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Employee resource groups can be a touchstone, but also a tinderbox. Increasingly popular, they bring people together around an issue of identity – perhaps being female, or gay, or of colour – ideally providing affirmation and a greater sense of belonging. But if things go awry, damage can occur to the participants and the organization. Managers must get them right, but as a relatively new phenomenon, many organizations are winging it.

Diversity consultant Farzana Nayani says inclusion, belonging, equity, access, humanness and personal growth can come together in these groups, if done well. “When we enter the workplace, we take all of who we are with us. Employee resource groups help give these identities a home and a place to hang our coat,” she writes in her guidebook, The Power of Employee Resource Groups.

She distinguishes between affinity groups, which bring together individuals based on identity to share experiences and support one another, and employee resource groups, which in addition have a greater explicit connection to helping with the organization’s goals on inclusion, equity and belonging and efforts to support employees overall. Less common, a third alternative on the continuum of individual versus organizational focus, are business resource group, which are squarely aligned with business purposes and intended to help fulfill certain corporate needs.

In setting up employee resource groups, think strategically rather than defensively, worrying about having to appease a certain group. Ask what the group can do to help you attract, support and retain your work force; what it can contribute to an inclusive workplace culture; and how it may offer market insights and assist you to connect with consumers and potential customers who share their identity. Employee resource groups can, of course, help you align with social causes. They may also help you through their knowledge and contacts diversify your supplier base.

To avoid discrimination, employee resource groups are usually open to someone who is not a member of the identity. She says having allies and friends take part can be helpful, but the focus should remain on helping to support those of the individual marginalized identity.

“We must be mindful not to create further harm in individuals who have already experienced systemic discrimination,” she says, or feel labelled as not fitting in at the workplace. “Asking them to show up in a process without the space to process their own emotions, and any encounters related to their identity, overlooks their authentic experiences.”

Many senior leaders view these groups as an obligation, something to be tolerated. She counters that the groups can be a great source of innovative thinking, feedback and getting a sense of the pulse of the organization in an immediate way. These folks may see the organization differently. They may have a greater sense of markets the company wants to penetrate. She recommends that the top organizational executive be in regular contact with employee resource group leaders to see what they can learn.

In her work, she is often asked whether the impact of these groups can and should be measured. She notes that many organizations use employee satisfaction surveys and quick, brief so-called “pulse surveys” that gauge inclusivity, as well as other human resource measures. The company may want to track factors such as how many events the group holds, how many people attend and feedback of participants at those sessions. “It is critical to choose metrics that align with its goals and objectives – and to measure those intentions against actual outcomes,” she stresses.

Each group should have an executive sponsor, a senior leader who will champion the group internally. That individual may or may not share the identity at stake – there are advantages in both situations. If from that identity, the sponsor will have a greater understanding of the group’s needs and also be a role model for participants. But an outsider can be an ally and advocate, explaining the needs and interests of the group to others.

One Asian employee resource group she advised had a white male executive in charge of technology as a sponsor. When they shared examples of cultural misunderstandings and anti-Asian bias within the company, it was a revelation for that leader, sparking him to make significant changes in the onboarding of new managers who were to work with staff of Asian background and more generally improving training.

“Ideally, executive sponsors would be both champions and connectors. They should be able to use their power and influence to open doors and find solutions for when the employee resource group leaders get stuck. They also can be the conduit to overall company leadership to help guide executives and senior leaders in understanding the needs and potential of the ERGs,” she writes.

Employee resource groups are part of the fabric of the modern workplace, in a country of ever-increasing and more visible diversity. It’s important to explore their potential, in the broadest sense, to help your company and your employees.

Cannonballs

  • Have you heard the Chinese proverb, “may you live in interesting times?” How about the fact in the Chinese language the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity? Undoubtedly you have, as has your audience when you use it (or similarly well-known nuggets) in a presentation or report. It doesn’t make you sound worldly. It makes you seem trite.
  • If a reference will only confirm dates of employment for a job candidate, software entrepreneur Jacob Kaplan-Moss recommends asking if the individual is eligible to be rehired. Sometimes you can get an answer. If you heard something concerning in a reference check but not a deal breaker, you should arrange a frank conversation with the potential hire.
  • Consider using network analysis tools to gauge whether your employee resource networks are growing over time and contributing to member leadership and productivity within the organization, advises consultant Maya Townsend.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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