Blog Post

The Future of ERGs: Are Affinity-Based Groups Still Necessary?

By Barbara Frankel and Deanna Keenan
November 11, 2022

The way employees identify themselves is changing dramatically. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of non-Hispanic/Latine Americans who identify as multiracial increased by 127 percent from 2010 to 2020. For people who identified as Hispanic/Latine, the increase was even higher. Younger people are much more likely to see themselves as multiracial and to align with several dimensions of diversity, such as having a disability (including neurodiversity) or being a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

Some employers, recognizing this growing intersectionality, have been moving away from traditional affinity-based employee resource groups (ERGs), preferring to address all “multicultural” needs together. They have created Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) councils or other groups that have representatives from various affinities but look at DEI issues more holistically. Employers also are responding to requests from some employees who feel that affinity-based groups are unfair to those who haven’t been historically marginalized.

With these trends in mind, Seramount asked this critical question: Are affinity-based ERGs (centered on individual dimensions of diversity) still necessary? A Seramount survey of more than 200 ERG members finds the answer is a resounding yes.

Download the full report, The Future of ERGs: Are Affinity-Based Groups Still Necessary?

Here are some of our key findings:

Groups Based on Specific Identities Are More Crucial than Ever

Are affinity groups still necessary in the modern multicultural workforce? The survey found powerful evidence that ERGs remain important to underrepresented talent, including young workers. Some specific reasons that were highlighted by respondents include:

  • Affinity groups create a vital space during turbulent times: “[No affinity groups would create a] lack of a safe space to talk about issues impacting my specific identities. [Which leads to] fear of my identity group not getting the strong advocacy that they need.”
  • Affinity groups create a sense of community and belonging: Data from BetterUp links higher levels of employee belonging to a 56 percent increase in job performance, a 50 percent decrease in turnover, and a 75 percent reduction in sick days.
  • ERGs advance business needs that benefit specific markets: “I don’t think we’ve evolved to a level that is inclusive organically. [DEI] is not quite yet how we do business…dismantling the perspectives that each DEI group brings to the table [could lead to smaller groups being] left behind.”
  • Affinity groups help meet the different needs of different groups: “There are varying needs of the affinity groups and merging them all into one silences the concerns and unique experiences of each group.”

Respondents Urging More Collaboration with Allies and Other Groups

In a variety of comments, respondents overwhelmingly said ERGs need stronger allies—people who do not identify with the affinity group but are publicly supportive. When more senior company officials serve as allies (sometimes as executive sponsors) they can help elevate the needs of the affinity group. To help increase inclusion of underrepresented talent, workplace allies can:

  • Mirror the language someone uses to describe their own identity—such as using they/them pronouns—which works to remove stigma
  • Intentionally recognize holidays of coworkers that may not be part of mainstream religion and acknowledge and support underrepresented team members when they may not feel confident speaking up at meetings

Survey comments also revealed a need for more collaboration and intersectionality between ERGs. There is a difference between collaboration and intersectionality. With collaboration, companies may encourage a business unit, such as a design team, to partner with an affinity-based ERG, such as a group for Black employees, to create a product that would be well-received by the Black community. With intersectionality, a company might encourage a Latine ERG and a Mental Well-Being ERG to create a survey for the Latine community to determine gaps in the community’s mental well-being.

Linking Affinity-Based Groups to Business Impact Is Crucial

In recent years, more companies have moved toward the business resource group (BRG) model, linking these groups directly to business goals, including internal goals (increasing representation, retention, and promotion rates) and marketplace goals (market share, customer cultural competence or increasing supplier diversity). Lately, BRGs, and some ERGs, have also been linked to environmental, sustainability, and governance (ESG) goals, which may also include community impact initiatives. Comments from survey respondents centered on a need for greater acknowledgment of the impact ERGs have on business needs, with many saying ERGs can make a crucial difference to business outcome.

  • “ERGs should be more strategically embedded throughout the enterprise…they should also be tied to the innovation efforts of an organization—ways to crowdsource or center community perspectives.”
  • “ERGs need to balance the needs of employees as well as the business. They need to be seen by the business as a true resource that can capture not only employee sentiments, but can actually function as captive focus groups.”

Respondents also stated that ERG leaders need to be credited for their roles—and they would prefer these roles not be for volunteers but be part of job descriptions. The respondents felt that creating evaluation and reward cycles for ERG leaders would increase their effectiveness.

  • “…I would like to see ERG leadership become part of ERG leaders’ job expectations and have them receive increased compensation, as well as a rebalancing of their time and bandwidth so that they can devote sufficient time to ERG leadership in a meaningful way…”

Respondents Cite Need for Virtual, Global Mindsets

With so many now working in hybrid or fully remote workplaces, some respondents to the survey noted there are still few options and capabilities to take ERGs virtual and global. Having more virtual access will allow for more engagement and buy-in from employees, they said.

  • “ERGs need to expand to partnering with other company ERGs, especially in a virtual first and hybrid environment.”
  • “ERGs need to develop strategies to address a virtual workforce and keep people engaged while virtual.”

Seramount Recommendations

Based on the survey data and the decades of experience of Seramount’s DEI experts, we recommend:

  • ERG collaboration: Social issues are intersectional, so ERGs have common areas of interest. Bringing in more perspectives can further DEI goals, including increasing representation and community/market outreach.
  • ERGs can impact business results: ERG goals should directly follow business goals, including new market opportunities, innovative cost-savings, and creating inclusive cultures to support retention and engagement.
  • ERG volunteer leadership should be part of performance evaluations: ERGs are usually volunteer-based. Leaders of these groups want their time and efforts to be part of their jobs and to be factored into advancement opportunities They are also interested in compensation/rewards for these efforts.
  • ERGs need a virtual-first mindset: Events and opportunities through ERGs can be offered with as much accessibility and flexibility as possible. As more ERGs are global, the need for virtual access is even greater.

To access the complete research findings, download our report, The Future of ERGs: Are Affinity-Based Groups Still Necessary?

Interested in learning more about Seramount and how we can help you to advance your ERG strategy? Contact us.

About the Authors

Barbara Frankel
Barbara Frankel
Senior Director, Insights
Seramount
Deanna Keenan
Research Analyst, Insights
Seramount
Deanna Keenan is a Research Analyst within the Insights division at Seramount. She is the team specialist on employee resource groups and inclusive language practices in the workplace and has led team projects such as the Return to Office series, Awareness Month best practices, and the production of a variety of guides centered on tackling difficult conversations in the workplace.