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Measure Employee Resource Groups To Yield Business Results

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  10/1/2007

Whether employee resource groups (ERGs), also known as networking or affinity groups, form at the request of employees or as part of a concerted employer effort should make no difference when it comes to how they are structured and measured, experts say.

"Everything in business gets measured," says Tracy Brown, president of Diversity Trends LLC in Dallas. "If you want to know if a group is having an impact, you have to measure something."

But groups that form on their own often don't have mission statements and specific goals, says Pegine Echevarria, president of Team Pegine, a consulting and coaching firm in Ponte Verde, Fla. "When you don't have a defined purpose for a group, the group can flounder."

Echevarria estimates that fewer than one in five companies measure their employee resource groups efforts, in part because of the way such groups often form. "Groups that start informally and then gain company recognition may feel the company is imposing controls on them if measures are applied," she says.

"A lot of what you can measure depends on how you structure the group and what expectations you set up," Brown says. "If there is a difference between groups formed by employees and groups formed by company then that's the company's fault, and its a big mistake," Brown says. "All groups should be employee led, but there should be criteria that must be met before the group is recognized as an ERG at the company."

To prepare for possible resistance, Echevarria says, ask the groups what they have already achieved and then say 'now we want to measure it.'  "Make it clear that support and funding will be provided to groups that can demonstrate they are achieving business-related goals."

A business focus is essential for any employee group, Brown agrees. That is why many companies prohibit religious affinity groups and others that focus on secondary dimensions of diversity, such as military service or marital status. "You want them to be strategic, not social, and to focus on competencies, not culture," Brown says, adding that "a group whose primary goal is to support one another probably doesn't have a compelling enough business reason to form."

Build Structure into All Groups

Before an organization can begin measuring its employee groups, the groups should be structured carefully with a charter and a list of clear expectations, Brown says. They should also:

  • Be able to state the business reason for their existence.
  • Have a minimum number of documented members.
  • Develop and maintain an annual plan of activities and events.
  • Have a leadership team with built in leadership succession (i.e., from vice chair to chair) to ensure continuity.
  • Have an assigned sponsor from the officer level and a sponsor evaluation process so these leaders get evaluated too.

A smart company will have criteria in place to define the policy and minimum requirements to be recognized as an ERG, Brown says. "They should even have in their policy what's required to maintain group status and the process for decertifying a group if they are not showing results," she adds.

Identify Answers to Business-Related Questions

However, before an organization decides what measures to apply to employee networking groups, it should know the answers to a couple of key questions, says Peter Bye, president of MBD Group Inc., a diversity and inclusion consulting firm in Livingston, N.J.: "Why is it that we are starting or managing employee networking groups, and what changes are we looking to achieve through these groups? When we answer these questions, we are identifying the metrics."

"No matter what we are doing as [a diversity] initiative, we need to know what change we are hoping will take place," Bye says. "Maybe there's a key goal around new marketing initiatives or increased innovation in products sold to consumers. If an employee networking group is asked to provide input to marketing or research and development, the measure is whether they did it or not," he says.

If the company wanted the employee networking groups to help identify a more diverse group of candidates, then the question is 'did they do it?' Bye says. How many people were hired as a result of that process?

Measures allow a company to focus on the business purpose and desired outcomes of their employee resource groups. "Companies are in business for business--sometimes we forget thats the point," Echevarria says. This is why Echevarria encourages companies to create a policy requiring each group to have a clear mission and vision tied to profit, productivity and people. 

  • Profitability-How is the group helping the company be more profitable? Is it identifying ways in which the company is doing something inappropriate or offensive to the group it represents? What kinds of products and services can be created to attract others who identify with this group?
  • Productivity-In what ways can the group help enhance the skills of group members so they are more productive in what they do? Examples include leadership development, self-promotion skills, time management and dress and grooming, all of which can be taught in a way that is culturally sensitive to a particular group.
  • People-How is the group affecting the recruitment, retention and engagement of members of that particular affinity group? What does the company have to do to be more attractive to members of that group?

Measures Can Be Simple or Complex

Brown says measures can be as simple as tracking the number of group participants or attendees at the groups events. Other options include tracking the number of community events and organizations group members are involved in, particularly if a groups goal is to increase involvement between the company and the community.

A lot of companies measure the impact an employee resource group has on recruitment, according to Brown. She says many organizations will recruit members from the group to go to career fairs or make college visits and then will look at the return on investment from their participation. For example, the organization will want to determine if they are getting the right kinds of new hires, Brown says, as well as whether they are getting more applications and follow-ups from events in which ERG members participate.

"We don't evaluate [employee resource groups] in terms of numbers, which is ironic for an accounting firm," says Lori Golden, AccessAbilities Leader at Ernst & Young., who oversees the firm's disability inclusion efforts. "We do look at the growth of membership, particularly in terms of level, function and geography," she says. "But what we are really looking at is for our groups to identify opportunities for improvement in how we support our people with disabilities."

Ernst & Young also looks at the ways in which individuals participate in the groups activities, according to Golden: "Do they just participate in calls? Are they spearheading activities and events? But the main goal of the firms evaluation efforts," she says, "is to identify the overall results of the groups initiatives, to find out what changes occur as a result of their efforts."

Groups Don't Trump Functional Accountability

Groups can't be held accountable for everything. I don't think you can measure the success or failure of an ERG based on whether retention numbers increase or decrease, Brown says. "They can't influence the day-to-day experience of an employee in a company. Its the relationship with the manager that impacts retention."

However, Brown says, groups can be involved in the creation of a retention strategy. Similarly, they can be evaluated on the basis of other initiatives, such as mentoring programs. "However, if someone goes through the mentoring program and has a bad experience with their manager, we can't blame it on the ERG," she cautions.

The same principle applies to group efforts involving customers and market share. Some organizations use their affinity groups to make inroads into a specific community, Brown says, and may try to blame the group if the results are lower than expected. But she says such buck passing is unacceptable: "You cannot hold the affinity group accountable for anything that has a business function which is responsible for it," she says. "The affinity group can support every business function but they cannot be held responsible for the function."

Holding the groups accountable as key contributors to the company's efforts is appropriate, however. Brown says one organization's president would hold a three-hour annual review meeting with the leaders of the employee resource groups to discuss people issues and where they thought their groups could have input. The groups were also expected to provide feedback on opportunities the company should pursue and to share data they had collected.

Some Things Can't Be Measured Accurately

Brown cautions against over-reliance on measurement as the sole indicator of a group's success. "If groups can only do things that are measured, they may miss the opportunity to do some things that may have impact but cant be measured in a quantitative way," she says. "Some of what makes such groups a success is the social aspect and the feelings of safety and security they provide. You can't measure that as directly--even with a survey--because you probably won't get statistically significant results."

A similar challenge, according to Bye, is being able to prove cause and effect. "You really don't know if what you did accomplished [a certain result]. It could have been pure luck or 14 other things you did that were related to that effort."

This is particularly true when an organization is relying on employee attitude survey results as a measure. In such a situation, Bye says, focus groups can help uncover the real contributors to a change in employee attitude survey results. Better measures are closely related to the efforts being undertaken by the group, he suggests.

In addition to evaluating the groups' outcomes, Brown says, organizations should evaluate the personal value received by participants in the form of new skills, exposure and opportunities.

Too many companies have groups but don't keep track of what they are doing, Brown says. Thats the biggest mistake and is why measuring is so hard; they have the groups out there for public relations value but don't really have any structure that keeps the group on track.

But groups with a clear purpose are more likely to draw in new participants, suggests Echevarria. Lots of people choose not to participate in a group because there is no clear business tie, she says. "If a group is purely social its more likely that some people will be in and others will be out," she adds.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is online writer/editor for SHRM.

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