A new year typically ushers in new energy and fresh ideas. This is especially true for employee resource groups and the planning committees that run them. Employee Resource Groups — also commonly referred to as “ERGs,” “business resource groups” or “affinity groups” — have been a vital part of business operations in many large organizations for decades, but with the increasing diversification of America’s workforce, their value and significance has grown considerably in recent years.
From a business perspective, the importance of ERGs is clear: They deepen employee’s understanding of different cultures, people and experiences. They also empower employees to expand their networks and accelerate personal growth and development.
In many organizations, ERGs not only provide social support for members, but they have also become a key aspect of a company’s culture and an avenue to building cultural competency. ERG-sponsored company events, whether it’s an opportunity for employees to volunteer or lead a committee, provide members of a workforce with professional development opportunities and can help to significantly expand their skills. They also provide members with leadership opportunities they may not otherwise get in their day-to-day roles.
When they’re running at their peak, ERGs can be incredibly powerful. The influence they wield and the opportunities they offer an organization to enhance their corporate culture is like nothing else. Successful events not only allow members of an ERG the unique opportunity to connect with one another, they can also impact a community — especially as annual events expand and grow over time. Outside your existing workforce, these events can even help to attract new talent and bring in new customers, increasing profits and improving a company’s bottom line.
However, the impact an ERG can have on an organization (as well as the overall success of the events that an ERG sponsors) is ultimately dependent upon how well the group is organized, staffed and managed. Is the leadership clearly defined? Are the events well thought out and optimized for success? Are the initiatives connected to the business to drive impact? Will they connect with both members of the ERG and the workforce as a whole? Does the group have adequate formal funding? Answering these types of questions is one of the most common challenges ERG leaders face. It can be a challenge, but with the right strategic approach, it can definitely be achieved.
The 4C Operating Model
Introduced by Dr. Robert Rodriguez of DRR Advisors LLC in 2008, the 4C Operating Model can serve as an ideal framework to utilize when planning corporate events and activities. In his book, Latino Talent, Dr. Rodriguez states that “while ERGs have grown in sophistication, the methods their leaders use to measure effectiveness, contributions and progress have not.” This model provides ERG leaders with a structure to the planning process that will ensure events are poignant and valuable. It’s recommended to have the annual calendar of events include a balance of activities in all four categories: career, community, commerce and culture.
Employees at all levels in their career are provided an opportunity to enhance their skills through robust professional development efforts with initiatives aimed at developing competencies and grooming future leaders. Some common themes include:
- Professional development training on various topics such as workplace conflict management and resolution or finding comfort in public speaking
- Lunch and learns, internal educational workshops, roundtable discussions or external presentations with local partners
- Speed networking events
- “Day in the Life” events that allow employees to shadow other departments within the organization to learn about different career opportunities
ERGs can positively impact the community they’re based in through volunteer programs, active involvement in community programs and/or through volunteer initiatives that help showcase the company’s vision, mission and values. Possible events can include:
- External community efforts such as putting together care packages for the military or local schools or hosting a fundraiser for a diversity scholarship program.
- Volunteer initiatives like serving at a homeless shelter, non-profit organization or local veterans affairs hospital or hosting a blood drive.
- Serving as a liaison for community organizations to help enhance the company’s reputation and brand.
- Collaborating with external thought leaders to raise awareness on key issues important to the organization’s vision and mission.
In addition to building a stronger workforce, ERGs can also help to drive business and profits by providing consumer insights, fostering innovation and broadening the corporate vision with sustainable solutions. Some possible initiative ideas include:
- Getting involved in future product development and as a group, become an incubator to solutions. One Fortune 500 company recently reviewed their organization’s literature internally and externally and made suggestions to HR on how to use inclusive language throughout.
- Evaluating the organization’s mentoring programs to better understand ways to make them more inclusive and impactful.
- Participating in consumer focus groups, expos or marketing events to help drive revenue-generating efforts for the company.
ERGs have a positive impact on their members and the company’s culture by enhancing the employee’s sense of pride and knowledge. Employee engagement and retention are improved by deepening members’ connection to the company’s vision and mission. Some initiatives include:
- Cultural Festival Celebrations
- Inviting influential authors or activists to speak to the attendees about race relations, civil rights or other critical topics surrounding identity.
- Hosting a trivia event over lunch or happy hour to engage employees and get them thinking about and discussing prominent leaders in history. Include raffle prizes for books and gifts from cultural organizations to further support the cause.
- Making recommendations to HR to have a company-wide fundraiser for a cultural charity group that serves underrepresented groups.
- Leverage tools like DiversityInc’s “Meeting in a Box” toolkits to educate on cultural languages or accepted terms in the ERG newsletter, including things NOT to say. This is something that can be done all year long with a dedicated spot in your newsletter where people can quickly engage and learn.
Tips & Best Practices
One common mistake ERG leaders make when planning activities and events is that they fail to collaborate with each other and co-host initiatives, events and programs. This provides an opportunity for different ERG groups to learn more about each other, and it enables them to pool resources to support budget needs and worker resources. Another mistake is they unknowingly plan events solely in the cultural category, especially if that’s the premise of their group. For example, it is best to have at least one event each year from each category to avoid having mostly “cultural” events and not enough “commerce” related events. Most Fortune 500 organizations have an average of 10 employee resource groups. That said, if each ERG plans 4 major events a year, that provides an abundance of opportunities for all employees to engage multiple times a year.
Most organizations are encouraging inclusivity by ensuring that all events are open to all employees, including non-members of the ERG. It’s a great way for non-members to learn about the group and possibly find ways to get involved. A common way companies are ensuring inclusivity is by purposefully hosting a cultural event during a dedicated awareness month. Below is a list of some of the nationally recognized commemorative months that are commonly recognized and celebrated throughout many organizations. DiversityInc Best Practices provides additional content on some of these celebrations (indicated with a *) to include as a reference tool that will assist in your planning efforts.
- Autism Awareness Month*
- National Volunteer Month
- Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month*
- National Military Appreciation Month
- Memorial Day
- Independence Day
- International Nonbinary Peoples’ Day
- Nelson Mandel International Day
- Disability Independence Day
- National Culinary Arts Month
- Boomers Making a Difference Month
- Hispanic Heritage Month*
- Labor Day
- International Equal Pay Day
- Native American Day
- National Disability Employment Awareness Month*
- LGBTQ History Month
- World Mental Health Day
- National Coming Out Day
- Global Diversity Awareness Month
- Native American Heritage Month*
- Military Family Month
- Veterans Day*
- International Men’s Day
- Diwali (festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs)
- Transgender Day of Remembrance
- World HIV and AID Day*
- International Day of Persons with Disabilities
- International Human Rights Day
Bringing It All Together
Combined with the 4C Operating Model, events held during the commemorative month are inclusive and educational. Many organizations instruct all ERGs to host an event or activity during Black History Month or a cultural event in March for National Women’s History Month to provide multiple opportunities for non-members to engage in various ways that are most agreeable for each employee. This strategy has enhanced the ERGs overall because it encourages them to collaborate and learn from other groups as well. This can also serve as a prominent time to partner with other ERGs within the organization to combine efforts for an even greater impact.
The organizations with the highest ERG company-wide engagement strategically plan a blend of events throughout the year in multiple ways. Whether the organization utilizes the 4C framework or utilizes a different approach, successfully hosting a well-attended, impactful event is a lot of work and should be acknowledged. The impact these activities can have in an employee’s life both at work and at home is immeasurable and rewarding. Whether it is a new year or a new strategy to your ERG event planning, these best practices will help you exceed expectations and ultimately increase employee engagement and drive business impact along the way.
Dana Noweder, M.Ed., SHRM-CP joined DiversityInc as senior manager of client fulfillment in November 2020. She serves as an advisor on diversity and inclusion data, programs, initiatives and best practices. Noweder’s extensive experience in start-up corporate environments has allowed her the privilege to use her adoration for people to create dynamic, inclusive workplace cultures where employees feel empowered with equal opportunities for growth and development.