November 19, 2015 — Catalyst just kicked off the second year of its Employee Resource Leadership Initiative (ERLI), which consists of an annual conference, regional roundtables around the world, and avid social networking. While we’ve been working with ERGs since the 1980s, we have learned a lot over the last year in particular about their position in the workplace. We asked ERLI’s lead architect, Candice Morgan, to share some key insights about common misperceptions ERG leaders often face, particularly in the early stages of establishing a new group.
Myth #1: ERGs give some employees special privileges over others.
This notion is so pervasive that some employees worry about the optics of joining a group for fear they will be seen as exclusionary—or, worse, as benefitting from tokenism. I’ve heard young women say they shy away from women’s groups for fear that joining will harm their relationships with male colleagues. They don’t want to be perceived as having advanced “because they are a woman.” The truth is that most ERGs arise from a lack of networks and developmental opportunities for employees from backgrounds that differ from those of the majority of an organization’s senior leaders. Employees from minority groups are more vulnerable to being excluded from the powerful informal networks that enable “insiders” to gain important knowledge about a company’s unwritten rules, advancement opportunities, and access to influential sponsors. Research has repeatedly shown that women tend to have fewer high-level sponsors than men. Women of color, including black women, have networks containing the fewest white men—and it’s very hard to advance in most corporate environments in North America without white male allies. ERGs are formal ways of distributing professional opportunities more broadly and fairly throughout an organization.
Myth #2: Having “special groups” for certain employees furthers exclusion.
A common myth is that by separating employees into groups or clubs, ERGs run contrary to inclusion. ERGs often grow out of some employees’ desire to connect with others who have similar backgrounds and experiences, but they also advise organizations on how to connect with employees who are often marginalized, ultimately promoting career development and culture change that expands inclusion for all. ERGs have helped organizations counteract exclusionary policies, for example by helping to shape domestic partner benefits for LGBT employees at Ford. Internally, they educate colleagues on cultural differences and raise awareness to improve the overall work culture for everyone. Without strategic planning, some ERGs are so focused on social networking that they are perceived as unwelcoming to those who do not share the identity around which the group was formed. But well-managed ERGs are (1) visibly supported by key business leaders and (2) hold events that are open to all employees. Such groups foster connections like never before; for example, one-third of Chevron’s employees belong to an ERG. In short, unlike more informal networks, ERGs can actually increase cross-company connections and lead to greater inclusion.
Myth #3: Employee networks are social clubs with little impact on the business.
Since ERGs first appeared at companies in the 1980s, their potential (and realized) impact on companies has evolved significantly! The first area of impact has typically been employee engagement; an ongoing Catalyst survey shows that participation in ERGs was linked to higher employee loyalty and satisfaction. Companies like Sodexo and Dell have seen employee engagement improve exponentially as a result of ERGs (click here to listen to a recent discussion on ERG impact). Many studies link higher employee engagement to enhanced productivity and performance. Second, nearly all formal ERGs expand professional development through trainings, information sharing, workshops, mentoring, and visible events. This development extends externally, as many ERGs form important community partnerships that bring in new hires and enhance organizational reputation. Finally, roughly half of ERGs are now known as Business Resource Groups, given their increasing focus on client, product, or service-related innovation and development. From Campbell Soup Company, which leveraged its women’s groups to increase sales of certain product lines, to Chevron, which was given valuable advice on Hispanic marketing opportunities by its Latino ERG, Somos, ERG impact on the bottom line continues to multiply!
In short, ERGs are not social clubs created to hurt or disadvantage those who don’t share the identity of the majority of their members. They are an increasingly crucial resource that smart companies invest in to bring together employees, develop and engage talent, and deliver better results across the board.
Learn more at www.catalyst.org/erli-employee-resource-leadership-initiative, and share your own experiences with ERGs in the space below!