Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) play a critical role in fostering safe and inclusive workplaces, but many employees and leaders don’t understand the value of ERGs or how they can get involved.

What are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)?

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are employee identity or experience-based groups that centre around building community. They generally focus on providing relational and instrumental support to members and contributing to personal and professional development in the work environment. They are also valuable pools of lived experience, knowledge, and energy that can be leveraged to support and strengthen an employer’s D&I efforts. As a network of individuals with shared experiences and needs, ERGs can also amplify the voice of different groups of employees to successfully advocate for change and influence change initiatives. These groups are voluntary and employee-led but are supported by HR and leadership.

What identity groups have ERGs?

Identity groups with ERGs vary across employers. The original ERG was created in the 1960s by Joseph Wilson, the CEO of the Xerox Corporation, who started a Black employee forum to fight discrimination in the workplace in response to the 1964 race riots in Rochester, NY. Today, ERGs support other traditionally marginalised groups of employees, including LGBTQ+, women, employees with disability, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees. ERGs may also form to connect employees who, although not necessarily traditionally marginalised, share experiences and can benefit from workplace alliances, such as carers or employees on flexible working arrangements.

Can you tell me more about the value of ERGs?

First and foremost, ERGs are a community. They offer a safe space for people with shared backgrounds and identities to come together and freely share their identities, experiences, and the challenges they that face in their work setting. ERGs provide a network of people sharing similar identities and experiences with opportunities for mutual support and developing friendships and professional relationships across the organisation at different levels and function. This can improve the experience of belonging for employees from identity groups that might be underrepresented in the organisation. Growing your network is also beneficial for job performance and career progression.

ERGs also provide a community for employees with shared challenges and experiences in their personal and professional lives to brainstorm solutions and a collective voice for advocating for change. Through executive sponsors (refer below) and relationships with other corporate functions, ERGs empower employees by giving them opportunities to speak with decision-makers about issues that matter to them.

ERGs also promote personal and professional development by providing access to and support for learning initiatives and growth for their members. Also, getting actively involved in an ERG can provide you with opportunities to broaden or deepen your skill set, for example, by working on communications campaigns or overseeing a project, and improves your visibility with senior management.

Who leads an ERG?

ERGs are not top-down initiatives but are led by employees themselves. Each ERG has its own framework for selecting leadership and committees, and those individuals assume responsibility for driving ERG initiatives with the input of all members.

What is the role of an Executive Sponsor?

One of the great things about ERGs is that they’re grassroots, which means they address an authentic need for community. But ERGs also have the experience, knowledge, and ideas needed to affect change in policy, practices, and mindsets across the organisation to improve the lived experiences of inclusion for its members. To achieve real change, however, they often need a member of the leadership team in their corner. This is the role of the executive sponsors. Executive sponsors are the ERG’s advocates in the C-suite. They are the ERG’s voice on the executive team and can secure meaningful leadership support for change initiatives. Under this framework, executive sponsors provide a back-seat support role; listening and providing mentoring and advocacy rather than leading the group’s discussions and activities. Executive sponsors are ambassadors—they talk about the ERG when community members aren’t in the room. This structure ensures that ERGs retain an authentic grassroots voice but also provides great opportunities for members to develop leadership skills that may help their career progression.

What role do allies play in an ERG?

Allies are an important part of an ERG’s member base. ERGs provide allies with opportunities for learning about and advocating for diversity and inclusion. Allies can attend events, lead projects, and serve on committees—these ERG opportunities are open to all.

Prior to joining an ERG, it is advisable for allies to start their advocacy work by going on their own learning journey to really understand their own identity and privilege by taking time to understand the community they want to support by reading about the specific challenges that the community faces through structural or systemic discrimination or inequality. It’s also useful for allies to research what it means to be an ally and how to role model inclusive and supportive behaviour, even when members of the ERG community aren’t in the room.

Can I join more than one ERG?

Whether an ally or a member of an ERG identity group, organisational members don’t have to limit themselves to one ERG. Being a part of one or more ERGs is an excellent way to deepen one’s D&I learning, amplify your advocacy efforts, and expand your network and opportunities.

How can people leaders support ERGs?

The role of leadership support for ERGs is not limited to Executive Sponsors. People leaders can support ERGs through mentoring ERG leaders and committees, making connections to key stakeholders, and giving visibility to the ERGs by acknowledging the networks in company meetings and contributing to ERG events and communications. Leaders can also champion ERGs to their peers by talking about their success and encouraging other leaders to get involved.

What is the relationship between ERGs and the D&I function?

As interpersonally-safe communities of employees with shared identities and lived experiences, ERGs support an employer’s D&I efforts by enhancing perceptions of respect and belonging. ERGs are also a valuable source of knowledge and lived experience that can be leveraged by employers to shape and improve D&I program success. ERG events and publications, for example, are educational opportunities for the rest of the workforce that support the efforts of D&I learning and development. ERGs can also partner with HR, procurement, communications, marketing, customer service, product development, and CSR to improve recruitment, talent management, employee engagement, supplier diversity, communications, market growth and reputation, product innovation, and community engagement and social initiatives. In this way, ERGs act as internal consultancies that partner with the business to drive improved outcomes. ERGs also support an employer’s D&I efforts by providing members with opportunities for developing leadership and other skills that can support and accelerate career progression.

However, while employee resource groups can have a big impact on a company, they are not the sole drivers of or have ultimate responsibility for organisational diversity and inclusion initiatives. ERGs are a small part of a much broader approach to impactful D&I. They cannot be expected to accomplish broad organisational change. They are a group of volunteers with day jobs, and it’s important that this is recognised.

How can HR support ERGs?

Despite the significant value of ERGs for employers and their members, many ERGs fail to achieve the impact they aspire for because of a lack of clarity on their purpose, weak governance, and low organisational support. HR can support the success of ERGs by providing clarity on the purpose and vision of ERGs, establishing an effective governance framework, investing in leadership training and ongoing coaching, and making connections to internal functions that can support their success (e.g., communications, learning and development). Leading employers also formally recognise the efforts of ERG leaders in performance and reward. This legitimises those roles and helps to ensure that people leaders provide ERG leaders with the time needed to perform those roles effectively without suffering from burnout.