ERGs Need to Benefit Employees, Not Just the Company

I recently received feedback on a panel session that I moderated. The panel was supposed to give examples of how employee resource groups (ERGs) benefited both the company and the members. Some participants pointed out, however, that the panel seemed to be pulled and centered, as if by an invisible force, on the benefits to the company and that members’ interests were barely touched. I would, unfortunately, have to agree. In fact, despite my own attempts as a moderator to draw out more on the benefits to members, the comments from the panelists tended to anchor themselves powerfully around how the network was bringing value to the company.

A quick review of the most recent articles on the topic of how ERGs provide benefits shows this same tendency to tout the business value, while remaining silent about value to members. To try to tip the scale back a bit, I thought it would be a good idea to review some of the ways ERGs can provide value to members and to offer a few tips on what to do if you want to increase the value members receive for the time they invest in attending ERG meetings or participating in any capacity in the network.

ERG members, of course, have a perfect right to expect some benefits from the time they invest in attending ERG meetings and events. As implied by the very name, the group exists as a resource for employees. They are, after all, investing their personal time in a company-sponsored group that is not required as part of their employment. These benefits to members can be personal or can take the shape of supporting something they are passionate about. For example, personal benefits can include opportunities to network with senior executives, educational presentations that help them advance their careers and opportunities to explore key job targets across the enterprise. Benefits that take the form of supporting something they are passionate about can be found in ERG targeted community help efforts (e.g., supporting Dress for Success Professional Women’s Group, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, supporting ex-military to enter the private workforce, etc).

In my travels, I often run across people who are frustrated because they feel as if ERGs have recently turned into unpaid, extracurricular work for the company that doesn’t provide them as members with any specific benefits. Interestingly enough, I often hear ERG leaders who are trying to build up their membership in these same organizations decry the fact that high-potential, fast-tracking employees and senior people in the network’s target group tend not to become members. Perhaps these highly sought membership candidates are looking for a missing value proposition that speaks to their enlightened self-interest. Let me also mention that many of these very same high-potential and senior people do have places where they invest themselves altruistically, but these are generally non-work-related outside groups that address their specific personal passions.

So what do savvy ERG leaders do to address this? The answer is to make sure they keep a lot of “employee resource” in their groups. For example:

  • Speed networking events where members can meet with key executives as a way of facilitating introductions and connections.
  • Successful role model presentations where attendees can learn, among other things, success techniques.
  • Senior executive speakers who can talk about how to navigate toward various career opportunities.
  • Participation in committees and sub-groups that serve the needs of target communities that the members are passionate about.
  • Support in finding or becoming mentors to others who the members would like to work with as part of giving back.

Some very clever network leaders, of course, find ways to drive membership value while simultaneously driving business value by targeting goals that fulfills both needs. For example, we sometimes see how a network will bring philanthropic value to a community that the members are passionate about and at the same time create a business opportunity for their company. This is always a good approach when possible. Just remember to tout the value to members as loudly as you do the values to the company. Do not assume that the members and membership candidates are simply going to get it.

The increased business value offered to companies by their ERGs today is certainly a good thing. These business-value-driving efforts, however, should bring value to members as well or be supplemented by other activities that address membership needs. ERGs should also clearly communicate in their literature and presentations the value proposition to their members with the same vigor as they talk about their value to the company. In the end, it is true that without the support of the business you will not have a company-sponsored ERG. On the other hand, without a value proposition that attracts a large, energetic and passionate number of the most talented people as members, it is not going to be much of an ERG for the company to sponsor. We need both. That is how value balance produces a dynamic cycle of increasing value!