When Sheri Byrne-Haber started an employee resource group (ERG) for disability at VMware, it was the company’s 27th ERG.
“That tells you two things,” Sheri explains. “One is we have a lot of ERGs, and the other is that disability was a little bit of an afterthought.” But now, VMware’s disability ERG is one of the company’s most popular in terms of membership. “We've had upwards of 1,200 people attending our meetings,” she says.
VMware is a leading provider of multi-cloud services, and as Senior Staff Architect of Accessibility, Sheri’s job at the company is to spearhead the VMware accessibility program. She’s an on making the workplace a safe space for employees with disabilities. She even wrote a book on the subject, Giving a Damn About Accessibility, which you can read for free.
We sat down with Sheri to get her insights on how to use ERGs to enhance diversity and improve working conditions at your organization.
What’s an ERG, and why is it important?
ERGs are employee-led groups that foster a diverse, inclusive workplace. Usually, an ERG is led by individuals who share a characteristic like gender, race, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. ERGs aim to support people with a shared characteristic to achieve career and lifestyle goals and they help companies become places where employees can bring their whole selves to the office.
For Sheri, a disability ERG was essential to fostering an inclusive environment at VMware. “The companies that are best at accessibility are the ones that have strong disability ERGs. here's a direct correlation between ERG strength and my day job success,” says Sheri, who has a congenital mobility disability and type 1 diabetes.
ERG groups create more advocates across the organization that can keep disability and other inclusion issues top of mind, which can make your company a more welcoming environment overall. “We have more than twenty 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. “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?’”
ERGs provide tangible support for employees
The disability ERG at VMware provides practical assistance for employees beyond just work concerns. “We want to support not only employees with disabilities, but also employees with disabled, elderly parents, or disabled children,” says Sheri. “For example, we have special classes every year on how parents with disabled children can deal with the school system in the US.”
“We also help employees handle insurance issues and accommodation requests,” she adds. “I'll help them with the wording and the process to make sure that they've got the best chances of getting what they need.”
"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?’” - Sheri Byrne-Haber, Senior Staff Architect of Accessibility, VMWare
How to measure success of an ERG
Some might assume ERGs are a “soft” addition to your organization, and as a result, they might think it would be challenging to measure their success. But according to Sheri, self-identification rates, equity indexes, and inclusion on DEI lists are all objective ways to gauge an ERGs impact.
If you’ve successfully created a safe space at your company, 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. 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," Sheri says.
Thanks to Sheri and the efforts of her colleagues, the disability ERG also helped VMware’s public image. “We went from a failing score to one hundred percent on the Disability Equity Index in two years,” she explains. “That required 26 remediation programs that the ERG and many others kicked off so that we could improve our grade and improve the experience for disabled employees.”
Their work was also recognized by Forbes. “We moved up on Forbes’ Best Employers for Diversity list, from eleventh place to second place, and Forbes cited our improved emphasis on disability inclusion,” says Sheri.
Disability and intersectionality
Disability affects close to twenty percent of the population, and should play an important role in discussions around inclusion at your organization.
“Disability is one of the most intersectional dimensions of DEI because anybody can become disabled at any time, regardless of what their other identities are. Most disabilities are acquired; not congenital,” says Sheri.
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.