Employee Resource Groups, also known as ERGs or affinity groups, are loosely defined as a group of people with a common interest or goal acting together for a specific purpose. In the workplace, they're often created to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace, and it is this definition that we'll focus on here (not interest- or hobby-based groups). It is a "safe space" for people with a shared background to meet as a subset of the larger workplace, and these groups can take many forms: groups for working parents, veterans, people of color, LGBTQ employees, etc.
What's the goal? Mike Tickle of the British Dyslexia Association, shared three categories with
Groups that “are there to drive change” in the big picture
Groups that “are there for people to come together and create a safe space to share their experiences”
Groups that are there to use “a strength in numbers to help solve particular issues.”
As The Muse writes, "While they can be organized and run in various different ways, they usually encompass one, if not all three, of these missions in some way or another."
🚦When to Start an ERG
There are several ways to know you're ready to start an ERG. Sometimes they are already in motion as a loosely formed lunch group or sporadic meet-up. Other times, individuals might step up with interest in helping to found or just want to be part of an ERG. If your company runs a demographic or other employee survey, you might also see interest pop-up there.
At Coda, our Gender Equity at Coda ERG formed somewhat organically in the early days of the company. In 2017, several women across our three offices wanted dedicated time to connect with one another. One of the first things we did to kick-off this group meeting was during one of our company-wide, in-person hackathons, we set aside time to grab coffee together and get to know more about each other. This started a tradition of scheduling time to meet whenever all of us were in the same office. Eventually, we wanted ways to connect on this same level more frequently, so we began meetings over Zoom on a monthly cadence. These meetings would sometimes simply be social. Other times, we'd run skill-building workshops led on a volunteer basis or bring in speakers.
We kept the group pretty informal for about two years when we realized we were missing out on a lot of benefits of making this group more official, like getting involvement from our exec-staff, hosting company-wide events, influence policy, etc. It made sense to define our cohort and establish the group that was already working well together. In November 2019, we started the conversation of formalizing Gender Equity at Coda and announced this group to the company in January 2020.
Here are several signs to look for that may signal it’s time to set up an ERG:
They're already (unofficially) in motion
Similar to how Gender Equity at Coda started at Coda, you might find that some groups are already meeting informally or formally at your company. This could show up in a number of different waysー maybe there's an active Slack group or email alias, or informal or formal lunches or breaks happening, or even formal meetings or gatherings for a particular group. If this is the case, it could be a good time to start the conversation about starting an ERG.
Individuals or groups express interest in being part of or starting an ERG
You might be fortunate to have passionate employees who are interested in being part of or starting an ERG. If one person expresses interest, it's worth finding the right way to help this person socialize their desire for starting this groupーperhaps by polling teammates on Slack to see if there’s additional interest.
Results from an employee survey show a need
Running a demographic and engagement survey allows you to understand the various groups at your company and how engaged, supported, and included they feel. If there are certain groups who are clearly less engaged or feel less included, or groups who are eager for additional support, those would be a good place to start. It can also be helpful for your HR representative or someone in leadership to meet with folks to help assess the need.
💬Begin the conversation to start an ERG
There are many ways to bring up the conversation around an ERG. You can start with casual "water cooler" talk or Slack messages, or you might find that going about it in a more formal way through structured conversations or a formal proposal might make more sense. The most important first step though is to know how things get done at your company so you can choose the appropriate influence approach.
When discussing Gender Equity at Coda with our exec staff at Coda, our HR representative started to give a couple more informal updates regarding the group to make sure there was awareness. In doing this, she was testing the water to see what unsaid thoughts or opinions were held about this group and what information the execs would find helpful, like explaining what workshops we were hosting or how frequently the group was meeting. Then, when we decided to formalize our group, the conversation with execs was very smooth. They already knew this was a supportive, productive group who wanted to further their impact.
Documenting processes and decision-making is built into our DNA at Coda, so naturally the next step was to share a write-up with execs that outlined our mission, goals, and how we hope they'd be involved. They were very supportive and even had a few ideas on how we could amplify our goals as well as their involvement, as needed.
Choose Your Influence Approach
Each company is unique and will require a different influence approach. In some companies, talking to each individual decision maker 1-1 first helps move things forward. In other companies, like Coda, a detailed writeup that people can comment on is a good place to start. So think first about how decisions are usually made or how influence happens. Here are a couple questions to ask yourself:
What decisions or projects have been pushed through seamlessly? Why? What was the approach taken on those?
Who are the most important decision makers for this particular project? How are they influenced?
Why will the group be important for employees AND the business?
Can you tie business initiatives or goals to the ERG? For example, will the ERG's presence open branding opportunities, improve hiring, or increase diversity of thought? If so, it will lead to greater business outcomes.
Think holistically - a great ERG makes the company better overall, benefiting everyone in the organization, making the company a better place for future employees, as well as boosting the company's direction and success.
You can start with casual conversations to understand the appetite or support for an ERG. Perhaps these conversations start with other colleagues, your manager, or even the HR representative. Or, if you're comfortable with leadership, you can start there, too. Some possible ways to bring up the conversation include:
"What are your thoughts around more formally supporting [insert group- e.g. women at Coda] to come together on a regular basis?"
"At past companies you worked at, were there affinity or employee resource groups? What did those look like?"
"I've noticed [insert group- e.g. women at Coda] are starting to get together for coffee on a somewhat regular basis. It seems like it could be valuable to get behind those to encourage learning, growth, and uplifting activities for this group in a more organized way."
Perhaps this is all that needs to happen
If you need to build more of a case, keep reading...
Create a Proposal
If more formal writeups tend to go over well at your company, take the time to put one together for the ERG. You should make this your own and adapt to what your company values, but we'd generally recommend the following sections:
Why you are starting the group
What your mission or plans are for the group
How the group will benefit the company and its employees
What you want or need from the decision makers
You can also garner the support of internal leaders, HR, company advisors, or investors to give your proposal more weight.