A couple weeks ago on a list serve/linkedin group, there was a debate about Employee Resource Groups. My personal sentiments at times differ from the standard practice of the majority of corporations and their diversity teams. Other times, it may be me simply being difficult. In this instance, my thinking about ERGs that identify by an exclusive group (i.e. African-American, Latino, LGBT, particular religion, etc.) is that representation of those identities in and of themselves in organizations are important, but less and less lead to believe that most ERGs (a.k.a. affinity groups) focused on a single identity are helpful in the long run for organizations or for those engaged.
My responses to the inquiries and reactions are in italics.
In response to a member asking about starting an LGBT ERG.
It is not a secret how I personally feel about identity-based ERGs. By their nature, I think they are exclusive and have spotty effectiveness in the strategic sense. People will naturally gravitate towards that which is like them at some point or another. Reinforcing this actually can set people up for challenges (i.e. Asians (particularly Chinese) being promoted proportionately to upper management/leadership in technical organizations where they well-represented overall). Of course, marketing segmentation, product differentiation, etc. make sense to me. At the same time I always wonder about the ability of a particular group ERG to engage outside of their group beyond situational engagement that is, in a way, artificially constructed. The key ingredient to whether decisions get made based on particular input--trust--is missing in the equation. It is missing primarily because the out-group (e.g. non-LGBT and perhaps A, in this case) is rarely intimately embedded in the foundational conversations of group establishment. Consciously or unconsciously in-group bias on both sides is reinforced. Further, we get these ERG leaders focused on themselves more than the strategic direction of the company, again setting them up for missing opportunities in the long-term as they don't see the bigger possibilities and responsibilities that their role as a member of an ERG entails (or at least could/should/potentially might entail).
So, the intention is good. On the other hand, where long-term impact is concerned (so-called measurement or data supported justification or not) I am not convinced that in the times we are in now that newly established identity-specific ERGs can have the impact that a broader concept (i.e. inter-generational groups) can.
The responses ranged from people defending the position of ERGs in general to letting me know that, for all intents and purposes, "You are wrong." A summary statement that I thought spoke for most respondents was the following: "Creating these identity based groups creates a sense of place in the company for people who fit a particular affinity. It allows them to have a safe place in a company where most do not look like them and don’t understand their experience. It is a message from the company that they are “present” and that the company understands the uniqueness of their experience. This is very affirming for employees who are not part of the majority. This I can stomach and they in fact could be right." Again, point taken.
Thing is, when we look at the stats and articles such as this:
Is there a bamboo ceiling at American companies? what do we conclude?
One is left wondering how affective these ethnic and other identity-focused ERG really are? Answer is, we really only know by anecdote. And in many instances the ERG has not made much of a dent in dynamics such as these. They either are not tasked to or have not made it a priority. People are more comfortable around other folks like them and very little changes. Perhaps when people are too comfortable, very little changes for individuals or the organizations they serve?
The conversation ended with the potential of an academic study of ERGs. Great outcome!
My conclusion was the following:
Know that there is little in the world that I am flat out opposed to. LGBTA ERGs and ERGs in general included. ERGs make sense, we should have them, we also should be tasked to take the idea of them deeper, this is my intention.
One thing I am allergic to is doing the same things over and over and even when evidence of effectiveness is limited, justifying that which we are attached to for lack of a viable alternative.
This is the situation with ERGs in many cases. There are some great identity-focused ERGs in companies. Some contribute a lot to all of the areas that were shared from 'engagement to safe spaces'. I am less sure of their collective, long-term, impact across the board. . .This is not something "I know" but intuitively and experientially I sense and have seen limited impact other than the generic anecdotal statements that "ERGs are good, they help underrepresented people" and perhaps some ROI anecdotes on a limited basis; yet, have not seen anyone challenge the notion that this is "true" beyond anecdote alone. Are we capable of assessing broad impact beyond a few isolated cases? "Its like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder. . ."
So, ERGs get a thumbs up in theory! Our collective willingness to question that which we are convinced of or explore alternatives to, gets a "so-so (with the hand vs. a thumbs up)" in practice.
Hopefully, the result of this conversation is another avenue to test hypothesis about this work we call diversity and inclusion. The urgency of our politico-economic situation requires us to go deeper. No time to waste.
Make it a great day!