Employee Resource Groups Are Essential. But Is Yours Effective?

Career development and connecting with like-minded colleagues are two benefits of participating in one of these intra-company networks.
Lisa Bertagnoli
May 23, 2021
Updated: July 8, 2021
Lisa Bertagnoli
May 23, 2021
Updated: July 8, 2021

Michael Harris, senior manager in delivery management at Avanade, has worked at the global professional services and IT consultancy for 11 years. Harris, who is Black, joined three of Avanade’s employee networks — internal groups for employees who identify as members or allies of a certain demographic. Harris allied with Adelante, for Latinx employees; Prism, for LGBTQ+ employees; and the women’s network. 

He didn’t join the network for Black employees — because one did not exist. “I never really had an opportunity to connect with people who look like me,” Harris said. 

In February of 2014, he met with Avanade’s lead for inclusion and diversity and shared his vision for a network for Black employees. In May of 2019, Harris and 50 other Avanade employees unveiled INSPIRE. Today, INSPIRE has 400 Black members and allies who connect and host events, including a June 2020 celebration of Juneteenth, which marks the day the last enslaved people in the United States learned of the Emancipation Proclamation.

What’s an Employee Resource Group?

Employee resource groups, also known as affinity groups or networks, are intra-company networks for like-minded employees and those who ally with them. Networks for women, parents, LGBTQ+, military veterans and BIPOC employees are popular. The networks enable members to meet new people and develop leadership and other business skills, such as writing and presenting plans and reports.

 

Membership in employee networks, also known as employee resource groups or affinity groups, connects employees with like-minded people throughout their organization — and builds solid career skills, too. Starting INSPIRE, for instance, helped Harris sharpen skills such as taking meeting minutes, presenting to large audiences and organizing events. 

Professional development is one reason Seattle-based Avanade began setting up employee networks in 2013. The Latinx network hosts a quarterly Latinx Leader panel, where senior leaders share their paths and offer advice to attendees, said Hallam Sargeant, chief inclusion and diversity officer. Mentoring is a big part of the networks, “because we know that finding a mentor who shares your background and lived experiences is rare and extremely impactful,” Sargeant said. The networks also give employees from underrepresented groups a chance to gain visibility and leadership development opportunities.

 

Get a chance to make a difference

Instead of employee resource groups, Chicago-based fintech company M1 Finance established task forces. (Its sole ERG is for mothers.) 

“ERGs sometimes don’t make tangible differences,” said Maria Selvaggio, vice president of people at M1. “We wanted people to see the effects of what they are doing.” The company employs 200 people, 164 of whom are members of at least one task force. In a recent office poll, 80 percent of employees called their task-force involvement the most important or a very important aspect of their work at M1, Selvaggio said. 

Patrick Noonan, a senior product engineer at M1, learned about the company’s nascent task forces while interviewing for a job. The task force in development at the time, one focused on diversity, caught his attention. 

“I was very excited to see that as M1 continued to grow as a company, they were focusing on the importance of diversity in the workplace,” he said. When he joined the company in 2019, he joined the task force, and even came up with its name: E1 at M1, for Everyone at M1. It eventually branched into the three task forces: Internal Education, Community Involvement and Diverse Hiring. 

Internal Education advises the company on how to observe Black History Month and organize training for employees. Community Involvement members focus on helping underrepresented groups, for instance offering financial literacy classes and workshops. Diverse Hiring makes sure all job postings use inclusive language and stress the company’s dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion. It partners with diverse student groups and Chicago-area coding camps and tech organizations to widen the candidate pool for new hires. It also launched bias training for hiring managers “to help individuals understand certain biases that may exist and ways in which we can avoid those in the interview process,” Noonan said. 

M1 allows employees to dedicate time each week to task-force work. “It’s not just in their free time,” Selvaggio said. Each task force, which can have as many as 60 members, has a Slack channel. Groups present at monthly Demo Days to keep the company current on their projects. Because membership crosses departments, task force members can forge valuable connections with leaders and colleagues across the company.

Further ReadingProfessional Networking: How to Build and Use a Professional Network

Leading meetings helped Noonan sharpen organizational, communication, leadership and time-management skills. He’s also met M1 employees with whom he doesn’t work with daily. “Hearing about other perspectives and experiences has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to build a diverse and equitable workplace,” Noonan said. Overall, involvement in the task force has been “fun, encouraging and insightful,” he said. 

 

Learn things your day job might not teach you

T-Mobile has six ERGs: ACT, for employees with disabilities; the Multicultural Alliance, for Black, Latinx, AAPI and Indigenous employees; the Multigenerational Network; PRIDE, the Veterans & Allies Network; and the Women & Allies Network. Nearly 40 percent of T-Mobile’s 70,000 employees belong to at least one network. Its goal is 60 percent participation, as employees who belong to an ERG stay with the company 47 percent longer than those who do not, said Anneke Blair, senior manager of diversity and inclusion.

Membership can carry “immense” career benefits, said Blair. The groups offer informal development opportunities, including the chance to create and present reports without risk to the business. One PRIDE member had never created a PowerPoint presentation. As a PRIDE member, she wrote a business proposal and used PowerPoint to present it, thus learning a skill that helped her win a promotion and a desired move to a new department. “That wasn’t anywhere she had seen herself,” Blair said. 

Another employee gained leadership skills that helped fast-track her career. Blair began mentoring Tomesha Coppage, an operational team manager in T-Mobile’s Birmingham, Alabama Customer Experience Center, in 2017 after the two met at an annual employee recognition event. As they brainstormed different ways for Coppage to think about her career, Blair suggested she take on a leadership role in the Women & Allies employee resource group. 

Further ReadingHow to Network More Effectively — And Authentically

“She took the charge and ran with it,” Blair said. As Coppage’s leadership skills became apparent, she was tapped for stretch assignments and promoted to her current position. Coppage is applying for another promotion, to senior manager in T-Mobile’s Global Care organization, “with the full support of her leadership team,” Blair said. 

T-Mobile management also taps the employee resource groups as expert partners in developing an inclusive workplace. PRIDE worked with the benefits team around surrogacy and adoption benefits. The veteran’s network ensured that Memorial Day messaging centered on remembrance rather than celebrations, and the Multicultural Alliance helped T-Mobile navigate murky waters during the days of racial protests following George Floyd’s murder. 

 

Share fun stuff with colleagues who ‘get’ you 

Rachel Richardson, a success coach on the customer experience team at onboarding and training platform Trainual, joined the company seven months ago. She co-leads its Ladies of Trainual employee resource group and belongs to Family Matters and She Se Puede, an ERG for Latinx women. 

Richardson, who spends three to five hours a week on ERG activity, likens group interaction to water-cooler or Slack conversations. “Whether it’s a random thing, like a funny meme or great article, I can share with my colleagues,” she said. Richardson works in New Jersey and her teammates are in Arizona, so connecting to them “helps me feel part of the bigger whole, even from a distance,” she said. 

Trainual has six ERGS, which help employees build friendships and relationships. The others are Rainbow Collective, for the LGBTQ+ community, Trainual Beyond Borders, for people who were born outside of or spent time outside of the United States as a child; and Arc, for people with visible and invisible disabilities. “It’s a place to be their authentic self and build trust with people and feel safe at work,” said Sasha Robinson, head of people operations at Trainual, adding that almost all of Trainual’s 49 employees belong to an ERG. 

The groups, particularly Rainbow Collective and Arc, offer privacy to members, as not all are out or want their disabilities to be public knowledge. “We talk very clearly about privacy,” Robinson said. 

Group activities range from journaling to welcoming guest speakers; for example, Ladies of Trainual hosted a speaker who urged group members to think of one simple thing to do to make their lives easier. Richardson, who has three children, also picks up advice and encouragement from the Family Matters ERG members. “As a parent, I get so hyper focused on the lists, the chores and the schedules,” she said. “It’s nice to have people who can remind me to have a little fun, too, and let the pressure out of the balloon a little bit.”

Membership in the ERGs makes Richardson feel “centered and focused” with her career. “Life isn’t all wins, certainly not in business,” she said, noting launches that don’t quite work and initiatives that don’t quite pan out. When that happens, the ERG relationships “help sustain you when you’re not winning, when life and business happen,” she said. Membership also helps her keep a focus on the future, not always easy when one is caught up in the day-to-day demands of a job. “I’m making connections and learning things I didn’t know,” she said.
 

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