Are Employee Affinity Groups Worth the Effort?

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Your company might call it an employee resource group (ERG), affinity group, or network. No matter what the name, the goal is supposed to be the same: a social and professional network for people with a common background.

But just because there’s a group of similar people meeting in a room doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get something out of it. Not all employee resource groups are created equal.

If you’re looking for camaraderie, it might make sense to reach out to the African-American, women, LGBT, or veterans employee resource group at your company and find people who share your experiences. The best employee resource groups emphasize professional development, and they get major buy-in from the higher-ups, too. As you figure out if your tech company’s employee resource group is worth your time, here are some things to consider:

A Formal Affair

It’s not news that tech companies are looking for ways to bring diversity to the ranks, especially given the industry’s continuing problem in that arena. Employee resource groups are one way to engage and retain people, and they also get the word out that the company is a welcoming place for all types of people, suggested Leslie Kiser, manager of engineering for CDI’s engineering business and chairwoman of CDI Women’s Network.

But good intentions aren’t enough. According to Kiser, both the tech company and the employee resource group have to back things up by making the ERG a much more formal affair. Groups need stated goals for participants and the company at large.

CDI started its own Women’s Network in 2015. The network has an official steering committee made up of a core group of individuals who provide the basic structure for the rest of the membership. Events include a speakers’ series, outside volunteering, and presentations on ways to move up the tech ladder.

Collaboration is Key

Mentoring initiatives and other events certainly matter, of course. Programs and events should focus on innovation and specific skills and tools that directly relate to the job. Employees need to be the ones to organically grow the ERG and determine which programs to champion, suggested Jason Cole, a network planning associate at Level 3 and location lead for the Veteran Employee Resource Group at the company. But executive support is critical.

“The groups need the support of tech leaders to truly take on professional development,” Cole said. Direct support and participation by upper management conveys the importance of the ERG not only to employees in the group, but staffers across the company.

Higher-ups should invest not only time, but also money into the ERG. Employee resource groups need some level of visibility in the overall company. That means management allowing ERGs to promote their groups in the office and on the company’s intranet or newsletter. “This not only allows the word to get around, it also validates the importance of the ERGs within the company,” Cole added.

Getting Buy-In

Making the case for ERGs, if your company doesn’t have them, isn’t as hard a sell as some might think, according to Doug Harris, CEO of The Kaleidoscope Group, a Chicago-based diversity- and inclusion-consulting firm.

In many cases, employees interested in creating an ERG only need to ask. “Most employers generally do care,” he said.

Make the case, and it likely will happen, especially with the growing concerns about employee retention and the focus on diversity in the tech industry. Some data seems to show that ERGs are a good way to retain employees, and that’s another way to argue for an employee resource group.

According to a survey by Catalyst, 58 percent of HR and diversity and inclusion leaders believed that ERGs at their company contributed to “driving inclusion and engagement to a great or very great extent.”

Once an employee resource group is up and running, sometimes getting other employees involved can take a bit of effort. The most effective ERGs, Harris said, are the ones with a large number of actively involved employees, so it makes sense to try to get widespread participation across the company: “Participation in employee resource groups are certainly voluntary, but if the group provides something of value, employees are more likely to join.”

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