How to Include Hourly Workers in Employee Resource Groups

By Barbara Frankel

Ameren Hourly Workers
Summers, Kraus, Scott

Greginald “Reggie” Summers is a machinist who has worked for the same company for 36 years and wants to better connect with younger workers.

Tim Kraus is an accountant who never served in the military but believes strongly in the value of veterans in the workplace.

Brad Scott, a welder, sees more women coming on to crews and wants to ensure they have an inclusive corporate culture.

Sylvia Buford, an operations-support representative, will be retiring soon and wants to find ways to stay engaged at work.

Petra Humphrey, a banking and accounts-receivable examiner, needs to work for a company that encourages philanthropy and employee volunteerism.

All five of these employees are hourly workers who are active members of employee resource groups at Ameren, the St. Louis–based utility company that is No. 4 on The DiversityInc Top 7 Regional Utilities list. Ameren, along with Toyota Motor North America (No. 48 on The 2013 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list), CVS Caremark and General Motors (both DiversityInc 25 Noteworthy Companies) has addressed the issue that concerns many companies: How do you get hourly and union workers involved in employee resource groups without paying overtime or taking them off crucial shift responsibilities?

“A third of our U.S. workforce is hourly and this is a tough issue,” says Nancy Adams, former diversity leader at Altria Group who now is in HR Client Services. Altria, also a 25 Noteworthy company, has very young resource groups but the company already has started implementing some of the diversity-management best practices that have helped the other companies cited here.

Best Practices in Including Hourly Workers

Both the companies and the employees we interviewed all stressed four best practices in successfully involving hourly workers—buy-in from their managers, prior planning for absences, clear guidelines and expectations, and use of virtual and other creative means of communicating.

1.     Middle Manager Support

Sharon Harvey Davis, Ameren
Harvey Davis

Summers’ interest in understanding younger workers led him to join Ameren’s Multi-Generational Employee Resource Group (MERG) in 2010; a year later, he was voted vice president of the group. “It took up time but I have a very good relationship with management at our power plant, with the first-line foreman and the plant manager. What makes it very easy for me as a union person is that they are both on board with diversity,” Summers says.

Sharon Harvey Davis, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Ameren, recalls that when employee resource groups were first starting at the company in 2009–2010, “we did have supervisors who said that if an employee wanted to take time off [to work on the employee resource group], they’d have to take vacation time.”

How did Ameren change that mindset? Every member of the executive-leadership team is an executive sponsor of a resource group. “If there is a supervisor with whom we are having a problem, we go to the executive sponsor,” Harvey Davis says. “Getting them involved really helps us make the case.”

2.     Prior Planning; Dealing With Overtime

At CVS Caremark, Colleague Resource Groups are open to all employees, including those in the retail stores. Activities are planned during lunch hours or before or after work to allow as many employees as possible to participate. Virtual events are also encouraged.

David Casey, CVS Caremark

Employees are not paid for time spent on resource groups, although they are encouraged to take on leadership positions. “Our CRGs are meant to be a volunteer activity that is completed during a colleague’s free time,” says David Casey, Vice President, Workforce Strategies and Chief Diversity Officer.

Harvey Davis of Ameren admits it’s not always easy. “The most difficult area is the call center, not the power plant,” she says of her company. As an example, she recalls an employee-resource-group meeting at the Decatur, Ill., facility involving about 50 employees, most of them hourly workers in the call center. “They scheduled the time in advance or we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she says.

Overtime doesn’t come up—“Their time is considered volunteer time,” Harvey Davis says. Scott, who is a member of the women’s resource group, says prior planning is critical. “My boss is really good. He plans ahead to schedule,” he says. “I’m the only welder in my area so it’s really important.”

Ken Barrett, General Motors

At General Motors, where the United Auto Workers represents hourly workers, Chief Diversity Officer Ken Barrett notes that employee-resource-group work is voluntary—not for overtime or compensation. He cites the example of a chapter of the Latino employee resource group at the Arlington, Texas, plant, where union workers are very active. “At the end of the day, we have to work together as a team. Although there may be challenges that organizations face getting buy-in for hourly workers to actively participate in resource groups, the value of an engaged employee to enhance teamwork shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s a game changer!”

Barrett says GM has had the most success working with the UAW on the veterans employee resource group. “Both the UAW and the company really wanted to hire more veterans and we teamed up to work together,” he says, noting GM has more than 5,000 current employees and 45,000 retirees who are veterans.

At Toyota, hourly workers have different rules on employee-resource-group participation depending on the employee’s position/business unit. Policies and procedures clearly spell out when manufacturing employees can work on resource groups, such as nonwork time before or after lunch, says Orvietta Shannon, Assistant Manager, Corporate Responsibility, Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America (TEMA). On the sales and finance side, workers can participate in employee resource groups during the workday if the time is preapproved by their managers. If they assume leadership positions, they are eligible for overtime for some of the resource-group work if it’s directly related to company business, especially in California because of state law on overtime.

“Our policy states that our Business Partnering Group meetings and activities should occur primarily outside of regular work hours and are nonpaid. In the event that a meeting or activity must be during regular work hours, supervisor approval is needed.  This ensures no negative impact to business needs, team-member job responsibilities or team,” says Sue Bruin, Assistant Manager, Corporate Responsibility, TEMA. “If it is a business request from Toyota to BPG members, then the event could be during regular work hours and normal pay guidelines would apply.”

As an example: The African-American employee resource group put together care packages for the community; since this was voluntary activity, the workers did not get compensated. Similarly, employees attending development activities over lunch sponsored by resource groups do not get compensated. However, BPG members who attend career fairs, recruiting events or participate in focus group activities would be compensated for their time.

Many hourly workers take on employee-resource-group leadership at Toyota. Gail Herring, Communications Coordinator, Toyota Motor Sales, estimates that in California, 70 percent of employee-resource-group members and 50 percent of leaders are hourly workers. While leadership positions for hourly workers are less frequent at TEMA (Shannon estimates they represent 5 to 10 percent of leaders), the key to success is clarity on what’s allowed and what’s not.

“If workers are having challenges with their direct managers, we encourage them to share this with their diversity council or the executive sponsor, who will speak directly to that manager,” says Herring.

3.     Clear Guidelines and Expectations

All of the companies interviewed here—and more than 85 percent of the DiversityInc Top 50—open their employee resource groups to all employees, including hourly and union workers.

Nancy Adams, Altria Group

“You have to be clear about time spent and other issues,” says Altria’s Adams, whose company’s groups are just starting. “Hourly people at our production facilities are welcome to be members. However, we are clear that for programs or events that go on during the workday, the hourly employees would have to attend on their own time.”

At Ameren, hourly workers who want to join employee resource groups fill out an application and must get prior approval from their supervisors.

Harvey Davis says it’s important that everyone—supervisors and workers—understands that business comes first. “If the call center is telling us our wait times for customers are up to four minutes and our goal is 90 seconds or less, then we need all hands on deck,” she says.

Barrett agrees. “At the end of the day, you are still tied to your job whether you are on the salary or the union side. There is enough redundancy in the ERG that they are not relying on one person to drive things,” he says.

4.     Creative Communications

Historically, one of the biggest barriers to reaching hourly workers, particularly those in manufacturing or plant facilities, has been the lack of work computers. Barrett says this is no longer an issue at GM since there are computer workstations around the site available for plant employees to access their benefits and other internal messaging.

All the companies interviewed stressed the need for virtual communications—and some also recommended having videos shown during lunch breaks at manufacturing facilities. Emphasizing the benefits of membership in these communications is important.

At CVS Caremark, for example, the benefits are clearly outlined, including the opportunity to network with people across the country in very different positions.

The Ameren hourly employees cited the value their group involvement has brought to them.

“I was pretty engaged already but this helped me be much more engaged with more people in different areas of the company,” says Humphrey, a member of both Women Influencing Success in Energy (WISE) and Ameren Network of Minority Employees (ANME).

Kraus, who helped found and lead the veterans group, now also serves on the Ameren Diversity Council, where he has exposure to senior executives. “It was intimidating at first. But it got me more comfortable presenting and meeting people. They are pretty much the same as you and I, they just have more responsibility,” he says.

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