Suzanne Lucas

How Employee Resource Groups Help Workers Flourish

People are naturally gravitate to those who are similar to them — with similar tastes, styles and problems.

Employee resource groups (ERGs) bring people together to foster inclusivity and communication in the workplace. This is especially true for companies whose workforce represents a wide range of backgrounds and ages: ERGs are a way to connect people with similar struggles who might not otherwise ever speak to each other.

These groups can be a valuable investment of time and money if you’re looking to build employee relationships and keep morale high. Here’s how they work.

What Are Employee Resource Groups?

These groups, sometimes also called affinity groups, are voluntary associations within a workplace. They’re made up of employees with a common goal, identity or interest. This can be a group based on an immutable characteristic, such as race, or on a shared interest, like chess. Employees meet to discuss common struggles, interests and other relevant topics; then, they help one another, whether with advice and support or, as the name implies, with resources they can use in the future.

The most popular of these organizations center on issues facing LGBTQ employees and women in business. However, many companies go further. Amazon has 10 employee resource groups total, including ones for people with disabilities, Asians, indigenous people and women in engineering. Google supplements its in-person groups with online chat groups for different topics.

How Can You Support Employee Groups?

The first step is letting your staff know that these groups are allowed in the first place! You might consider getting the ball rolling by sponsoring an event, such as a lunch and learn on a specific topic. You could also suggest groups that people might be interested in.

Then, if people want to create a group, let them — within reason. You don’t want to have to deal with rival groups down the line; to that end, you may choose to ban political groups outright, especially as we head into a presidential election year. Unless your business is in advocacy or politics, remind people that everyone’s beliefs are welcome as long as they behave according to your company code of conduct. Make it clear than an affinity group doesn’t give employees the right to create a hostile work environment and violate laws against discrimination and harassment.

ERGs make your office a place where people can feel comfortable being themselves, so take the opportunity to make the meetings themselves comfortable. Provide space for the meetings, and don’t require people to clock out for a reasonable meeting — especially if the group is related to professional development. Providing a budget for lunches or the occasional guest speaker is an extra step on your part, but it’s one that shows employees you support their personal and professional development.

How Employee Groups Boost Employee Engagement

You may think that having a group of slightly nerdy employees get together to discuss “Doctor Who” won’t help the business. And, on its face, it won’t. But what it does provide is camaraderie and support networks in the workplace. When people see that there are other people like them at work, it makes work a better place. People who are happy at work perform at a higher level. They’re excited to come to work. They’re also less likely to quit.

You do want to be careful, though, that these affinity groups don’t lead to preferential treatment. If managers want to join an affinity group, it’s critical that they do so as equal participants. If the relationships get too close, managers and HR people should have a sense of when they need to step back to ensure fairness in managerial decisions.

Once people start talking to each other about the subjects they value, they’ll find it easier to extend those strong relationships into the rest of their professional lives. Want a workforce that gets excited to work together? Let your employees get to know each other.

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