Employee resource groups, which create spaces for members of historically disadvantaged or minority communities to come together in support of each other and to help leadership understand and respond to their unique challenges and concerns, are a cornerstone of diversity and inclusion practices at some organizations. Yet there is also a growing understanding among D&I leaders that the most effective initiatives are inclusive in the broadest sense, involving everyone in the organization, not only those in specific affinity groups.
That’s why we’re seeing more inclusion campaigns focused on cultivating allies and helping members of more privileged demographics recognize their own unconscious biases. When the Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to D&I last year, it focused heavily on the challenge of getting everyone on board with diversity without courting backlash.
In a controversial move, Deloitte has decided to take this shift toward a more broad-based approach one step further by eliminating ERGs altogether in favor of groups whose membership is not limited to specific demographics, Jeff Green reported recently at Bloomberg:
After 24 years, WIN, the women’s initiative at Deloitte, will end. Over the next 18 months the company will also phase out Globe, which supports gay employees, and groups focused solely on veterans or minority employees. In their place will be so-called inclusion councils that bring together a variety of viewpoints to work on diversity issues. …
“We are turning it on its head for our people,” says Deepa Purushothaman, who’s led the WIN group since 2015 and is also the company’s managing principal for inclusion. Deloitte will still focus on gender parity and underrepresented groups, she says, but not in the same way it has for the past quarter-century, in part because millennial employees—who make up 57 percent of Deloitte’s workforce—don’t like demographic pigeonholes.
“By having everyone in the room, you get more allies, advocates, and sponsors,” Purushothaman says. “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.”
Deloitte’s decision to shift away from ERGs highlights one of the biggest challenges employee resource groups face: engaging allies in the D&I conversation. Deloitte is among a number of organizations that have chosen either not to establish ERGs or to move away from them because of the fear of excluding subsets of employees. Diversity and inclusion conversations should be happening across the organization, not only in these ERG pockets. If the intention of shifting away from resource groups is to rebuild their diversity and inclusion foundation pausing to create buy-in from leadership and allies, this decision may help further diversity initiatives.
However, this approach can be problematic if the intention is to remove ERGs in order to accommodate white men, who historically are well-represented in most organizations’ decision-making. ERGs often start as a safe space for diverse employees to voice challenges, build networks, and have development opportunities not previously available to them out of the resource group. If organizations change the focus from these separate and intentional groups to a broader diversity council, does it remove disadvantaged employees’ safe space and voice in the organization? Even with a diversity council, will other employees participate in D&I? For this initiative to be successful, Deloitte will need to ensure that women, minorities and LGBT employees still feel connected to the organization and that the new D&I strategy compels employees who don’t belong to these groups to step into the D&I conversation space as allies.
For companies interested in taking Deloitte’s approach to ERGs, consider pausing before shifting D&I strategy, as organizations have devoted significant time, resources, and training to these groups. If positioned correctly, resource groups offer extensive opportunities for employees from diverse backgrounds, as well as allies, to strengthen the organization through market expansion, culture change, and increasing leader competencies. After all, as Shane Nelson comments at DiversityInc in a thoughtful critique of Deloitte’s decision, there’s no rule that ERGs need to be demographically exclusive:
The underlying reason for forming specific resource groups is to leverage the backgrounds and experiences of those group members to tackle problems specific to that cohort. For example, the Black resource group would be leveraged to tackle problems such as regrettable loss of Black high potentials, recruiting Black women or further penetrating the Black consumer market. All of the companies on the DiversityInc Top 50 and Noteworthy lists have employee resource groups. …
Companies that are most effective in utilizing their business resource groups came across the issue of inclusion years ago. Those companies encouraged inclusion of other race/ethnicities to the Black, Latino or Asian groups. In fact, many companies require a senior executive from a different race/ethnicity sponsor the groups. For the LGBT and people with disabilities groups, a best practice was to add “A” for allies or “Friends” on the end of the acronym to signal that the groups were inclusive of others. Inclusion of senior executives, majority of which are white men, was critical to elevating the importance of the resource groups.
If the challenge organizations face with ERGs is involving allies, particularly white men, leaders can consider opening up these groups rather than abolishing them. For allies, ERGs can offer the opportunity to:
- Increase their awareness of challenges and unconscious bias that diverse employees face
- Build skills and knowledge through programming and events hosted by diverse employees
- Help drive change and set an example for the organization
Before disregarding groups that aim to serve underrepresented employees, first consider: Does our decision not only increase our diversity allies, but also maintain a strong culture for diverse employees at our organization?
CEB (now Gartner) offers a wide range of resources to help D&I leaders navigate these decisions. To further explore how ERGs can advance your business strategy, CEB Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council members can use our CEB Ignition™ Guide to Connecting Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to Business Results and read our case study on Chubb’s Marketplace Snapshot, which examines how Chubb uses ERG perspectives in new market strategies and demonstrates strategic, repeatable business results.