By Tawanah Reeves-Ligon-
Employee resource groups (ERGs), or affinity groups, have been the lifeblood of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at large companies, government agencies and big-box stores for almost two decades.
“By embedding equity into the talent lifecycle, you enrich your employees’ experience; thus, you accelerate their engagement and productivity and make your team high performing, dynamic and resilient,” said Donald Fan, retired senior director of the global office of culture, diversity, equity & inclusion at Walmart, Inc., to Winsight Grocery Business.
But ERGs are not just for Walmart, Amazon, etc. You can take advantage of the power and benefits of ERGs at your small business too. Here are five “big box” strategies you can tailor (and leverage!) to your small business needs:
- Do Assessments, Set Goals
Begin with the end in mind. Who are some of the key communities present in your small business? They all have specific as well as shared needs and concerns that an ERG can give voice to and help address. Conduct assessments and review HR data. Do you have a hard time hiring millennials or retaining women? ERG goals should align with the company goals and missions. According to Kiera Fernandez, Target’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, “DEI is not meant to rest on one individual’s shoulders. This work requires shared accountability and responsibility, which is why it’s so critical to create an infrastructure—a system with tools that allow you to integrate DEI into your ecosystem in a way that truly drives your business.”
- Get Key Stakeholder Buy-In
Having the entire team on board with the decision to create, invest in and mentor your ERGs is going to be critical to your success. ERGs, after all, are made up of volunteers amongst the employees. However, start with input and volunteers from within your leadership team. Explain what’s at stake, which groups you are hoping to target first, what your goals are and ask for input. They’ll appreciate being part of the conversation and have more incentive to put their support behind the endeavor.
- Start Inclusive, Stay Inclusive
When you have a small business, it can feel daunting to find enough members of an underrepresented community in your company to fill the ERG roles. (That could be one of the reasons you want to build a group in the first place!) Allowing allies to become members as a means of support, without allowing them to lead the conversation, can be a great way to not only make the ERG feel more inclusive, but also to help spread the ideas and attention to internal concerns that the ERG is meant to address. Also, as your program and employee counts grow, don’t forget to think outside the box and listen to your employee’s needs. Maybe the schedule structure necessitates a single parent ERG to help the company stay aware of how policies affect their employee’s home life? Be open and get creative about how to build communities within your business that bolster everyone’s overall sense of belonging.
- Recruit, Recruit, Recruit
Use your ERGs as a recruitment tool to farm and retain fresh talent. When looking for new hires, make sure that you mention your employee resource groups on job ads, boards and to recruitment agents. ERG members can also go out into the local community and do service projects or job fairs, promoting not only the company, but also representing a physical example of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Don’t forget to promote the opportunity within your ERGs to gain valuable mentorship and community within the company. You can also use ERGs to find promotion-ready candidates for advancement to higher levels of leadership within your business.
- Listen and Learn
The most important work of the ERG is to help your business be accountable for the welfare and growth of its employees. Always have an open door for ERG leadership to bring concerns, suggestions and innovations to the table from their group members. “We’ve embedded additional accountability measures and feedback channels throughout all levels of our organization. In 2021, we began the ‘Act’ phase of our Listen, Learn, Act program, which was developed at the suggestion of members of our Black Leaders Forum,” announced Richard K. Bynum, chief corporate responsibility officer at PNC, in their yearly corporate responsibility report. Take advantage of your ERGs to never lose the heart of those at the core of your business—the people who work or you.
While forming and maintaining your first ERG as a small business owner or executive may seem daunting, you are more than up to the task. Begin with the end in mind and continue to stay open to feedback at every step of the process. Start implementing these steps today to build a more equitable and joyful workplace for tomorrow.