The Ultimate Guide to a Successful ERG Program: How to Start, Grow & Scale Employee Resource Groups

Anisha Nandi
Anisha Nandi
Co-Founder, CEO

Introduction

Employee Resource Groups have been around for decades. If you’re reading this article, you probably have a sense of their importance already. For a quick refresher - see here.

Recently, ERGs have taken on a new level of importance. Post-2020, we saw 35% of businesses increase their support of ERGs. This is because ERGs are now a centerpiece of culture and strategy. Especially in a hybrid/distributed work world with a growing number of ‘deskless’ workers and a soon-to-be majority minority workforce, groups centered on identity and experience at work are critical for engagement, retention & recruiting.

Not to mention, these groups are actually informing company policy & product, directly contributing to business goals. Parents & caregivers ERGs are informing policy for working caregivers, LGBTQ+ ERGs are informing companies on how to roll out pronoun campaigns, Accessibility ERGs are creating more equitable working environments, BIPOC ERGs are crafting internal & external comms that speak to specific populations - and so much more.

So it’s no surprise that the second fastest growing role being hired for today in the U.S. is a DEI Program Manager, according to LinkedIn. The first responsibility often on their list? Managing & scaling the company’s ERG program.

But how do you actually do that? How do you make sure your ERGs are set up for success? How do you start to level them up so they can influence the business without the leaders of the group burning out?

In this guide, we outline the phases of an ERG program’s maturity to give you a sense of where you are and where you could go next.

Quick Couple Notes:

  • ERGs = umbrella term: We refer to these groups as Employee Resource Groups. They’re also often referred to as affinity groups, Business Resource Groups, or, simply & increasingly, employee communities. For simplicity sake, we’ll call them ERGs throughout this article but when we’re referencing ERGs, take it as an umbrella term for any employee community built around a shared identity, experience or function.
  • Why did we make this guide? The number one word we hear from ERG leaders & DEI program managers is burnout. We hope sharing these best practices will lessen the burden of having to start from 0, and make you feel less alone in doing the hard, necessary work of championing these groups.
  • No “right” way: There is no “right” way to run an ERG program. Every company will have a different way that their ERGs interact & inform your culture and strategy. We aim to provide some universal best practices, but keep in mind, every company will likely have their own unique considerations given their unique employees & employee needs.
  • Who is this guide for? This guide is for anyone looking to understand and improve their ERG efforts - most specifically, an ERG Program Manger and ERG leaders are likely to find the most value. But if you’re an executive sponsor, ally, member or someone just curious about these powerful employee communities, there’s certainly tons for you to learn too.
  • Who wrote this? I’m Anisha, a former journalist turned founder. I’m deeply passionate about helping companies center inclusion, belonging & representation as a key part of their company culture & strategy. I know how critical this is for the Future of Work so my co-founder (Armen Nercesian) and I created Verbate to help you out on that journey.

Phase 1: Building your Employee Resource Group Program

How to create ERGs: 0 to 1

Employee Resource Groups can form both “bottoms up” and “tops down.”

Bottoms Up: Perhaps a few people meet up for lunch once a week and discuss their lives as working parents, or a group of AAPI employees create a Slack channel to chat about their shared experiences. This is often the story behind how an ERG begins organically.

Tops Down: More and more often these days, ERG Programs are starting from a ‘tops-down’ perspective. For example, if you’re a DEI program manager and your company wants to start an ERG program, you might be asking “Where do I start?.”

  1. Look at the internal data: Gathering Self-ID data is often a difficult problem in and of itself, but if you have an understanding of who your employees are, that’s a good place to start. Take a look at that data to get a base-line understanding of who your employees are.
  2. Look at the external data: There tends to be some common ERGs that are often formed at each company based on surveying across multiple companies. Some of the most common types of ERGs include: LGBTQIA+, Women, Black, AAPI, Latinx/Hispanic, Parents, Accessibility (physical disability and neurodiversity), Caretakers (children & adults), Indigenous and Remote/International groups.
  3. Ask your Employees: Most importantly, ask your employees what groups feel representative to them. For example, you could send a survey to employees on what types of ERGs they might be interested in joining. Although the first two points can give you a baseline of understanding of the ERG landscape, making sure this feels personal to your organization is so important.

Helping ERGs form their own Identity & Missions

  1. Set clear expectations on who the group is for & why

    Now that you’ve established your ERGs, make sure it’s clear who the group is for and why. For example, if you’re a Caregivers ERG, perhaps make it clear that both parents & those who care for others are welcome in the group. If you’re a BIPOC group that wants to ensure a safe, unfiltered space for members of your community, be clear on the different types of identities that fall under this large umbrella and how you’ll acknowledge that diversity. Importantly, provide clear guidelines on how allies can support you even if they’re not part of the identifying group.
  2. Establish Missions & Visions

    This means making sure you have clear line of sight into what the group’s purpose & objectives are (its mission) and the impact from their efforts (its vision). If you want a deeper dive on how these two statements differ and some great examples of how companies have utilized this framework, check out this Hubspot resource.

How to choose ERG Leads & Set them up for success

In these early stages, ERG leaders will likely be the founders of the group. They’ll likely be working closely with the People or DEI team to set the foundation for the group. Here are some steps to make sure they don’t burnout from taking on this extra work.

  1. Establish how long ERG Leads will be in the role and what the process of electing new leads looks and feels like.
  2. Set intentionality on tracking how much time is being spent on ERG lead work. Although it may be premature to allocate a specific set of hours this early on in the program, it’s important to track where that number is in the beginning and if the ERG lead feels that the work is manageable. Open communication between the ERG Lead & People/DEI Leaders is key.

Getting basic company leadership alignment and buy in when you first start ERGs

In these early days, there are many ways to get leadership involved. As long as there’s clear line of sight into leadership involvement, that’s a good start.

As your group comes together, think about who in your company’s leadership could support your efforts. Perhaps, it’s your direct manger or a mentor of yours in the C-suite. Regardless, having a trusted member of your company’s leadership ‘bought-in’ to your efforts at your earliest stages will provide clear champions for your efforts as they grow in scope and size.

Here are some ways company leaders could get involved:

  • Executive Sponsors: An executive sponsor is a senior leader that serves as a champion of an ERG.
  • Executive Allies: Keep in mind the executive leader doesn’t necessarily have to identify with the group’s identity or experience in order to support them. An executive ally can champion the group’s efforts by listening, learning and educatig others in the company.

Ways new ERGs can kickstart member engagement

  1. Foster Intersectionality across ERGs
    From the earliest days of your ERGs, work to create intersectional moments between groups. For example, for Women’s History Month, Betterment’s Women+ ERG worked with their Black ERG and Pride ERG to highlight the intersectional experiences of Woman of Color and Trans Women.
    In your earliest days of your ERG, you might not have a ton of resources so working together to throw join events, share educational resources and create moments of unity is a fantastic way to show how powerful these groups are together.
  2. Appoint committee members for initiative & events
    Give members a way to be involved in spearheading initiatives and taking the lead on events and initiatives. By giving them greater responsibilities, it’s more likely things will get done and it’s also a great way to signal clear roles and expectations for the group.
  3. Create a consistent space to gather
    Whether it’s a slack channel or a consistent monthly meeting, show people where to find the community so that as they have questions, concerns or need support - they know where their ERG is.
  4. Involve Allies early in your ERGs
    Make it clear how allies can get involved. Even if they don’t identify with the group, they likely may be looking for ways to support and amplify your message, cause and initiative.

Phase 2: Putting sustainable structure around your ERG program

Securing resources/budget for your ERGs:

As your program grows, you’re likely going to look to expand your resources as well. You might want to expand your budget so your groups can do more, and often that means making the business case for the program.

ERGs have long proven to be drivers of retention & engagement at top companies. They can contribute to your ESG score, or your Corporate Social Responsibility efforts.

Putting processes & structure in place

As your groups grow, it’s critical your team has access to consistent, trackable systems. Perhaps a rockstar on your team made a shared Sharepoint in Microsoft or GoogleDrive folder. That’s a great place to start (and for what it’s worth if you find yourself outgrowing those home-grown, bootstrapped systems, come talk to us at Verbate ;) … that’s what we’re here for!)

One thing is for sure, if you aren’t aligned as a team on how to find and create information in a central, scalabel place - you’re likely to lose progress if someone leaves the organization. Building an institution around your ERG Program is so so important.

A few things to keep in mind:

Communication: Slack & Teams are great for day to day communication, and an intranet often is great to lay out high level goals. Make sure your team is aligned on what’s used for what and where.

Central Place to Access Information: For ERGs to fundamentally deliver on their goal to foster belonging and inclusivity, your systems should be accessible to all who want to participate. For example, if an amazing product & engineering leader built a stellar Asana or Jira board to organize ERG efforts - but only part of the company has seats on those programs, that makes it really difficult for people to feel universally included. This also tends makes transitioning these systems between ERG leaders really painful if someone leaves or naturally needs to hand off the reigns to the next leader.

Historical Context: The key to maintaining your momentum as an ERG is capturing & building institutional knowledge throughout time. For example, what events went well, what initiatives were accomplished, challenges you encountered, how you tackled them etc. We often hear that most of that knowledge lived in someone’s brain and when they left, so much of that knowledge left with them.

Creating roles & responsibilities structures for your ERGs

  1. Set up a consistent time for all the leads to gather, and a consistent time for all the members to meet. Record an agenda & takeaway items in each of these meetings in a central ERG system.
  2. Give leads a formal set of goals for their own development - track them alongside the Program Manager.
  3. Formalize committee members and their responsibilities. Some common committee roles we see forming are:

    Treasurer
    Internal Comms
    Partnerships
    Events

Growing membership and participation in your groups

As your group grows its important to formalize those guidelines for engagement.

  1. Make it clear how to join groups & learn about them. If people have to request to join, be sure to include clear expectations on the steps of that process and what they can expect. Transparency is key to building trust, tell them why you’ve chosen to structure the requests this way.
  2. As you recruit new leads or members, start the campaign early so you have ample time to ‘advertise’ the opportunity internally. You want new leads to have time to apply and the program manager to have ample time to run elections and onboard the new leads.
  3. Consistency is key. As you add new members, you want to make sure they know when and how to participate.

Setting basic goals for your groups

Setting and aligning goals is critical for any ERG program to track and demonstrate success.

  1. As a Program Manager, it’s critical to set goals for your ERG program as a whole. This can done in a variety of ways. For example, you could set high-level OKRs at the top of the year for ERGs to see and track towards. Often companies will set a goal to host a certain number of events in a year, or increase diverse recruitment efforts, or boost NPS scores.
  2. As an ERG leader, set your own goals on the same cadence as company leadership (i.e. yearly, quarterly etc.) and align you your goals to their high-level goals. As you plan events or initiatives, keep these goals in mind and tie them back when you can. This will ensure alignment across your organization and throughout time. This will also tell a clearer story of the impact your ERG has on the company.

For a deeper dive on goal-setting, check out our guide here.

Basic Measurement of group impact

At this point in your ERG program, you should start thinking about some sort of measurement or metric-tracking component for your efforts.

  1. Your goals, if based on an OKR-framework, could be your first form of measurement. For example if you have a goal to engage 10% of the company in the program, that could be a powerful way to demonstrate a baseline and room for growth next year.
  2. Other things you could measure include:
    Event Engagement
    Membership Growth
    Survey scores for initiatives & events

Phase 3: Helping ERGs become a strategic partner for your business

Once you feel great about the first and second phases of your ERGs, you’re ready to think about how ERGs can influence your business.

This can happen in so many different ways. We covered some of them in our introduction - they can influence product, policy, recruitment, marketing, and so much more.

Now, this is where things get really exciting and enormously nuanced. Rather than trying to tackle the many different ways ERGs can influence different parts of your company’s business lines, we’re going to provide some must-have things to keep in mind. If you want to dive deeper on how to make this real, honestly, reach out to us here - we love talking about this.

But to start - here are a few key things to keep in mind when aligning your ERGs with your business impact.

Establishing relationships between ERGs and business units

As your ERGs grow and mature, it’s natural that they could start to influence more of the business such as policy, marketing or benefits. Perhaps your Caregivers ERG wants to influence your Parental leave policy, for example.

Make it clear how ERGs can communicate their suggestions to business units, and vice-versa: how can business units can solicit feedback or help from ERGs on their business decisions.

For example, if your marketing team wants the LGBTQ+ ERG at their company to weigh in on  their Pride-month social media ad campaign - your marketing team should reach out early to the ERG leaders and discuss expectations & alignment. There should be clear stakeholders, timelines and workloads set.

This is critical to ensure that ERG leads feel heard, valued and avoid burnout from taking on too much. This is often a ‘job on top of a job’ so it’s important to value that work as such and make sure it’s not taken for granted.

Aligning ERG efforts to company/team goals

A great way to build cooperation across your business and your ERGs is to include them in those high-level goals we talked about.

If your benefits department and Parents ERG want to work together to create a more equitable parental leave policy, set a goal in your central system of record around this and see if it ladders up to a company goal.

How to think about ERG lead compensation & recognition

This is a rapidly evolving conversation. Some companies like LinkedIn and Justworks compensate their ERG leads monetarily for their work.

While ERG lead compensation is one way to recognize ERG lead work, it’s not the only way. You can also recognize them in a variety of other ways.

Here are some examples:

  • Compensation: As mentioned, more and more companies are compensating ERG leads with a bonus or stipend for their ERG work.
  • Equity: If you’re a private company, you can provide additional equity for ERG leads. This aligns with company needs since these employees are contributing heavily to your company’s culture & strategy as you grow.
  • Learning & Development Opportunities: ERG leadership is great for growth. Make sure your leads have access to internal opportunities for L&D. Perhaps you have a hub for managers they can gain access to or internal resources that will help them do their ‘day job’ and their ERG leadership duties even better.
  • Mentorship & Visibility: ERG leads often gain access to leaders of the company through their work. Codifying that visibility can be powerful - for example, a one-on-one with a leader they’d like to be mentored by could be a great way to show the value of their work.

Advanced measurement of group impact

In Phase 2, your goals may have some component of metric-setting, but it’s critical in this third phase. If you want to tell a story around the impact ERGs are having on your business, it’s key to be backed by some sort of data.

When used together, qualitative and quantitate data tells an enormously powerful story about the impact of ERGs. For example, track things like engagement, attendance, and satisfaction - and you can start to ‘draw lines between dots.’

Some companies at this stage even begin to think how to relate this data to their HRIS data such as retention and recruitment at a higher level.

Engaging different types of workforce members (desk-less, by region, etc.)

Today’s workforce is more diverse and distributed than ever. It’s so important to ensure every employee, whether working globally or in a ‘deskless’ capacity is just as engaged with your ERG program as their counterparts in your HQ. This makes your business even stronger by increasing a sense of unity and informing key parts of your business that your HQ employees may not have day-to-day experience with.

For example, making sure drivers and warehouse workers can access daily communications in your ERG program even if they don’t have corporate emails. Or, consider recording your meetings so employees that are in a different timezone can still follow along.

Check back for more content & updates! Have a suggestions or question? Shoot me a note at anisha@verbate.io

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