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What Black Employee Resource Groups Need Right Now

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Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), also referred to as business network groups or affinity groups, have served and supported the culture of corporate America since the 1970s. Typically organized around a shared identity, such as race, gender, age, or mental health, they serve as a haven of belonging, offering a space for underrepresented employees to find one another, stave off a sense of isolation, and experience a reprieve from the daily aggressions they’ve endured at work.

ERGs bring many benefits to organizations. They identify and help develop internal leaders. They lead to higher retention rates. They educate employees — including senior leadership — through internal events, panels and more. They help companies recruit underrepresented individuals and develop a talent pipeline: According to a 2014 survey conducted by Software Advice, 70% of U.S. respondents who were 18 to 24 years old and 52% of respondents between 25 and 34 reported they would be more likely to apply for a role at a company that had ERGs. Fifty percent of survey respondents stated they would remain at a company because it had an ERG.

Black ERGs were the first affinity groups established in corporate America, primarily in response to the racial unrest in the country. Xerox pioneered the first corporate ERG — a group for its Black employees — in 1970. Black ERGs still remain as relevant as ever — and have become even more impactful. AT&T’s Black ERG, The NETwork has more than 11,000 members, and in 2015, the company reported an 85.6% retention rate for its Black employees. AT&T credits The NETwork as a prime resource for identifying candidates for leadership. More recently, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Amazon committed $10 million to fighting for social justice and aiding Black communities. The company’s Black Employee Network (BEN) helped leadership identify the recipients of those funds. Similarly, DoorDash established a $500,000 fund, which will be directed by its Black ERG to state and local organizations.

Right now, at a height of racial uprising in the U.S., what is it that Black ERGs need? Most of their needs are the same as what they needed yesterday and will need tomorrow, and some are not exclusive to Black ERGs. But denying these needs will only exacerbate the inequity that Black employees already experience.

Equity & Resources

As with most ERGs, Black ERGs are largely volunteer led. They typically don’t have a sustained or committed budget. Members cobble together funding by soliciting various leaders to provide funding for events or even paying out of pocket for things like refreshments. This work is taken on in addition to their full-time jobs, without additional compensation. I have worked at organizations where ERG members have even received backlash from their managers and colleagues for participating in “extracurricular” activities or for rocking the boat and highlighting race.

It’s time that organizations compensate these leaders for their work. In the past, ERGs were primarily a support network for people with shared identities, but now organizations rely on them for recruitment, retention, marketing, strategic guidance, and other business functions.

Compensation could take the form of an increase in overall compensation, a bonus, or formally dedicating a percentage of their role to this work.

Funding conference attendance is another potential form of compensation. Conferences for Black employees, such as the National Black MBA Conference, AfroTech, or the Corporate Counsel for Women of Color Conference, provide Black employees a way to feel less isolated, develop their network, and receive leadership and development training that speaks to their specific experiences.

Companies can also fund memberships in external organizations that support Black employees in specific fields and sectors, such as the National Association of Black Accountants or the National Bar Association. There are professional organizations that support Black employees in practically every sector.

Organizations should provide their ERGs with administrative support. From reserving rooms to creating flyers to ordering catering, this work requires extended amounts of labor and does not necessarily provide the development skills ERGs members need to become valued leaders.

Transparency & Trust

Companies that use their ERGs to recruit Black employees need to make sure they are taking care of their current Black employees. If they don’t, they are ultimately adding to the emotional labor of their current employees, who are left to nurture and support their new colleagues when they are subjected to anti-Blackness and inequity.

Performative allyship needs to be done away with. Right now, companies are issuing words of support for Black Lives Matter and Black employees. Unfortunately, the experience of Black employees doesn’t always match what’s been said in these written commitments, and this hypocrisy will do little to foster trust. Black people are promoted at a lower rate than white peers. They are paid less than their white colleagues. Reports of discrimination and other marginalizing behavior goes unaddressed by HR teams: Black employees account for 13% of the U.S. workforce — and 26% of discrimination complaints filed at the EEOC. In fact, companies pay millions of dollars to settle racial discrimination claims every year.

One way to build trust is to hold leaders accountable when they fail to adhere to their organization’s publicly espoused diversity, equity, and inclusion values. When leaders are given a pass — whether it’s for making or allowing denigrating statements about Black people, not hiring, retaining, or promoting Black employees, second-guessing Black employees’ decisions in ways that they don’t question white employees, or relying on Black employees for expertise on race rather than for their skill set — it sends a message to Black employees: You are not valued. You do not belong here.

Mental Health Support

Black Americans experience trauma on a daily basis, and the severe psychological distress caused by ongoing police shootings doesn’t dissipate once employees enter the workplace. In fact, the level of anxiety and trauma can escalate when Black employees are underrepresented in white-dominant workplaces. Black ERGs provide a safe space for these employees to be connected and supported, and to process and discuss these experiences.

Companies shouldn’t solely rely on Black ERGs for this work. They must ensure that employee assistance programs (EAPs) provide racial trauma support and have a roster of Black care providers. After the murder of George Floyd, organizations like Amazon brought in racial trauma specialists to support their employees. On MSNBC recently, Ashley McGirt, a prominent racial trauma specialist in Washington state, noted an uptick in corporations who are seeking racial trauma specialists as they acknowledge the impact of racial aggressions on the health of their Black employees.

Formal Validation from Leadership

It doesn’t matter how much value Black ERGs bring to an organization if the highest levels of leadership don’t recognize — or worse yet, dismiss — their contributions. Recognition from the C-suite informs budget opportunities, encourages grace from people managers when employees want to participate or attend learning opportunities offered by ERGs, and demonstrates an intention to include and welcome Black employees. Below are some of the ways that leaders can give this type of validation.

Invest in Your Black Employees’ Success

Companies should leverage Black ERGs to fill internal leadership pipelines. These are employees who are already putting in the effort to be engaged and plugged into the organization. Failure to groom internal Black talent for leadership will result in Black employees leaving or becoming disengaged, and lead to a never-ending hiring spree to recruit new Black employees. A lack of promotions for Black employees will also present a red flag for potential Black candidates the organization seeks to hire.

Signal Public Support

The workforce notices when the CEO is present at an event or sends a company-wide message encouraging employees to attend a function by an ERG. This validates their efforts and presence. It is another way of saying, “This group belongs here and is a part of our team,” or “We all can benefit from this event and it is a worthwhile use of your time.” Similarly, it is noticed when the CEO is absent or indifferent.

Connect With — and Listen to — Your Employees

It’s a mistake for leaders to only get input through employee surveys and HR. Too often that feedback gets diluted or muddied. Instead, top leadership needs to proactively request direct input from Black employees on their concerns — and then act on those concerns. No matter how much data is collected, there is no substitute to having first-hand, transparent, and open conversations with Black employees and then heeding their guidance.

Actively Sponsor the ERG

Each ERG should have an executive sponsor who is either in the C-suite or one level removed, who can advocate for the ERG’s initiatives, clearing barriers and supporting them in achieving their strategic goals. In the case of Black ERGs, I believe the sponsor should be a non-Black person so that they model active learning, cultural stewardship, and advocacy across cultures. Too often, the few Black leaders are drafted to lead the Black ERG instead of recognizing that cultural stewardship is the responsibility of all leaders. The executive sponsor should be present at all ERG events and an active participant in initiatives, committed to being an ongoing learner and not an expert. 

In recent years, some companies have moved away from ERGs — most famously Deloitte decided to phase them out, arguing that often they leave out white men, who need to be part of the conversation. But many advocates recognized this decision as another white-centered decision made at the cost of underrepresented employees. Why can’t the white leaders move past their discomfort to be a part of these conversations and participate in spaces where whiteness isn’t centered?

Black ERGs are a clear pathway for organizations to offer support to Black employees. They are also a critical resource of information about what is and is not working for Black employees. Valuing, supporting, and sustaining a Black ERG is a win-win for the company and those they aim to support.

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