When it comes to fostering employee happiness, motivation and productivity, cultivating an inclusive and supportive company culture is no small thing. As the U.S. workforce gets increasingly more diverse, it's never been more important for employees to feel safe, heard, valued and taken care of. This also opens the door for meaningful relationships—another important factor when it comes to moving the needle on collective business goals.
According to research out of the University of Surrey, workers who feel connected to their colleagues are less likely to jump ship. Unfortunately, employee isolation is all too real and so are the economic consequences that come with it. Coming to terms with that fact is a tall order for modern business leaders.
Enter Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which are exactly what the name implies: Company-sponsored initiatives that offer resources and support to different employee subgroups. ERGs have been around for a long time, but their value is becoming increasingly relevant. If employees don't feel comfortable and supported, how can they be expected to thrive?
Why start an Employee Resource Group?
For starters, they bolster diversity and inclusion efforts. Corporate leaders are tasked with energizing and supporting employee populations that represent all walks of life. This means that a one-size-fits-all employee support program is rarely the more impactful approach. Effective ERGs are built upon a strong understanding of the people they serve, including the unique challenges they face. Like the workers they represent, ERGs are diverse and always evolving.
Discover Financial Services, for example, has a robust employee population of veterans and military families. Chris Martin is one such employee. After serving in the first Gulf War, he transitioned into civilian life and began working with Discover in a variety of roles before helping to launch a Chicago-based ERG in 2015 called Honoring Military Veterans.
"When somebody is in the reserves and gets called up for active duty, which is something that happens more often now, you take a nuclear family and turn it into a single-parent household, and that has an impact," Martin told us.
The ERG's core mission? Connecting military families and veterans with each other and the community at large to make the journey a little easier. This could range from inquiring about flexible scheduling to meeting up with a colleague in another department who's been in your position and can offer advice and guidance. Martin says the ERG also plugs members into available military resources outside of the company. On the whole, Discover has a variety of different ERGs, all built around providing resources and tools to help employees connect with one another, build better work communities, and nurture inclusion in the workplace.
ERGs can also be an important resource for new hires. Shelton Goode, Ph.D., formerly the director of diversity and inclusion for Oshkosh Corp. has seen the benefits first hand. In 2016, he told the Society for Human Resource Management that at 90 percent of the companies he'd examined, ERG members helped new hires feel more at home during the onboarding process. This fact is crucial and warrants attention from employers, as the first few months at a new job can be especially tough for members of traditionally underrepresented groups, according to Goode. The takeaway here is to lead with compassion, then follow up with actionable support.
How to effectively structure your ERGs
There's no one right or wrong way to structure your ERGs, but here are some tips from the National Diversity Council:
Define who you are and what you want to achieve: This means getting clear on why you're forming these groups in the first place. Who will each ERG serve? What are your goals and how will you measure your progress? Sample objectives could be creating forums for education or developing systems to promote connectedness and reduce isolation, for example. From there, connect with your HR department to create an ERG application form for interested employees.
Clarify funding: Financial support comes with the territory. If you're working for a start-up with limited funds you may need to see what you can do without a large budget or see how you can work with other employee-engagement intiatives. When it comes to fundraising, connect with your public relations team to see if it's possible to collaborate on community events to raise money for causes and general awareness of the ERG.
Secure executive sponsorship: "This is key in setting this up because if you don't have buy-in from the executive group, it's probably not going to go anywhere," said Martin of Discover. In a nutshell, you want what you're doing within each ERG to make change across the company as a whole. Getting senior management on board is a must.
Get the ball rolling: Connect with whoever heads up your company's diversity and inclusion efforts to bring everyone together. The first two meetings or so will likely be devoted to developing the ERG's charter, which includes aligning its mission with the company's overarching business goals. Bring members into the fold so that they feel empowered and part of the goal-setting process.
Just be sure that when you're developing these objectives, they're sustainable—the last thing you want is for members to feel like they're taking on a second job on top of their regular position. The same goes for deciding on the specific activities your ERG will undertake to further its mission. To decrease the workload (and also spread your message), don't be afraid to collaborate with different departments. From brainstorming creative ideas to tackling the practical ins and outs of an event, working together is the name of the game. It's all about creating opportunities for connection, growth and understanding.
Illustrations by Tin Nguyen