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Use ERGs to Effect Change, Spark Innovation

A group of people sitting around a table in a conference room.

Employers are broadening the scope of employee resource groups (ERGs)—also known as affinity or business resource groups (BRGs)—and using them as incubators for innovation, a way for remote workers to connect and to foster understanding among people of different faiths.

"We have seen some new kinds of ERGs in the last few years that didn't exist across the board," such as cross-generational groups and those for specific employees such as nurses and pharmacists, said Jennifer London, content director of New York City-based Diversity Best Practices.

She was among presenters at "Leveraging Employee Resource Groups to Bridge the Gap" at the 31st annual Forum on Workplace Inclusion held recently in Minneapolis. The University of St. Thomas sponsored the three-day conference.

She pointed to a group that began with two marketing employees at Clorox in Oakland, Calif.,  who began to telework in 2010—something that employees in that division had not done until then.

After being given the opportunity to pilot teleworking for their work function, the two started meeting informally to discuss how to work effectively offsite. What began as one-on-one meetings quickly expanded to include other remote employees from different functions and supervisors who managed remote workers. They shared practical tips and talked about broader topics such as career pathing and training needs.

In 2013, ORBIT (Offices Remote but Integral Teammates) became an official virtual collaboration BRG, in partnership with IT and HR. Within a year, ORBIT's leaders realized that membership growth was coming from employees that worked at different Clorox hubs, including headquarters.

The BRG's mission was reframed in 2015 to represent what Clorox realized what its real target audience: the 95 percent of employees who work with people who are not located in the same office. Today, it is the company's largest BRG with more than 750 members in 21 countries.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Aligning Workforce Strategies With Business Objectives]

ORBIT has had a great impact on the organization, London said, by bringing attention to and mitigating a bias that favored onsite employees over those working remotely. A case study of Clorox's BRG notes that ORBIT's partnership with HR "has helped to advance awareness of virtual employee needs, including virtual training and incorporating virtual leadership skill sets into the broader employee development framework."

London advised employers to think of ERGs as strategic internal and external business drivers by:

  • Aligning the ERG's work with the organization's values, business priorities and corporate social responsibility goals.
  • Creating an ERG framework that is inclusive of all employees.
  • Looking for opportunities for ERGs to be innovative and collaborative. One organization started an ERG for men that looked into how they can serve as allies to help women advance at the company. The group eventually expanded its influence to work on behalf of parental leave for men.

Incubator for Solutions 

"ERGs can be an incubator to innovate and create innovative solutions," London said.

At TIAA's annual ERG summit in 2015, for example, the financial services firm's president and CEO Roger W. Ferguson Jr. challenged employees to find new ways to bring diversity and inclusion into how the company operated. The leadership of its military veterans ERG created the D&I Incubator—a think-tank for innovation and problem-solving. Today, the group has 170 members and operates six discrete incubators, each working on different projects.

A leadership council spearheads and manages each incubator, spending about 10 hours per quarter on initiatives. One project, for example, tested a new online banking system before it went live. Another had more than 100 incubator members assess the company's annual employee benefits package to make sure its offerings were inclusive.

Initiating Important Conversations 

Texas Industries' Christian, Jewish and Muslim ERGs have collaborated on various initiatives in Raleigh, N.C.

"They've been able to come together and have some important conversations in the organization" inside and outside of the company, London said. 

Representatives from the three faith-based ERGs participated in a panel discussion, "When Faith Meets the Workplace," that focused on how to have respectful spiritual conversations. Another program involved ERG members visiting area churches, synagogues and mosques to learn more about different faiths, and in the process discovered some commonalities.

After attending the forum conference session, Cody Wagner, D&I manager at Ameriprise financial in Minneapolis, was inspired to revisit his idea of using its BRGs to initiate reverse mentoring at his organization.

Its groups at the company's U.S., India and U.K. locations are expected to impact retention, create an inclusive corporate environment and partner with talent acquisition–specifically asking BRG members to tap into their connections to help find diverse candidates for hard-to-fill positions.

However, Wagner thinks they can have even more impact by connecting the company's executives with employees who identify as minorities.

"Often we have struggled with high-level leaders having access to all our diverse groups. [For example,] how are they connecting with junior associates of color? A reverse diverse mentorship program would be a perfect solution for our company to give visibility to these executives as mentors and give those executives some insight to what's happening boots-on-the-ground."

London advised organizations to think of ERGs as internal and external strategic business drivers.

"It's not to say you're going to throw away your programs" that celebrate group members' diversity, for instance, "but the main work should be strategic."


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