What Are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)?

ERG members can forge relationships, gain leadership skills and create a more inclusive culture.

Written by Jeff Rumage
What Are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)?
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Nov 14, 2023

An employee resource group (ERG), sometimes referred to as an affinity group, is a voluntary group where employees who share a common characteristic, interest or identity come together to foster a sense of belonging, nurture professional development and contribute to a more inclusive company culture.

For example, some ERGs are made up of and led by employees who identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ, women, parents, military veterans or disabled. Typically, allies of these communities are also invited to participate in these groups.

What Are Employee Resource Groups?

An employee resource group (ERG) is an employee-led group that aims to foster a sense of belonging and contribute to a more inclusive company culture. Typically these groups are designed to support employees who share a common identity or characteristic.

ERGs may hold regular meetings, special events or community volunteering initiatives designed to support their members, who can talk about common obstacles and develop solutions for issues impacting their community.

“They share their culture, values and their lived experiences with others,” said Pat Mayers, senior manager of diversity, equity and inclusion at Seismic. “Overall, they contribute to a more open and transparent world of work.”

While the first known ERG in the U.S. was established in 1971, when Black employees at Xerox launched the National Black Employee Association, they have become more popular in recent years. Companies have responded to issues important to their workers — like racial equity, mental health and gender identity — by prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

ERGs can now be found in 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and a 2021 study found that 35 percent of the 423 surveyed companies had either added or expanded support for ERGs since 2020.

In this article, we discuss why ERGs are important, what a successful ERG looks like, how companies can support ERGs and how employees can start an ERG.

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Why Are Employee Resource Groups Important?

ERGs Create a Sense of Belonging

ERGs allow employees — often from underrepresented communities — to feel a sense of belonging, which is a leading driver of employee engagement. Employees are more likely to feel like they belong when they can bring their authentic self to work and develop meaningful relationships. Companies can foster belonging by listening to employees’ input and offering supportive benefits and initiatives, according to Gartner.

Gwenna Kadima, a BIPOC career activator and DEI Consultant, said ERGs can directly improve the day-to-day employee experience by providing a social support system.

“If I see a group that is for me or my allies…to build connection, develop skills, find mentorship and find support…that has a day-to-day impact on an employee’s sense of inclusion and their desire to stay engaged,” Kadima said.

Rachel Richardson, a success coach on the customer experience team at onboarding and training platform Trainual, said participating in an ERG allows her to connect with her teammates across the country, which “helps me feel part of the bigger whole, even from a distance.”

For Sasha Robinson, Trainual’s head of people operations, an ERG is “a place to be their authentic self and build trust with people and feel safe at work.”

 

ERGs Help Companies Adopt Inclusive Policies

ERGs can also help a company become more inclusive by improving diversity training or changing company policies, like lobbying for access to gender-affirming healthcare.

ERGs might also express concerns about the demographics of employees that leave the company and suggest strategies for retaining employees from underrepresented groups.

“There’s a psychological safe space for employees to open up and say exactly what’s on their mind,” Mayers said. “We listen, we act and we collaborate with them as a team.”

T-Mobile’s management team turns to its ERGs for input in developing an inclusive workplace. The PRIDE ERG 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 race-related issues after the murder of George Floyd in June 2020.

 

ERGs Promote Networking, Mentoring and Career Growth

ERGs can help employees forge valuable relationships that may help them grow their career.

At IT consulting and services company Avanade, the Latinx employee network hosts a quarterly panel where senior Latinx leaders share their paths and offer advice to attendees, said Hallam Sargeant, chief inclusion and diversity officer.

Senior employees within ERGs will often mentor early-career employees, which can be valuable in shaping and advancing an employee’s career goals.

“We know that finding a mentor who shares your background and lived experiences is rare and extremely impactful,” Sargeant said. 

 

ERGs Provide Opportunities to Develop Leadership and Professional Skills

ERGs give employees from underrepresented groups a chance to take on leadership opportunities that give them wider visibility within the organization — and grow their professional skill sets in the process.

ERG membership can have “immense” career benefits, said Anneke Blair, senior manager of diversity and inclusion at T-Mobile. After meeting a customer experience center employee at an employee recognition event, Blair suggested the employee grow her career by taking on a leadership role in the company’s Women & Allies ERG. The employee “took the charge and ran with it,” and she was eventually tapped for stretch assignments and a promotion, Blair said.

Elsewhere at T-Mobile, a member of the company’s PRIDE ERG learned how to write a business proposal and create a PowerPoint presentation. Those skills helped her win a promotion and transfer to a new department she had wanted to join.

Another example: Michael Harris, who started an ERG for Black employees at Avanade in 2014, said his leadership role in the ERG allowed him to gain new skills such as taking meeting minutes, presenting to large audiences and organizing events. 

 

ERGs Help Companies Attract Diverse Talent

ERGs can also help organizations attract and retain employees from underrepresented backgrounds.

Kadima, the DEI consultant, recently worked with a company that wanted to increase the number of women in sales and engineering roles, so the company looked to its women’s ERG for help. Members of the ERG tapped into their social networks, identified women’s professional organizations, examined the company’s hiring process for unconscious bias and participated in the hiring process.

“A lot of underrepresented talent want to know that there’s people who look like them already in the organization,” Kadima said.

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

 

Employee Resource Group Examples

ERGs are typically initiated by employees, so they can cater to a wide variety of communities. The most common ERGs are for employees who identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ, women, parents, military veterans and disabled.
 

LGBTQ 

LGBTQ ERGs help members of this community feel seen, which is crucial in light of efforts to pass the Respect for Marriage Act. Companies also often work with LGBTQ ERGs to ensure their current benefits packages accommodate LGBTQ employees and their partners with helpful benefits.  

 

BIPOC

Some smaller organizations may have BIPOC ERGs for a broad group of employees, while larger organizations create specific ERGs for employees who identify as Black, Latinx, Native American or Asian-American and Pacific Islanders. These groups may plan events around cultural holidays and partner with HR to improve diversity training, among other initiatives.

 

Women

Women face various challenges in the tech sector, including earning lower pay than men, missing out on promotions and finding it difficult to obtain venture capital to start their own businesses. By building an ERG for women, women can push for fair pay practices, comprehensive health benefits and spaces to discuss the harsh realities of being a woman in tech.    

 

Parents

Balancing work demands and parental responsibilities can be challenging, so these ERGs allow fellow parents to lean on each other for advice and support. They might advocate for paid parental leave or flexible work policies, and they might share tips about maintaining work-life balance.

 

Military Veterans

Military veterans share experiences that civilians cannot understand, so they appreciate meeting other veterans to share their stories and maintain the sense of community that the military offers. Members of these groups may also provide guidance for veterans who recently returned from deployment.

 

Employees With Disabilities

In addition to bridging employees with similar experiences, these ERGs can promote discussions about more inclusive working accommodations and facilitate informational campaigns about disability awareness. These groups are typically careful not to share its membership list due to health privacy concerns.

 

Faith-Based

To continue building an inclusive workplace, businesses can support employees interested in forming a faith-based employee resource group. Faith plays an important role in many cultures, so companies can expose their employees to more types of diversity by encouraging workers to form and support faith-based ERGs.  

 

Age-Based

Companies can encourage ERGs that don’t explicitly make age a defining trait of members, but still target those of certain age groups. For example, a business can set up an ERG centered around upskilling for more senior workers hired from other industries. Or a company may offer a networking ERG to help younger professionals make connections in the tech industry.    

 

How Companies Can Support Employee Resource Groups

Too often, companies let ERGs “do their own thing in the corner,” Kadima said. By providing the necessary resources and infrastructure, companies can empower ERGs to be more effective in creating an inclusive workplace.

HR leaders can help ERGs understand their purpose and how they fit in with the company’s DEI strategy. The HR team can also help ERGs collaborate with each other and prevent them from duplicating the efforts of other ERGs or the HR department.
 

Appoint Executive Sponsors

Most commonly, ERG leaders are advised by an executive sponsor on the company’s leadership team. An executive sponsor can provide ERG leaders with mentorship, guidance and institutional knowledge that will help the ERG access resources, improve its visibility and be effective within the organization.

ERG leaders should also receive training and support to be effective in their positions. This can be accomplished with the help of leadership coaching software or sending ERG leaders to leadership conferences.

 

Carve Out Time for ERG Leaders

Kadima suggests HR teams emphasize the strategic importance of ERGs to managers and encourage them to give ERG leaders time to drive those initiatives.

That said, Kadima cautions ERG leaders to not take on more than they can handle and to be realistic about what they can achieve in their limited volunteer hours. Devoting too much time to ERGs can hurt job performance or cause burnout.

 

Provide Funding for Organizational Goals

ERG leaders are sometimes compensated for their efforts, but it isn’t common. A 2021 survey of 138 companies found that 65 percent of ERG leaders are not paid for their ERG duties.

ERGs don’t necessarily require a budget, but Kadima thinks funding is necessary if an ERG is  driving change or supporting initiatives that are important to the company.

“If the ERGs are doing things like flipping your recruitment mix and creating a diversified pipeline — essentially something that could be done by a paid member of your recruitment team — that needs to be recognized,” she said.

 

Support From a Distance

ERGs should have clear guidelines from HR, but they should have the freedom to operate independently, Mayers said.

“They report to DEI through a dotted line, but they should not be micromanaged,” Mayers said. “However, providing ERGs clear guidelines and governance for them to operate in a unified manner is important.”

Companies can help ERGs by setting clear expectations about its role in advancing DEI initiatives. When ERGs aren’t given support or clear expectations, Kadima said they can sometimes become closed-off spaces that spend their time complaining about the company instead of working with the company to advance its DEI initiatives.

“There isn’t a clear expectation of, ‘Hey ERGs, you are receiving resources and support from our organization. Yes, we prioritize DEI, but there are certain areas that we are focusing on and you are an extension of our DEI priorities,’” Kadima said.

 

How to Create an ERG

Employee resource groups can change a company’s culture for the better, but employees will want to follow these steps to ensure an ERG is built on a strong foundation.
 

Measure Employee Interest 

Send out an employee survey to gauge whether employees would be interested in joining a specific employee resource group and ask what, if any, ERGs they’d like to see in the workplace.

 

Establish a Mission and Goals

Clarify what purpose this group will serve. For example, an ERG’s mission could be to create a safe space for members of a marginalized group or to help employees learn new skills.

 

Get Approval From Company Leadership

Go to company leadership to receive their approval. Show them employee surveys, available employee demographics and the ERG’s mission and goals. Having data-backed arguments and a plan of action makes it easier to justify to executives why an ERG is necessary and how it can enhance the workplace. 

 

Build Membership

When recruiting members, communicate the mission and goals of the ERG, who it’s designed for and details about any upcoming inaugural meetings or kick-off events. A clear description informs target employees of how they can get involved while also letting allies know how they can offer support.  

 

Plan the First Meeting

The inaugural meeting of an ERG is a great space for new members to get to know each other, and the group can also begin to plan out next steps. If needed, make this an opportunity to ask for volunteers to serve on a committee, take on projects and embrace other roles.

 

Secure Continued Company Support 

Create a plan for social hangouts, company-wide learning sessions and other activities. This can help the ERG secure a budget from company executives for the foreseeable future and generate excitement among members and allies.

 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Employee resource groups (ERGs) bring together employees of a shared identity to foster a sense of belonging, nurture professional development and contribute to a more inclusive company culture.

Joining an ERG gives employees an opportunity to connect with coworkers from a shared background, which can help them feel supported at work. It also provides a chance to advocate for more inclusive workplace policies. ERGs can also offer professional development, mentorship and leadership opportunities.

An affinity group is any group of members who share common traits or experiences, such as groups formed around race, gender or sexual orientation. This is true of ERGs, but ERGs also include career-specific initiatives like mentor relationships, career advancement projects and other activities that support the development of the company’s workforce. As a result, all ERGs are affinity groups, but not all affinity groups are ERGs.

An earlier version of this story was written by Lisa Bertagnoli.

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