The Key to ERG Impact? Moving from Council to Coalition

By Alida Miranda-Wolff

Employee Resources Groups (ERGs) are experiencing a major growth surge. According to the 2021 Women in the Workplace Study, developed through a partnership between McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, about 35% of companies have created additional ERGs since 2020 or expanded their investment in existing ones.

Increasingly, organizations are relying on these groups to represent the interests of their underrepresented employees, from asking them to draft racial equity plans to make strategic recommendations on hiring. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kevin Martin, Chief Research Officer of the Institute for Corporate Productivity, stated that as of today, 90% of all major U.S employers have ERGs in place.

This growth stems, in part, from the national response to the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, along with changing attitudes towards diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) in the workplace. Namely, workers are demanding their organizations increase representation, support equality and equity, and engage in socially conscious behaviors.

But are ERGs in their current form the answer to workplace inclusion and equity?

The ERG Challenge

The reality of most ERGs is that employees work on complicated problems inside the organization on a volunteer basis, often in relation to specific social identities like racial identity, gender identity and disability.

While some organizations compensate their employees for these efforts, most don’t, nor do they consider employees’ contributions to ERGs as part of their job descriptions. Consequently, ERG members are often developing and launching initiatives after hours, during lunch breaks and over weekends without additional compensation to show for it.

Because of the limited time and resources (as well as the existing blueprints), ERGs tend to focus solely on one social identity category at a time, whether it’s women’s groups, PRIDE groups for LGBTQIA2+ employees, caregiver-specific groups, or ERGs focused on Black, Latiné, Asian American, Native/Indigenous or other ethnic demographics.

The focus on “one identity at a time” and a tendency for these groups to primarily work in isolation rather than in coalition with one another can breed a whole host of exclusionary issues and inequities.

In our current ERG structures, what does it mean to be someone with deep ties to multiple social identities? In the last year of working with over a dozen ERGs, I have noted a clear trend: the need to “mute” certain dimensions of identity to conform to the standards of a group focused only on one.

For example, an Asian American and woman-identified employee in one of our client companies noted that she felt she could raise issues impacting women in her Women’s Group, such as pay equity and fewer promotion opportunities. However, when she presented data showing that Asian women are the least likely group to be promoted into management positions, the conversation quieted. Her Group’s Co-Chair later shared with her that for the group to succeed, “it couldn’t be all things to all people.”

Rejecting Scarcity Thinking

Of course, the idea that one Women’s Group doesn’t have the space to delve into the experience of Asian women naturally speaks to more prominent issues around intersectionality and ethnicity and race. The example also signals how many corporate environments encourage employees, whether tacitly or explicitly, into sanitizing and generalizing complex concepts to fit within a more traditional “business-like” model.

The idea that one ERG can’t be all things to all people is both a practical reality and a sign that our existing frameworks for these groups need revision — especially because their “hyper-focus” can lead to competition that undermines larger and more collective goals.

READ: Best Practices: ERG Management and Building a Calendar of Events

ERG members are asked to manage, prioritize and ration scarce resources when that responsibility really belongs to their companies, which could increase impact by deepening their investments and sharing more power with their ERGs from the start.

In a conversation with Angela Davis at the University of Santa Cruz, Chicana feminist scholar Betita Martínez emphasized the institution itself can create divides by withholding resources from one group while providing them to another.

“I don’t mean that some communities or some groups on campus or in any other community will not want to emphasize certain needs. That’s inevitable, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But we cannot be trapped in arguing about ‘My need is greater than yours,’ or ‘A women’s center is more important than a Latino cultural center,’ or whatever. We have to fight together.”

To properly scale impact and increase the range of change ERGs and their members can achieve, a truly intersectional approach is necessary. Organizations owe their ERGs more resources (sponsored time, pay and staff support), and they should also explicitly incentivize working together to bolster one another’s efforts. ERGs also need to reframe their view of themselves, from independent councils or committees to important constituents of a larger coalition.

Moving from Council to Coalition

It’s worth mentioning that many ERGs do make this effort in big and small ways. For example, during PRIDE month in 2020 and 2021, LGBTQIA2+ ERGs shifted from the traditional rainbow flag to a more inclusive one with black and brown stripes to represent community members of color and trans flag colors to represent transgender people.

Similarly, major corporations have led DEIB conferences headed up by members of all their ERGs with an explicit goal of bridge-building and identifying policies and processes that create benefits across many different identities.

These examples are just a start to what the future could look like with a more progressive and intersectional approach toward ERGs. To advocate for and help as many employees of varying identities as possible while also creating necessary checks and balances within organizations. ERGs must begin engaging in collective decision-making, joint initiatives, and shared strategic plans — not as an add-on but a rule. It is only from this kind of radical connection that ERGs can graduate from fostering diversity to truly supporting inclusion, equity, and belonging.

Alida Miranda-Wolff is the CEO of Ethos, a full-service Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging transformation firm and the author of the forthcoming book, Cultures of Belonging: Building Inclusive Organizations That Last.

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