Published June 2, 2022 | Updated August 3, 2023 | 2 minute read
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), also known as affinity groups, are a popular strategy for companies seeking to bolster their equity & inclusion (E&I) initiatives.
And for good reason.
ERGs provide a safe space for marginalized employees to authentically connect with colleagues from similar backgrounds. They’re a vital resource for solidarity, networking and advocacy.
The problem is that for companies, ERGs can easily become demonstrative rather than substantive.
Companies love to celebrate their ERGs on the website or in the annual report, essentially checking off the E&I box without addressing the root causes.
An ERG doesn’t make a workplace antiracist, anti-sexist or disability-inclusive. In fact, an ERG, by itself, is more of an indicator of a problem than a solution to it.
An ERG may create a safe space for Black, LGBTQ+, or disabled employees and their allies to support and uplift each other.
But it won’t resolve the microaggressions and systemic discriminations that created the need for that safe space in the first place.
Members of ERGs already understand how systemic oppression has impacted them.
It’s the people who don’t understand, who aren’t members of the ERG, who need to broaden their perspectives and shift their behavior.
When companies focus their E&I efforts solely on marginalized groups, they place the responsibility for addressing systemic oppression on the shoulders of those most harmed by it.
To make matters worse, organizations often lean on ERGs to educate the rest of the company on their experience.
This places an extra burden on these employees to perform emotional and cognitive labor for the benefit of the more privileged members of the team – without formal E&I training or additional compensation.
Don’t get me wrong – ERGs are a very good thing. They’re just not the only thing companies should be doing to advance their E&I goals.
Companies can combat the false sense of security provided by ERGs by creating groups for dominant identities as well.
Employees who identify as cisgender, heterosexual, white, male, neurotypical, and/or without disabilities also need a safe space to come together and explore their privilege and power.
This work can feel very risky and vulnerable, especially to people who are new to it. Employees from privileged identities need a facilitated space in which they can work through these issues without creating further harm.
A lot of so-called “allies” have a genuine desire to undo the systemic privileges that favor them. But they often don’t know where to start, nor do they appreciate how deep the work needs to go.
It shouldn’t be up to marginalized employees to teach them.
To echo many of my teachers: We don’t need allies. We need co-conspirators.
We need the people who benefit from the current system to step up and change it. Companies can help facilitate this.
Learning resource groups for dominant-identifying employees can help them learn to recognize their invisible advantages, combat their implicit bias, and hold themselves and each other accountable.
This type of group, paired with ERGs, can help create a culture of true solidarity, in which responsibility for cultural change belongs to the privileged, not the marginalized.
But don’t let it stop there. These groups are only one component of an overall E&I strategy.
E&I is not something you can check off a list. It’s an ongoing cultural process.
With every new stage in your E&I strategy, make sure those who carry the most power within the status quo are doing their part.