For many businesses, a prominent barrier to creating a fully inclusive workplace is misinterpretation and a too-narrow focus. For instance, an employer may look to create a more gender-neutral recruitment process, but by honing in on only one diversity issue, others can get left behind. In this case while strides may be made towards reaching gender equality, people of different races, religions or sexual orientations may remain isolated.

One of the best ways to tackle such misinterpretation is by championing representation through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These voluntary, employee-led networks consist of individuals from different communities who share a common goal to promote diversity at work, and can be a great way to get insights on building more inclusive workplaces from those who are impacted the most.

Their value is no secret, as according to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network, ERGs can be found in 90 per cent of Fortune 500 companies. To remain competitive, it is therefore key that employers understand how to establish employee networks, the role they play within the company and how to effectively manage them once they are up and running.

How to create an Employee Resource Group

First and foremost, business leaders must gauge interest and recognise what areas need to be addressed. This could be through an employee feedback survey that gives staff the opportunity to anonymously voice their opinions and concerns on particular issues – for example sense of belonging, how welcome they feel in the organisation, or the representation of certain groups in the workplace. If the survey results suggest there is suitable demand, the next step is to appoint a network lead.

The network lead is the primary point of contact within the ERG and bridges the gap between employees and senior management. It’s important that network leads are representative of the communities they are trying to support, and are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge they need to run the group effectively. To facilitate this, it is good practice to provide network leads with training sessions and a development programme where they can learn how to set the remit for a network, recruit and manage members, market the group, and work with both stakeholders and other networks.

In terms of group members, anyone within the organisation can join, and staff don’t necessarily have to share characteristics of any particular group. People can join as peers or allies to share their solidarity and support for the cause.

What an Employee Resource Group does

The core purpose of an ERG is to increase the representation and awareness of particular groups, and make the workplace a more inclusive place for them to work. This can be achieved in a number of ways, for instance by showcasing role models for other individuals to look up to. Ideally, this would be somebody in a significant role at the organisation who has plenty of exposure. This can inspire other employees and make them feel less isolated.

ERGs can also spread awareness by hosting events, such as seminars, workshops, charity fundraisers, or leading campaigns. Campaigns can either be run in the workplace, for example designing and putting up posters throughout the office, online on social media, or via the company website.Awareness and representation are particularly important during the onboarding of new recruits – if they can easily identify a community they can be a part of, it ensures they will feel welcome in the organisation from day one and are likely to stay with their employer for longer.

However, the role of employee resource groups is not limited to just promoting awareness – and in fact, goes far beyond it. In practice, they can be extremely influential on company procedure, particularly in terms of policy creation and correction. When designing new company policies, employers should run plans past the network leads and consult ERG members to gain valuable insight on the inclusiveness of the proposed strategy. Employers can also collect feedback on existing policies to gauge how well they’re performing and determine whether any action is required. Employers are likely to find that they can learn an awful lot from network members, especially those individuals who have experienced discrimination in their past.

Managing an ERG once operational

Once a network is up and running, it’s important to take a step back and allow the group to take the reins and manage proceedings themselves. Overseeing activity, and perhaps helping shape the direction of the group, can sit with senior leadership, but ultimately they should leave the group to it. To execute this, employers can help set objectives for the month or quarter, and check in on progress at regular intervals. Employers should also provide the means for the group to achieve these objectives, whether that be through general funding, facilitating time for the group to hold meetings, providing a venue for such meetings, or offering assistance when it comes to arranging events.

Some senior team members might want to put themselves forward as an executive sponsor of a group. This would help raise the group’s profile within the organisation and extend their overall influence as a result. This involvement would go a long way to promoting and publicising the existence of such networks, advertising to people within the company and elsewhere that the business is serious about diversity and inclusion.

What do Employee Resource Groups bring to an organisation?

ERGs educate employees and leaders on challenges facing different communities in the workplace and help address these issues through grass roots action driven by members of these communities themselves.

However, this isn’t the only benefit these networks bring to an organisation. ERGs can lead to more inclusive recruitment practice, higher retention rates, more inclusive policies, the identification of future leaders and the development of a robust talent pipeline.