly here to stay, it’s important for ERGs to be just as effective virtually as they are in person. Any technology platforms used should offer the flexibility to facilitate the kind of communication that best serves ERG members’ needs.
Support with Resources
ERGs need organizational support in order to live up to their potential. While ERGs should determine their own missions and parameters, executive sponsorship and stakeholder involvement can set ERGs up for success by demonstrating the importance of such groups to the company. Executive sponsors can help ERGs on an ongoing basis by providing support in the form of visibility, vocal recognition or networking.
Company funding and resources are also important. These can include dedicated budgets, administrative resources, company-provided staffing, financial rewards for group leaders, formal onboarding programs and direct influence on business decisions and more.
With the help of ERGs, companies can put a greater focus on employee belonging and support. Long term, this kind of investment offers big rewards in terms of both employee well-being and organizational success.