Blog Post

Employee Resource Groups Are Taking a More Collaborative, Intersectional Approach—and It’s Working

May 7, 2020

The first meeting of Bridges, an interfaith employee-resource group at financial regulatory company FINRA, didn’t go quite as planned. The new network had hoped to kick off with a panel discussion at the organization’s Rockville, Maryland, campus, featuring two company execs discussing religious diversity and inclusion. Then, a pandemic hit.

Instead, they convened virtually for a keynote about courage by nationally recognized faith diversity speaker Sue Warnke, senior director of engineering content at Salesforce. The meeting might not have been face to face, as the inaugural management committee had hoped, but it offered “solace and a safe space for staff to connect, and created a mechanism to provide support during a difficult time,” says Denise Fields, FINRA’s associate director of inclusion and workforce compliance.

Bridges welcomes employees of all religious backgrounds—FINRA purposefully decided against launching separate faith affinity spaces “because we felt as though we would be opening the gap more,” Fields explains. “There’s so much opportunity that could be missed.”

It’s not the only new ERG at FINRA aimed at breaking down barriers. In 2019, the company launched the ­Multigenerational Employee Resource Group Exchange, or MERGE. Both of these groups reflect a growing movement at many companies to embrace a more-inclusive approach to ERGs—one that is, in some cases, revitalizing stagnant membership numbers and offering other boons to members, as well as their employers.

The New Networks

The first ERG, the National Black Employee Caucus, was launched at Xerox in 1970, in response to the era’s racial tensions. Since then, employees of many different backgrounds have banded together to form ERGs, also known as affinity groups, diversity councils and employee networks, for networking opportunities and a place to share experiences and challenges.

As companies have recognized ERGs as key contributors to their business strategy and operations, many ERGs have broadened their scope beyond providing a peer-only safe space. Today’s ERGs host events, assist with recruitment and engagement, advise on business activities and decisions, advocate for social change, and get involved in community service. Intersectionality helps accomplish those goals, by “removing silos, educating one another, amplifying messaging, and sharing resources and funding. It allows us to be allies,” Fields says.

As a result, some companies have focused on launching and expanding broad-based ERGs—multiracial, multifaith or multigenerational ones, for example—which, potentially, can recruit more members. Having more members can mean more impact. Take, for example, Bank of America’s intergenerational ERG, IGEN, which has grown from 10,000 to more than 21,000 members in the past two years. “The ­accomplishment isn’t the numbers,” says Shannon Snowden, a senior vice president in global human resources and enterprise co-chair for IGEN. “By increasing ­membership, we educate our workforce on generational differences and ­similarities, all the while improving workplace relations, enhancing our ­client engagement, and improving ­overall satisfaction.”

An intersectional approach also revived the Native American Professional Network, one of the bank’s ­fastest-growing employee-led networks. Though the group is organized around Native Americans’ interests and needs, members of all backgrounds are welcome. Ernice Davis, enterprise co-chair for NAPN, and a senior vice president in global risk management, volunteered to help run NAPN in 2015 after her success as a leader within Bank of America’s Black Professional Group; NAPN’s membership is 90 percent non-Native, she estimates. Many members join because they’ve been told an ancestor had Native heritage, but they don’t feel connected to it, Davis says. They gain perspective on Native American culture, while Native members gain an important asset: allies. “Native teammates tell me they like seeing non-Natives advocating and trying to understand the different issues in Indian country, volunteering at a Native nonprofit, and learning about how these Native nonprofits are working in their communities.”

Allyship is one of the best outcomes of making ERGs more inclusive, says Deborah Tsai-Munster, executive director at Working Mother Media’s Diversity Best Practices, which gives companies the tools and resources they need to build more-inclusive workplaces. “When you build allyship, there’s an increase in understanding of diversity and inclusion in general, so you build empathy, and open trust and transparency across demographics and within the organization. That leads to greater teamwork and collaboration, as well as higher engagement and higher retention,” she explains.

ERGs can also serve as a key spot to find mentors and sponsors. “There was one school of thought, way back when, that a black woman, for example, should be mentored by another black woman,” Tsai-Munster says. “But organizations’ decision-makers are typically white men, followed by white women, so having sponsorship cross demographics and cross ERGs could be more helpful in advancing one’s career in the organization.”

That was part of the reasoning behind Deloitte’s decision in 2017 to nix its employee-affinity groups for women and minorities altogether, and replace them with inclusion councils that have white men. “By having everyone in the room, you get more allies, advocates and sponsors,” Deepa Purushothaman, national director for the accounting firm’s former Women’s Initiative (WIN), told Bloomberg at the time. “A lot of our leaders are still older white men, and they need to be part of the conversation and advocate for women. But they’re not going to do that as much if they don’t hear the stories and understand what that means.”

Most diversity and inclusion experts, however, still see a need for more narrowly focused affinity spaces, in addition to broader, more-inclusive ERGs. “It’s not an issue of either/or; it’s both/and. If we had strong representation of people of color and women and LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities at the top of the house, we wouldn’t necessarily need the specific ERG groups. But we don’t, so you still need a forum for people of specific demographic groups, to provide them with a safe space,” Tsai-Munster says. Fields says that besides its new multigenerational and interfaith ERGs, FINRA has affinity-based ERGs for its African American, Latino and Asian workers, among others, and “that’s never going to change.”

Crucial Collaboration

Instead of dissolving affinity networks, like Deloitte, many companies have found another way to up their impact while building outgroup allies: cross-ERG collaboration. This past year, for the first time, State Farm held a joint planning session to find opportunities for the company’s 12 ERGs to partner on events and communications. “This led to more-intentional collaboration and brought members of multiple ERGs/demographics together to work toward common goals and purposes,” says Patricia Sharp, corporate responsibility director.

At Bank of America, four different ERGs joined forces last year to host a multicultural event celebrating Native American Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, African American culture, and Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. At biopharmaceutical ­company AbbVie, the veterans, Latinx and black employee groups teamed up on a community effort to provide bicycles, helmets and bike locks to local veterans, a life-changing moment for the many vets who needed transportation. In April 2020, the Latino, Asian and African American groups at FINRA together hosted panel discussions on financial literacy.

One of the newest trends, says Tsai-Munster, is cross-company collaboration to reach common goals around diversity. Recently, employee groups from Fifth Third Bank partnered with those at Ernst & Young LLP and Procter & Gamble to brainstorm how to attract diverse talent to Cincinnati, where they all have offices.

Collaboration not only allows ERGs to combine resources and reach a broader audience, but it also lets them support employees who identify with several dimensions of diversity. The theory of intersectionality, after all, was developed by lawyer and civil-rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to understand how different aspects of a person’s social and political identities (gender, race, class, sexuality and ability, for instance) might combine to create unique modes of discrimination.

Related: Investments in Diversity Are Paying Off in the COVID-19 Era

“According to an article in Huffington Post, Native Americans are the largest ethnic group per capita that have served in US wars, but I didn’t know that until my military support assistance group partner told me,” says Davis of NAPN. “Since then, we’ve marched in parades together with our Native veterans, as well as our military veterans. We’ve celebrated the 75th anniversary of Iwo Jima together. Bank of America is a sponsor of the National Native American Veterans Memorial.”

And when companies support those employees via cross-ERG collaboration, they allow them to shine. “One of our religious-diversity partners needed a Generation Z panel member who could talk about navigating faith at work,” Fields recalls. “Now she’s going to be an ERG leader.” She says the interfaith group, Bridges, partnered with the African American network for Black History Month on a project about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, she points out, was also a Baptist minister.

No matter the specific path to ERGs and diversity, experts say it’s all about creating an environment where workers feel free to be themselves. “Faith is probably my top identifier. To say, ‘Leave that part of you at home,’ then I can’t bring my full authentic self to this organization, so that means I’m not giving 100 percent,” Fields says. Groups like Bridges provide a safe space and a respectful way for employees to have a conversation about religion, but “it’s also an opportunity to help our company become a best-in-class organization.”