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More Than A “Club:” How To Make Employee Resource Groups Matter

Estimated reading time ~ 6 min
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This post is part of Jopwell’s “From The Desk Of” series featuring the leading voices in corporate America sharing their thoughts, insights, and experiences around building more diverse and inclusive workforces.

Imagine that you're in a new job and that you don’t look or sound like the rest of your team. Every day, you come to an office where your unique identity is not acknowledged. How does this impact the way you ask questions, engage with your colleagues, and grow and thrive in your career?

Now imagine that you work somewhere where all of the attributes that make you unique are welcome and embraced. You can bring your whole self to work and collaborate more effectively. Your identity contributes to your own growth and the success of your team. That's what belonging means to me – and to my team at Asana.

Our product — an app that empowers teams to plan, manage, track, and complete their projects with greater clarity and accountability — helps all employees feel heard. My background is in law, but since 2015, I’ve led Asana’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts full-time. We are a team of more than 250 people, and I believe we're on our way to becoming one of the best workplaces in the world because of our commitment to inclusion efforts, encouragement of transparency, and strong communication.

An integral part of this is our emphasis on employee resource groups (ERGs). These are voluntary groups of employees that have traditionally existed to support communities with similar identities (for example gender, race, sexual orientation). Two out of every three Asana employees belong to at least one ERG. Here, I’d like to share our process for creating and evaluating ERGs. While every company’s recipe for success will be different, my hope is that you’ll take what serves you and your team.

1. Conceiving ERGs: Set goals for your group – and for the company.

ERGs exist at companies of all sizes and stages and can fulfill a range of purposes. Since they serve different communities with different needs, I believe that each ERG should establish its own goals. One group might aim to host a certain number of events in a year, for example, while another could focus on recruiting or retaining a specific number of members. At Asana, we emphasize ERGs’ contributions to our organization’s overall D&I strategy, so examples of our broader goals might include:

  • Drive inclusion and engagement: ERGs build a place for community and learning. They provide a safe space for discussions and idea sharing.

  • Understand what matters to colleagues: ERGs help build a culture of allyship by providing a forum for discussion and learning.

  • Promote personal and professional development: ERGs provide access to and support for learning initiatives and growth for their members.

  • Involve the external community: ERGs present opportunities to get involved with the community, partner with other similar groups, and drive service initiatives.

  • Contribute to the business: ERGs improve product development or marketing by enabling group members to offer insights or identify opportunities.

  • Connect with company leaders by soliciting sponsors: ERGs create both a growth area for employees and opportunities for leaders to engage with colleagues on a deeper level.

2. Creating ERGs: Establish enduring communities.

There are multiple ways to form ERGs. At Asana, employees who are passionate about their communities take the lead. They welcome not only people who identify as members of the community, but also those who wish to act as allies.

Whenever a group is formed, we help employees identify champions and allies. We also provide templates and guidance on establishing group structure, building business cases, and setting goals and objectives based on the community’s needs. Then, ERGs create strategies to support their goals and identify sponsors from Asana’s leadership team. We also clearly outline sponsors’ expected roles and responsibilities. While sponsors typically block out an hour or two each month for this work, in practice, they give much more. A lead sponsor acts as a public advocate for the ERG, an influencer with other leaders at the company, and a mentor for ERG members.

The benefits are mutual: Sponsors connect with communities they might not otherwise know about, while the ERG and its members receive informal mentorship and support from a company leader.

Once goals and a support structure are in place, ERGs begin recruiting members. One ERG might conduct a survey to determine the potential needs of the community. Another might hold an open meeting to share a broad framework and solicit interest.

Finally, ERGs clearly define responsibilities and commit to working with me on D&I. For while ERGs at Asana all look quite different — after all, they’re each serving different needs – each group constantly shares notes with and asks for feedback from my team. I also hold a monthly meeting with our ERG leads to track goals, share best practices, and ensure that we are working and supporting each other across our communities.

D&I can’t succeed in a silo: The needs of each group differ, but the lessons that come from individual experiences often benefit more than a single ERG.

3. Evaluating ERGs: Measure and reward success.

An ERG’s success comes down to alignment with its mission and goals. Some benchmarks to determine this include participation (membership, growth, and event attendance, for example) and the results of surveys gauging whether a group is meeting the needs of its members.

Looking outside the community, companies can evaluate an ERG’s success using tools such as broader employee engagement surveys and by giving credit to members of ERGs. That could mean including work employees do with ERGs as part of the formal review process, but most importantly, it requires educating managers about how their reports are spending time contributing to work that impacts the entire company in addition to their daily job. This can be as simple as sending a broad message to all staff highlighting contributions or a regular message summarizing ERG work to managers. It’s also important to hold space for employees to talk about their own efforts with their teams and the company at large. Empowering ERG members to share their experiences and the work they’re doing, instead of relying on managers or leadership to do so, can help develop leadership skills and contribute to greater feelings of value and inclusion.

4. Acknowledging the risks of ERGs: Know what to avoid.

While ERGs can lead to higher employee satisfaction, engagement, and inclusion, there are also a few risks to launching them. Unfortunately, ERGs are often seen as an extracurricular activity that does not contribute to the success of a business. This perception can be damaging to members of the groups, not to mention the overall success of ERGs. Establishing meaningful links between ERGs and business success is crucial to getting buy-in from all levels of an organization and to helping ERGs achieve their goals.

In this same vein, if the value of employees’ work as leaders or committee members within ERGs is not recognized, it can leave group members feeling undervalued, even more marginalized, and overlooked by the broader organization. Establish a process — such as a survey or feedback cycle — for knowing whether they feel this way. Then, empower the diversity lead or, in the event that such a role doesn’t exist, a diversity council to take corrective action.

Another risk relates to succession planning. Given the amount of work that’s often required to lead an ERG, it’s important to put in place support group leaders and work to develop future leaders. In addition to monthly meetings, we also have discussion boards and chat channels (in Asana and Slack) where we’re able to discuss topics on the fly.

At Asana, we see leading an ERG as a fixed-term responsibility, so we focus on finding people who are interested in leading, letting them shadow the leads, learn from the committee, and ultimately take over leadership roles. This often happens organically because we provide ways for new leaders to take on responsibility gradually, such as planning events or running programs within the ERGs. I also act as a mentor to all leads and committee members, working with them to identify opportunities of interest and how they can successfully take them on.

5. Investing in ERGs: Remember why they matter.

ERGs are an important driver of employee inclusion and engagement. They contribute to a culture of allyship and the growth of not only employees, but also of businesses. Yes, they require an investment of time and energy, but you can expect to see many returns in engagement and satisfaction across your organization. At Asana, we’ve seen incredible participation on the part of not just underrepresented minorities, but also from allies across the entire company. It’s been extremely rewarding to put in place the infrastructure that supports these groups and allows them to grow their impact, and we look forward to seeing more positive change.

Asana is a Jopwell partner company.

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