Theresa M. Welbourne is the Will and Maggie Brooke Endowed Professorship in Entrepreneurship at the University of Alabama and executive director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute. Views are the author's own.
If you are a CEO, running a for-profit or not-for-profit business, you are under intense pressure to help employees and your company thrive amid a pandemic. In this crisis situation, any CEO would take advantage of the assets available to them. However, based on our recent study, it appears that one quarter of those top leaders are underutilizing a key asset. That resource is their employee resource groups (ERGs).
Over the last few weeks, our research team conducted a short survey with a sample of more than 500 individuals engaged with the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. Twenty-five percent said their ERGs were not being mobilized to help either their own employees or community during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
My hope in writing this is that CEOs with ERGs who are not utilizing those talents immediately learn about them and hit "go." And if you are a leader and do not have ERGs, learn about them so you can start to engage your people and create ERGs as soon as possible.
First, some background for those who may not know about these powerful groups. Although ERGs have been in existence, in some form, since the 1960s, for some reason they escape the attention of many business schools, management programs, leadership initiatives and the press.
ERGs have morphed from the first black caucus at Xerox to affinity groups to more recently being referred to as "business resource groups." They were grounded in fighting discrimination and bringing equality to work. After the passage of Title VII, the black caucus idea changed to recruiting, education and retention of people in legally defined minority groups. These groups provided a peer structure of trusted individuals to help individuals feel that they belong. Over time, ERGs moved beyond protected classes to include other categories of employees. They expanded to include:
- Social-cause centered ERGs, focused on a social issue (e.g. environment, literacy, cancer)
- Professional-centered ERGs, organized by individuals with similar professional backgrounds and jobs (e.g. engineers, technology professionals)
- Attribute-centered ERGs, originated to pull together people with similar personal characteristics (e.g. women, LGBT individuals, Hispanic/Latino individuals, veterans, etc.)
More types have emerged in recent years, including generational focused groups and those focused on neurodiversity and palliative care. ERGs provide homes for people in organizations, and they teach others about their group overall.
ERGs can be thought of as the roots of an organization. They spread out across formal departments and organizational layers and connect people with similar purpose and passion. They create trust because the leaders of ERGs are not part of the formal hierarchy. They help each other, and they cost extraordinarily little to any organization that supports them. The employees do this work on their own time, even though they now are moving into the business of innovation; ideation is natural because ERGs represent your customer population — diverse.
With this growing and solidly nourished root system, think what a CEO can do immediately in a time of crisis. Rather than relying on only the formal communication and influence system, ERG leaders and members can quickly mobilize and make a difference. That is what we found about 75% of companies reporting in the survey.
In addition to learning about the percentage of leaders engaging their ERGs, we also heard some fascinating personal stories of the difference that ERGs can make inside of individual businesses. One leader said: "We are using the ERG as one of many ways to check in on employees and allow open discussion of needs and challenges during our mandatory work from home policy and statewide shelter in place orders."
Another described keeping employees connected, saying, "Right now, with us having deployed the majority of our workforce to home, they are serving — via social media and other means — as a way to uplift and connect employees, share resources, and more."
Finally, one leader shared what an ERG is doing to help answer a question facing almost every organization today: "We have seen our parents and caregivers group build out programs to help our parents with children activities such as dancing, working out and also creative and educational activities to keep them busy."
Reading through these examples and more, I am inspired by how ERGs are helping employees and community.
The extent to which ERGs can help during crisis situations is only starting to become evident. Consider what could happen if multiple organizations pulled together details about their ERGs and were prepared to launch them to help take on big challenges. Our team is working on something like a Peace Corps for ERGs; I like to think of this type of initiative as an ERG Corps. The leaders and members are those who already volunteer; we only need to pivot how they spend their time. The extent to which individuals can be organized to meet the needs of our world is only minimally being tapped.
The key to getting through the COVID-19 crisis is people, and the way we make the best of it is to learn and use what we learn. I urge leaders to think about how we can utilize the ERG talent you have today and in the future.