How employee resource groups can empower workers and help organizations of all sizes achieve their goals.
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Successful companies execute all the basics well. Management demonstrates leadership, the workforce has room for growth and opportunities to innovate, and employee innovation is implemented within the organization. It was in this environment that Caitlin Taylor and her Women at IBM colleagues made an impact.
Taylor joined the New York offices of IBM – the former Fortune 500 company widely considered one of the best places to work for women – shortly after graduating from college. Shortly after onboarding, she joined an email list focused on women’s opportunity and advancement led by Marianne Cooper, now the company’s vice president. The mailing list led to quarterly events, then more frequent meetings on the topics of gender diversity and inclusion, and eventually resulted in a formalized organization: the company’s largest chapter on gender diversity and inclusion. women at IBM, which has more than 1,000 members in the New York area. .
Women at IBM is an example of an employee or enterprise resource group, a collective of company employees affiliated with a particular affinity group that champions the needs of that community within the organization. It was IBM women who pointed out to company management that not all bathrooms in the company’s 131 offices in 97 countries were reliably supplying feminine hygiene products from base, forcing women to bring their own tampons or waste time during work hours rushing to find one quickly. Now, thanks to Taylor and Women at IBM, the global computing powerhouse offers tampons in all of its restrooms around the world.
“Men might not have to think about it, but women do, every month,” Taylor said.
Knowing that the restroom at work has exactly what you need throughout the day might seem like a daily concern, but small victories like these have immense psychological benefits. Employees feel empowered, management feels caring, and the collective sense of goodwill helps the organization pursue its larger goals. At IBM, this victory might not have happened without an employee resource group (ERG) dedicated to women. And if a company is willing to listen, these groups can impact hiring practices or warn when products or brand identity are unsuitable – for people of color, for trans people, or for others. other populations whose perspectives and needs can be brought directly to management by an employee. resource group.
First known as “workplace affinity groups”, business resource groups trace their origins in the United States to the racial conflicts of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s. Xerox, alarmed by race riots in Rochester, New York, where the company was then headquartered, began a phased hiring program. However, new black hires still faced discrimination on the job, so the company created a workplace group called the National Black Employees Caucus – the nation’s first recognized ERG.
ERGs have been standard office practice for corporate America since at least the early 2000s. Although a growing number of traditional companies, as well as startups and nonprofits, now have management or leadership dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, and many other companies seek advice from outside consultants, including university-level researchers. —ERGs “are where the rubber meets the road” when a company sets and achieves its DEI goals, Taylor said. “This is where the real work that needs to be done to create a truly inclusive organization is done.”
“They’re playing an even bigger role than ever because of the times we’re going through right now,” agreed Joseph B. Hill, a former diversity director and managing partner of JB5C, an Atlanta-based DEI-focused consulting firm. .
There are many incentives for companies large and small, as well as non-profit organizations, to achieve DEI’s core goals, including both a diverse and accommodating workplace as well as a corporate identity. brand and product offering acceptable to a wide range of people. Board members, as well as the public, pay attention to workforce metrics, and many companies have mandates from their employees and the public to diversify their employee base, senior management and their boards of directors.
Gen-Zers and young Millennials have been known to turn down a higher-paying job offer in favor of a lower-paying position at a company with a better DEI culture, including corporate-chartered ERGs. And consumers will quickly abandon a brand that presents a tone-deaf or culturally insensitive front or makes an avoidable public relations mistake caused by too narrow a perspective within the company.
Externally, ERGs identify new markets and product gaps, and also serve as a check on brand consistency and identity. Healthcare companies need ERGs to inform equitable care; big brands like Nike need ERG to inform product and marketing to stay relevant to customers.
Internally, ERGs go a long way in creating employee satisfaction, giving members a voice and a sense of being recognized and welcomed within the organization. This is more important than ever during the Great Post-Pandemic Resignation. “People quit if they don’t feel supported or treated well,” said Hill, who echoed other experts in stressing the importance of employees feeling they have a voice within. of the company – and that this voice is heard and put into practice. .
“I always say every business could use a GRE,” he added. “It impacts the business, so it becomes a business imperative.”
However, an ERG must be more than just a group of like-minded individuals or people of the same gender, skin color, or other orientation.
“We all aspire to belong, and affinity groups are a way in an organization where people can come together and at least feel like they belong in the group – and the hope is that they belong in the company too” said James T. McKim, Jr., managing partner at Organizational Ignition, a New Hampshire-based company that offers DEI training and workshops.
“Affinity groups are sometimes part of what we consider DEI goals. DEI’s goal is: “We have to form affinity groups, and once we have formed them, we have achieved that goal,” McKim added. “But that doesn’t help you achieve the goals and objectives of the organization.”
The challenge, according to McKim, is “if you don’t set up an affinity group whose purpose is not only to ‘provide a sense of belonging’, but also to contribute to the goals and objectives of the company, it’s just a club. And clubs are great for a sense of belonging, but they don’t help the organization.
A genuine and truly effective ERM will therefore have a charter from the board of directors or a senior executive. They will have an executive sponsor. They will have the opportunity to present their views and criticisms to the board and management, and the board and management will have a responsibility to listen and consider what the ERG is saying. , even if it is inconvenient or uncomfortable.
“So if you have a goal of, say, increasing your revenue by 10% next year, there are some things you can do from a DEI perspective that will help you achieve that: tracking innovation, follow ideas, follow who comes up with ideas,” McKim said. “Are you using the same people to come up with ideas and not getting a diverse perspective from a diverse employee base? affinity to come up with product and service ideas? The key here is to use affinity groups to achieve business goals or mission goals and guidelines.”
A legitimate and empowered GRE will also be allowed to develop a long-term vision and a strategic plan to achieve that vision. However, this plan “should always be aligned with business goals,” McKim added. “An ERG that is not aligned with business goals and initiatives can become a sort of pseudo-union. But that is not the question. »
However, ERGs are not panaceas. “They don’t solve all the problems,” said Alvin B. Tillery, Jr., a professor of political science at Northwestern University and director of the school’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy, which has noted that academic research on ERGs “is still not super robust.
Employees who take on leadership or organizational roles in a GRE may quickly find they’ve taken on what can amount to a second job, with no additional pay. “They can be spaces that create a ton of burnout, especially when there aren’t professional support staff,” he said.
Organizations that offer employees who work with an ERG extra pay or extra recognition “really have the best results,” Tillery noted. And in the age of social media, “they can’t be BS,” he added.
And ERGs can create friction within a company, especially if an ERG run by younger employees faces a generational divide when presenting their suggestions or demands to a board or team. of management. “Let’s be real: baby boomers and older Gen Xers have very different ideas of what work and the workplace are supposed to be like than millennials and Gen Z,” Tillery added. If a board creates an ERG but does not adjust hiring practices, promote people of color within the company, or ignore requests to cut ties with problematic customers, the ‘ERG can reveal deeper and deeper cracks within the organization that need to be fixed. “That tension is real, and it’s not going away anytime soon,” Tillery said.
It is clear that if a large company wants to attract talent, ERGs are essential. “And that wasn’t the case five years ago,” Tillery said. “I have young, affluent white students who wouldn’t work anywhere without ERGs for people of color and LGBT people. I advised students to accept jobs and they said no, because the culture did not suit them.