While Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) seem to be thriving in today’s corporate world, there is not always a clear understanding of the role they play, can play and should play within their companies. Having started and co-led our LGBTQ+ group for the last three years, even my understanding has shifted.
Employee Resource Groups exist for their members. Yet they also add value toward a sense of belonging for the organization in its totality.
We’re here to support one another, to acknowledge our differences and embrace our similarities. In the times we live in today, we can also be a great comfort to each other by sharing, within our workdays how we are doing, feeling and coping, and ask for what we need.
However, educating the entire organization on who we are is something that I do not believe is in our role. There are plenty of resources out there for this. Bearing a responsible for “education” places more burden on us. Yes, we encourage colleagues to learn from and with us, but the onus to learn is everyone’s responsibility. Consider us a resource to make colleagues more empathetic, inform policy and inspire actions a company can take.
A few years back, a colleague, and now a friend, came to me and asked my perspective on how to be themselves in the company. Their request wasn’t coming from a negative; I believe they saw me as someone who didn’t hide who I was, while having a leadership role. And last year, when a colleague who was very new to the working world came out to me, they started by saying “I am unsure how appropriate it is to have these conversations at work.” This sort of broke my heart.
Those two comments reinforce the support function an ERG can play. Our identities and gender can still be unknown and hidden in any organization; enabling us to thrive at work and thrive at being who we are simultaneously is a great role we should play. For the earlier part of my career, I hid who I was at work—and if anything, I believe I hurt myself. I probably displayed behaviors, that may not have been helpful, to compensate. How I wish I had an ERG then.
An ERG can also make a company better. Yet, it can’t be stand-alone, it must feel as integrated into the soul, culture and practice of what we do. There’s no question that creativity and innovation thrive more in a diverse environment. An environment in which we all are alike is not one where inspiration can truly bloom. Throughout my career, I’ve been asked what kind of person plays well in the company culture. At previous jobs, I had a stock answer. Today, the answer should be “all kinds of people.” An active ERG system helps ensure that.
Many of us in the LGBTQ+ population (and our allies) are horrified over legislation against us in many states, including the horrific “Don’t Say Gay” law. A well-known and beloved company has found itself on the wrong side of the issue—yet not intentionally, in my belief. But its actions were tone-deaf and late. This is where an ERG can play an advisory role for a company—but only if called upon early and listened to with an open mind.
I know ERGs add value to an organization. Yet, to thrive, members must feel valued. To make ERGs thrive more, organizations’ leadership must be proactive in reaching out to ask questions, such as: “How can we be better, what can we do to make your work environment even better and what are the issues we, as an organization, must tackle?” Treat us like an operating unit of a business and fund us properly. And by all means, put pressure on us to do better and perform at a higher level.
I struggle with the term Employee Resource Group, which perhaps is why I like the acronym better. Thriving ERGs should have representation from all levels. We are a catalyst for growth and culture and essential to an organization. “Group” implies community, but does using that word convey how essential it is to an organization?
In the end, a name doesn’t matter as much as the inspiration we seek from each other and the inspiration we help our organizations put out into the world.