The Do’s and the Don’ts: A Simple Guide for Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)/ Employee Inclusion Groups (EIGs) and DEI Advisory Boards

By: Cheryl Ingram PhD

A small group of people can’t be a strong agent of change. Collectively, we are more likely to approach change with a fierceness that resonates and shakes normalcy to the core. Recently, in my line of work a major change that has been occurring in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusionis the increasing number of ERGs/EIGs or DEI Advisory Boards within companies. The common trend among ERGs/EIGs (also known as affinity groups) is that they serve as a bridge for employees that disproportionately suffer from stereotypes, assumptions, and unconscious bias in company practices. Not all of the affinity groups are made of these populations but historically and presently their existence is due to the reasons previously listed.

Research states that the first ERG was born in the 1960s. Joseph Wilson, CEO of Xerox Corporation and Black employees of the company came together with the mission to address discrimination and create fairness in the workplace after the race riots took place in Rochester New York in 1964. The genesis of what soon became the National Black Employee Caucus in 1970. Affinity groups were initially founded as a support system, social group, and a major part of their strategy was advocacy for things like equitable pay, equality, and policy change. I’m sharing these facts because recently, I have met with a number of companies and the conversation has become one that has evolved, for the worse.

As I sit with the initiators of these groups I hear a common thread of utilizing ERGs/EIGs or DEI Advisory Boards as a medium for a safe yet impactful and meaningful space in their companies. Meaning that employees have a space to go share in cultural activities, to have difficult conversations, and shared events for camaraderie. I understand the intent of safe space and creating a group to address the lack thereof, BUT here is where it gets disturbing. If these groups are done WRONG then employees, with the best of intent, can create “superficial safe spaces.” A superficial safe space, as we refer to it in my company, is an environment in which you only celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion through the lens of the FFF’s (food, fun, and festivities). This practice can build a cover that overshadows deeper issues of inequity that exist in your company’s policies and practices. In order to help with the strategy behind your ERG I have compiled a list of Do’s and Don’ts for your viewing

The Don’ts of the EIG/ERG/DEI Advisory Board

  1. Do not form an ERG/EIG or DEI Advisory Board strictly as a social group- I am a firm believer in the history of ERGs/EIGs and the intent of why they began: to implement change! If you are a member of a historically stigmatized group or a group who suffers disproportionately from internal discrimination you need more than a social platform to impact change in your company. You need a strategy, vision, a brand, and influence etc. STAY AWAY from only celebrating the three FFFs (food, fun, and festivities). It is superficial and not impactful in addressing discrimination.
  2. Do not fully exclude employees with no “so called” experience or background and forbid them from leading diversity conversations, do not exclude their voices from the conversations and final decisions- Diversity, equity, and inclusion can be a difficult topic. It addresses a deep fear that people have of being a racist, sexist, bigot etc. If you are discussing emotional topics that are engulfed in someone’s identity you need to have an external facilitator. These conversations can get intense very quickly and can stir up some serious anger and resentment, don’t make yourself a target for an HR complaint or reprimand in the name of good intentions. Also, remember that employees from marginalized populations are not often given leadership opportunities even when they have earned it. Due to this they face resistance and bias when they speak up. If you are leading one of these causes it is your job, to make sure this does not happen in your group. It is your job to create succession planning practices that create equitable opportunities for the marginalized. Also for employees that are marginalized recognize that your mental capacity and wellness might be overwhelmed by the discrimination you face and that it might not be your place at a given time to be leading the discussion.
  3. Practice isolation or exclusion of nonmembers- There will be times when your group may need to have a private meeting, but this should not always be consistent. Schedule events in collaboration with other ERGs. Invite employees who are non-members to your events and even to serve as allies. The goal of these groups should not be established with the Zero Sum attitude of we are only here to fight for our rights. Yes, you are there to advocate and address issues of inequity related to your identity, but remember the people, usually executives, you are usually strategizing to address for the purpose of change, are the ones you will most likely exclude from your group. The exclusion may not even be intentional, but someone will notice and complain. This can hurt your credibility and cause. In order to work around this issue, you need to have an open group policy, even if you’d prefer that the group only be made of those with common identity traits. The quickest way to see your ERG minimized or ignored is to perpetuate discrimination. Trust me, most of the people who have a problem with the existence of your group won’t join it anyways.

The Do’s of an ERG/EIG or DEI Advisory Board

  1. A diversity, equity, and inclusion survey- I think this can help you to continue to build a case for your ERG support and help you to capture the voice of all of your employees and potential group members. I would assess the following:

a) Employee perspective and attitudes toward ERGs/EIGs

b) Employee demographic identity broken down by (race, age, sexual orientation, gender, ability,) to start

c) Gather an employee perspective of inclusion at your company

2. Begin with a 3rd Party Facilitator of Difficult Discussions- Due to the difficult topics that could emerge in these conversations I’d recommend having an experienced facilitator on site. In all transparency, it is necessary due potentially offending someone at an event and that may lead to internal complaints. These complaints can discredit the importance of your ERG/EIG and impact participation from employees. A good start would be to develop a format or curriculum to help guide the conversation.

3. Capture Attendance and Data During Every Event-I recommend a pre and a post capturing of the data. It doesn’t always have to be a survey, perhaps it could be people writing on large posts on the wall. I have seen this be beneficial in companies because it helps to make a case for budgetary concerns or cases, as well as curriculum development and setting goals for attendance of an event and your internal marketing strategy. It will be important to know who is both present and absent at these events.

4. Be Mindful of the Food, Fun, and Festivities- This is a good place when you are welcoming people into your ERG/EIG but it should NEVER be the sole purpose. If you find that people are struggling with inclusion in your company they may see this as a surface level celebration and something that is not addressing an overarching issue you may not even be aware exists in the company. You can be seen as a bandaid to a much deeper wound or company pressure point.

5 Things to include in your strategy -

  1. Strategic Vision and Plan
  2. Mission
  3. Annual Goals and Action Steps
  4. Membership Requirements and Responsibilities
  5. Policies or By Laws

5 Things to include in your branding

  1. THE VOICE AND IDENTITY OF YOUR EMPLOYEES!
  2. A Business Case- to build support from your company this should include
  3. How you will help create and support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the company
  4. How you plan to build a system of support for social mobility and professional development of your members

To all of the initiators and supporters of ERG/ EIGs or Advisory Boards you can provide a space for people to come and discuss broader issues and engage in difficult talks and training. This will help to continue building a stronger and more impactful foundation and purpose.

Dr. Cheryl Ingram aka Dr. CI, is a very successful entrepreneur, blogger, content creator and expert of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices.

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