ERGs Must Meet Employees’ Needs

Imagine the following scenario. After a few months of dedicated effort, Jill was thrilled. Her veterans employee resource group had grown to more 300 people. Just last week, she and her core ERG leadership team put together a plan to present to management. At the top of the list was something near and dear to their hearts — a campaign to collect clothing and find shelter for homeless veterans.

Unfortunately, management told her they would not fund this type of effort because it did not bring a clear dollar-and-cents return on investment. A few months later, the formerly vibrant network had eroded to a shell of its former self. Some members vocally protested and quit. Others found better things to do with their time than ERG meetings and quietly faded away.

Jill is fictitious, but this scenario is based on a true story. This type of story is fairly common, according to LaVay Lauter, director of learning and development at KentuckyOne Health. In past roles, she worked closely with ERG members at a variety of companies and has heard their stories firsthand.

“Basically, in some companies, if the ERG proposes doing something that is fun, charitable or anything that does not have a serious and clear financial benefit to the business, the company leadership representatives shoot it down,” Lauter said.

As a result, ERG members begin to wonder why they are giving up their lunch hours and off-duty time to basically do more work for the company that offers little to nothing in return regarding things they care about.

Lauter’s experience is not unique. When members of ERGs — also called business resource groups or BRGs — perceive a lack of attention and investment from the company in what is important to the network members, membership often becomes less energizing and rewarding. The negative results that may follow include:

  • Fewer people volunteering to manage network events.
  • Passive membership or people who may attend an occasional meeting if they have nothing better to do.
  • Difficulty securing new members.
  • Difficulty securing new network leaders.
  • Members leaving the network.
  • Passionate employees redirecting their energies to external pursuits that enable them to fulfill their own needs better.
  • An employee perception that the network is a waste of time, window-dressing for the company, or both.

To secure, harness and sustain the full engagement and passion of all employees who form and or join these networks, companies have to keep employee interest and value as a central component in their network efforts.

Engagement Efforts That Work
Pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim keeps its employees’ interest and values central in all network efforts despite having more than 46,000 employees. According to Nancy Di Dia, the company’s executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer, the company achieved this by tightly integrating networks’ value in the company with professional career development for members.

For instance, while the company’s BRGs focus on initiatives such as its Asian network’s community outreach geared toward increasing Asian participation in clinical trials, it simultaneously provides members with visibility to senior executives and opportunities to develop and display new project management, presentation and execution skills. “We’ve become a talent developer and broker recognized by the organization as well as employees,” Di Dia said.

One example of this BRG-supported development involved a woman who, despite being a brilliant scientist, was rather shy, easily rattled when dealing with people senior to her, and lacking the confidence and communication skills often considered key leadership qualities. After joining a BRG, she acquired a mentor, was given the opportunity to lead projects through the BRG, and got opportunities to use and develop presentation skills. Today, she is more confident with a strong executive presence and has co-presented material with her CEO.

“I’m proud to say at Boehringer Ingelheim, just about every single person who’s led a BRG has later progressed to have broader responsibilities and/or a promotion as well as opportunities to develop valuable business skills and access to expat assignments,” Di Dia said.

In light of this approach, the growth in the number of BRGs as well as in membership is not surprising. “Being a BRG member at Boehringer Ingelheim is cool,” Di Dia said.

Baystate Health, a health care system headquartered in Springfield, Mass., where it’s one of the state’s largest employers, also provides a powerful and continuously growing value proposition for its BRG members.

“Investing in the development of members, then having these members involved in efforts that enable them to apply the acquired capabilities in business-impacting projects, and lastly making sure members’ experiences and accomplishments are recognized in their formal, individual development profiles are a big part of what we do,” said Andres Gonzalez, Baystate Health’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.

For example, to support members’ career development, Gonzalez said the company is hosting a leadership development session where BRG members meet with key members of the HR organization to learn about career paths and the competency requirements for these roles. At this session, they also will learn about the resources the company provides to help employees secure the skills needed to move into these opportunities.

In addition, Gonzalez said there are special development benefits for employees who are also BRG members. One of these is participation in a company-hosted Toastmasters group.

While keeping membership energy and passion high is a priority, the company also uses its BRGs to drive value to the business. For example, in Baystate’s outpatient center in Northampton, the demographics include a large LGBT community. Jenn Faulkner, director of communications and Baystate Pride’s executive sponsor, partnered with Gonzalez to leverage the LGBT network as a focus group for the center’s building project.

Thanks to the LGBT network’s perspective, the center added features including an in vitro-fertilization practice for gay and lesbian couples and a transgender clinic. “The network members were happy to have taken part in this as a way of serving their community, and Baystate was equally pleased as it allows us to provide culturally patient-centered care,” Gonzalez said.

How to Create High-Performing ERGs
Organizations that want to effectively build and sustain employee resource group membership and engagement can consider the following action items:

  • Don’t be shy about giving more value to those who volunteer. In turn, this will give more value to the company.
  • Find ways to package work that benefits the company in a manner that benefits the community that ERG members care about.
  • Leverage networks to provide stretch learning opportunities.
  • Give network members special access and visibility to senior leadership.
  • Connect network members to company committees and other groups where their perspectives can add value while they gain exposure and experience.
  • Leverage ERG leaders and networks to find talent for open roles in the organization.
  • Find creative ways to package ERG efforts so they bring value to the business, the network’s community of interest and the members.?

There is a quote from the Old Testament that captures the essential logic behind ERG engagement. Deuteronomy 25:4 states in the New Century version of the Bible, “When an ox is working in the grain, do not cover its mouth to keep it from eating.” If a farmer muzzled an ox that was working for him, it would not only be wrong morally, it’s also not a smart business tactic. The starving animal would eventually weaken and slow down, or stop working altogether.

Likewise, when passionate people give more of themselves than their day jobs require, it is neither right nor prudent to muzzle them so they cannot enjoy some of the fruits of their extra labor. Doing so will only demoralize and weaken them, leaving the organization with empty shells of what could have been, or once were, vibrant employee resource groups.

For organizations facing a mutiny in their employee network ranks, the key to turning it around is simple. Take a page from the aforementioned organizations’ playbooks, and put employees’ needs, desires and concerns back at the center of the company’s employee networks.

Joseph Santana is president of Joseph Santana LLC, a management consultancy specializing in ERG program strategy development and coaching. He can be reached at