5 ways to create a safe space for ERGs

Learn how you can create a safe space for ERGs to drive organizational success
Clock icon 15 min read
Pride pink background

It’s more crucial than ever for businesses to support their employee resource groups or ERGs. When these groups get the investment and attention they need, the entire organization benefits from diverse perspectives, innovative thinking, and higher engagement.

It starts with empowering employees to connect. At many organizations, ERGs are how employees find a sense of belonging.

When building a more inclusive and engaging workplace, don’t overlook the importance of employee resource groups.

An employee resource group can support employees in a multitude of ways, like providing mentorship, remedying inequities, and giving employees a space to talk through important topics. For many underrepresented employees, ERGs can become an essential part of the experience of working at your organization.

Employees aren’t the only ones who reap the benefits. ERGs have the power to make your company more inclusive and, ultimately, more successful. According to the World Economic Forum, companies leading with diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are 25%-36% more likely to outperform on profitability. Additionally, employee retention, recruitment, and talent development all can benefit from the change in perspective and awareness that ERGs can bring to a company.

ERGs also play a big role in raising DEI scores and fostering a sense of belonging. Studies have shown a strong correlation between ERG activity and improved DEI metrics, and when surveyed, employees nearly unanimously agree that ERGs boost company culture.

“During the pandemic, we really doubled down on our ERG programs. We had 10 ERGs at DocuSign that had started well before the pandemic, but we used the connection and the power of ERGs to make sure we found a way to stay connected to each other and to DocuSign. And we use those ERGs as an opportunity to really educate [non ERG members].” -Joan Burke, former CHRO, DocuSign

Despite the positive impact ERGs have on their organizations, they often lack resources and executive support. Three out of five ERG leaders hold an individual contributor role at their company, meaning that they hold no formal position of authority or management, and half of ERGs report that their annual budget is less than $5000. This lack of support could come down to the leadership team not understanding or buying into the value the ERG’s work presents, or it could result from a lack of alignment between the goals of the business and those of the ERG. In any case, financial resources and executive support are necessary for ERGs to succeed and grow.

Take into consideration that, for many ERGs, there is no additional compensation for leading the group, and you have a recipe for burnout. What’s more, if ERGs aren’t properly supported, they can actually hinder inclusivity and create divisions. Employees who already feel outnumbered at the organization can feel further alienated by the extra work and lack of recognition. Women in particular often end up as the point person for ERGs, and without a broader strategy you can end up driving those dedicated employees away.

The key is to set up your ERGs in a way that will maximize their success. Luckily, there’s a wealth of expertise on how to run an ERG to its greatest advantage. ERGs have been around since the 1970s, and they’re currently on the rise. Fifty-six percent of companies sponsor ERGs, up from 40% in 2021. Since their inception, there have been a lot of lessons learned on how organizations can support their ERGs.

In this guide, we’ll touch on five key themes to help you understand how to ensure the success of ERGs at your organization.

What is an employee resource group or ERG? SHRM defines an ERG (also called an affinity group) as an employee group that comes together voluntarily, based on a common interest or background, or at the request of a company. ERGs are often formed around race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, gender, parental status, national origin, veteran status, religion or belief, or generation.

Step 1: Provide tangible support, budget and resources to ERG members

At many companies, ERGs foster community and build valuable professional networks, which can play an outsize role in an employee’s happiness. ERGs can provide much more than an outlet for socialization, offering members tangible support for navigating concerns in the workplace and beyond.

ERGs are often where employees find mentorship opportunities that help build their careers. According to Harvard Business Review, mentorship boosts the representation of Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women, and Hispanic and Asian-American men, in management roles by 9% to 24%. HBR found that, while white men tend to find mentors on their own, women and underrepresented employees more often need help from formal programs.

Support your ERGs by providing mentorship opportunities as a resource, and provide dedicated training for ERG leaders just as you would with any other strategic leadership role. This kind of support could include sponsoring attendance at conferences, investing in coaching or encouraging ERG leaders to attend networking events. Another type of support includes formalizing the process to create an ERG. Documenting the ERG's goals, objectives, structure, and governance will greatly benefit the employees leading the effort as they articulate why the ERG should exist and what it will do for the business.

And like any corporate initiative, a meaningful budget is a critical success factor for an ERG. ERGs require a budget for virtual and in-person events, food at in-person events, educational resources, memberships, consultants and more.

Gena Cox, CEO of Feels Human and inclusion strategist, recommends that company leadership working with the groups directly ask ERG leaders what they need for success.

“ERG leader is one of those roles that doesn't just have a function and a purpose. It also has all these other social values ascribed to it. When you put a person in that role, they're the last person who would want to say that they're failing, that they need support, or that they're worried,” Gena says, adding, “Organizations have to be proactive about all of that.

Four ways HR sponsors can provide support to ERG employee leaders

  1. Provide leadership coaching and career development support.

  2. Establish an effective governance framework.

  3. Provide guidance on goals and objectives.

  4. Ensure a meaningful budget is allocated to the ERG so the group has what it needs to accomplish its goals.

Step 2: Use executive sponsorship to boost ERG leaders

Employees who raise their hands for ERG leadership roles are among your most dedicated and overachieving. But without the right resources and support, employees who put in their time helping with an ERG will feel like they are stretched too thin, and often these star employees will feel burnt out.

In fact, sometimes the employees that feel burnout the most acutely are the ones who are already marginalized. That can create more harm than good for underrepresented employees in ERGs. “Women in leadership programs, ERGs/BRGs, or diversity councils are often the go-tos when starting out on the DEI journey without a broader strategy and proper framing, they can backfire and create more division than unity,” according to a report on diversity and inclusion from the Josh Bersin Company.

Gena Cox of Feels Human says there are philosophical and practical elements to the burnout issue. “It goes back to the C-suite,” Gena says. “They have to decide if [the ERG leadership role] is a volunteer role that employees do on the side, or is it part of a core activity that supports the business strategy with regard to diversity and inclusion? The resourcing of people and money depends on leaders' decisions on the role of the ERG in the company, as well as their priorities in regards to the ERG.”

A great way to give ERG leaders the support and visibility they need is by finding executive sponsors. Sheri Byrne-Haber, Senior Staff Architect of Accessibility, VMware, emphasizes that executives who are committed to the program can ensure a sense of stability and continuity in the ERG.

Many ERGs choose an executive sponsor who identifies as being part of the group that the ERG represents, though sponsorship can also come from an ally. “For example, if a man sponsors a women's ERG, that could be a positive action, as long as everybody agrees that the man is sincerely an ally and is the best representative of those available to be sponsors,” says Gena Cox.

Whether the sponsor is an ally or identifies with the group, the key is that the individual be an active member of the group, which includes things like providing advocacy on behalf of the ERG among the wider organization, attending meetings and events, communicating with other executives on behalf of the ERG and generally lending a supportive voice to the group as they communicate their needs.

How do you select an executive sponsor? Gloria Goins, former Head of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity, Sales, Marketing and Global Services at Amazon Web Services, says it’s a mix of art and science. A senior leader might not be the best fit for executive sponsor if, for instance, they aren’t engaged or involved in meetings. “[Picking the executive sponsor] depends on how respected the person is within the organization. You want someone who lends credibility and efficacy… You really have to look at what the person brings to the group overall.”

Step 3: Create a welcoming and psychologically safe work environment.

An ERG is most successful when employees who share a certain characteristic can be candid when discussing the issues they face. After all, strengthening culture, delivering better results and solving problems through ERGs can only happen when people are willing to engage and discuss challenges and opportunities with openness. But it’s important for that sense of psychological safety and belonging to extend beyond your ERGs and into your company culture at large.

Psychological safety is defined by the Center for Creative Leadership as the belief that “others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for speaking up.” With psychological safety in place, employees can express themselves more freely.

Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School defined psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” In a Ted Talk, Edmondson says, “Every time we withhold, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning… We are so busy, unconsciously for the most part, managing impressions that we don’t contribute to creating a better organization..” When people feel safe to take the risk involved in speaking up with questions, concerns and ideas, the organization will be stronger and more inclusive.

One of the greatest benefits of a successful ERG is that more employees throughout the organization can become advocates for underrepresented groups. DEI leaders can’t be present for every conversation, and you’ll need employees who can keep inclusion issues top of mind. “We have more than 20 people in our accessibility department at VMware, but we’re still not going to be in every conversation where accessibility needs to be brought up,” says Sheri Byrne-Haber of VMware. “You need a strong disability ERG to get more people comfortable talking about disability, more people who are willing to raise their hand in a conversation and say, ‘Well, hey, wait a second. Did you think about people with dyslexia? Did you think about people who can’t see?’”

Within an organization, people should feel comfortable raising issues relating to their identity group without fear of reprisal. Members of an ERG should be able to lead by example, showing their fellow employees that they can embrace their true selves at work without punishment. It may not always be obvious when an employee is part of a traditionally alienated group, which is why self-identification rate is considered a success metric for ERGs. If you’ve successfully created a safe and welcoming work environment, more employees will know that they can come forward without suffering from negative repercussions.

“VMware’s disability self-identification rate doubled the first two years after the ERG was launched,” says Sheri Byrne-Haber. “Part of it was we were doing more specific recruiting of people with disabilities, but that was just a really tiny piece of it. Most of it was people being more comfortable self-identifying their disabled status.”

An environment of psychological safety can also help your business by fueling innovation, learning, and growth. “Silence is instinctive and safe in any hierarchy,” says Amy Edmondson. “People fail to speak up not just with bad news or dissent, they also withhold ideas for improvements―unless they are extremely confident the ideas will be welcomed.

What HR leaders can do to build psychological safety

Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School shared these three tips in her Ted Talk.

  1. Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.

  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility, creating more safety for speaking up.

  3. Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions, which creates a necessity for individuals to share their voices.

Step 4: Use technology to your advantage.

In the world of remote work, ERGs can provide support both asynchronously and synchronously. Luckily there have never been more tools at your disposal to help your company support communication within its ERGs and evangelize the groups’ efforts.

One of the best ways to support ERGs with technology is by making a space outside of productivity tools where ERG members can meet and collaborate. By creating a distinction between platforms used for work and platforms used for ERGs, you can cultivate more honest and genuine connections. After all, the issues that ERG members discuss can be sensitive and personal. You can show employees that you’re treating those topics with the respect they deserve by designating space for them. A social connection platform like Wisq can be a great asset for this purpose; ERGs can use Wisq to schedule events, talk about current events, get support from fellow members during hard times, and simply catch up between meetings.

“VMware uses Slack for communication. Each ERG has its own slack channel. We also have channels for mental health and neurodiversity. Some of our disability-related channels are divided into channels for allies and channels for people experiencing the disability,” says Sheri Byrne-Haber from VMware. “In the restricted channels, you're talking to other people who are in a similar situation as yours. That does feel like a safe space. Many VMware leaders also have anonymous feedback mechanisms that are useful for people who need help but might not want to identify themselves publicly,” she added.

Even simple technology like email can help your ERGs: an email newsletter can keep members informed about upcoming activities, relevant research and news.

No matter what tools you choose, by using technology to create communication channels, you can help employees across your organization process issues in the world at large. Every community needs a central place to engage, feel comfortable together and keep connected. Members of an ERG use technology platforms to discuss current events, get to know one another better, talk through frustrations and when applicable, find help. By making the most of communication platforms, you'll ensure your ERGs have the necessary space they need to bring their missions and visions to life and achieve the goals they set out to accomplish.

How Wisq can help ERGs. Wisq can create a dedicated space outside of other workplace tools where ERG members can vent, discuss challenges and workshop solutions. ERGs can use Wisq’s Groups feature to create a homebase for members. They can also use Lounges for impromptu connection, Coffee Chats for making new friends, and the Wisq feed for learning who fellow ERG members are outside of work.

Step 5: Align executives and ERG leaders around goals that support company objectives. Later, measure the success.

ERGs are occupying increasingly strategic roles at their organizations, and you can tie their goals to company objectives. “ERGs are evolving to be more connected back to the business,” says Gloria Goins, former Head of Inclusion, Diversity & Equity, Sales, Marketing and Global Services at Amazon Web Services. “That's where you get the greatest lift—when they are structured, they have a sponsor, and they have a business plan.”

Each organization is different, with different diversity goals and different things they want their ERGs to accomplish. “There isn't a one size fits all. Even at an industry level, there's a great deal of variability in terms of what has been the practice, the pattern of practice, and the history of the use of ERGs,” says Gena Cox of Feels Human.

Businesses can start with a few questions as they set up an ERG. First, what is the ERG for? Will its goals align with overall enterprise objectives for diversity, equity and inclusion? Next, ask, who is the business asking to fill leadership roles within the ERG?

Goal alignment from the start will help ERGs measure their efforts. HR sponsors can help ERG leaders understand what's possible from a resourcing standpoint and what the company would expect from the investment. Together, they can determine goals that ladder up to company objectives.

There are concrete ways to measure an ERG’s success. According to Sheri Byrne-Haber from VMware, self-identification rates, equity indexes, and being included on lists of companies who excel at DEI are all objective ways to gauge an ERG’s impact. Not only do these metrics measure an improvement in the employee experience, they can also boost your public image.

“The organization has to know overall what it is trying to accomplish, and then the ERG has to say, within our group’s focus, we understand that we have to tie into some of these big ideas that the organization has,” Gena Cox of Feels Human says. “When everything is aligned and the C-suite and everyone else has agreed to support a strategic objective that benefits the members of that group and benefits the organization as a whole, then magic can happen.”

Conclusion

A sense of belonging at work can play a big role in everything from job retention to innovation to day-to-day engagement. And, ultimately, ERGs are about belonging. They can help businesses achieve strategic DEI goals, spearhead important company-wide initiatives, build and strengthen relationships within and across the company, and help marginalized employees feel comfortable being their true, authentic selves at work.

Regardless of how an individual employee identifies, everyone who works at your company is trying to find out where they belong. And for many employees, an ERG can make all the difference.

To summarize, here are the five key themes that will help ensure the success of ERGs at your organization.

  1. Provide tangible support, budget and resources to ERG members.

  2. Use executive sponsorship to boost ERG leaders.

  3. Create a welcoming and psychologically safe work environment.

  4. Use technology to your advantage.

  5. Align executives and ERG leaders around goals that support company objectives. Later, measure the success.

When these groups get the investment and attention they need, the entire organization will benefit. And critically, employees can find a sense of belonging.

A special thank you to Joan Burke; Gena Cox, PhD; Gloria Goins; and Sheri Byrne-Haber for sharing their insights with us.

About Wisq

Wisq is a space for life at work. Wisq helps employees connect, build relationships and feel a greater sense of belonging at work. The Wisq platform builds community, connection, and collaboration across hybrid, remote and in-person teams. Companies of all sizes use Wisq to increase employee engagement, improve productivity and build happy work cultures. Based in Redwood City, CA, Wisq was founded by serial entrepreneurs Jim Barnett, chief executive officer; Goutham Kurra, chief product officer; and Chih-Po Wen, chief technology officer, founders of the people success platform leader, Glint. Wisq has raised more than $40 million and is backed by True Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners and Shasta Ventures. For more information, visit www.wisq.com 

Build engaged, happy teams with Wisq

Book a Demo