How employee resource groups can help drive equity and inclusion

Why are employee resource groups invaluable to D&I? Dr Don Trahan explains, ahead of his talk at the DQ D&I Practitioners Summit in March.

Making employee resource groups an important part of the way that companies are run, rather than just being social gatherings, will help boost diversity and inclusion in the workplace, as Dr. Don Trahan explains.

Employee resource groups have a significant role to play in change management by giving individuals a say in the direction of an organisation.

Dr Don Trahan, Director of REDI at NeighborWorks America, firmly believes that companies should consider employee resource or affinity groups as more than just social events.

“They can be used to gather really rich data about the organisational climate with targeted populations,” he says. “When you’re looking to predict certain behavioural characteristics and patterns within the company, why not use an affinity group or employee resource group to gather that information?

“For example, even if it is primarily a social gathering, you can always introduce some way of testing the temperature about what’s working and areas for growth. 

“Use that gathering as an opportunity to introduce an initiative and give certain demographics the voice to have buy-in and feedback on the direction of the company, while still using a retention-based metric to allow that.”

The areas to be addressed include recruitment and retention, new systems or organisational programmes, communications, the promotion and tenure process, whether there are mentorship schemes and any barriers to career development. Such discussions would provide clarity on the company’s commitment to equity and inclusion and enable regular monitoring of the organisational climate.

Equity facilitators

The data gathered by the employee resource groups should then be shared with to the EAC, which looks at organisational structures, policies and procedures and comprises individuals from the C-suite to front line employees.

Don explains: “They would be using the insight gained from an affinity or employee resource group to set a direction and adopt and develop who are now called equity facilitators. They’re the front-line individuals who help communicate the community agreements, mission and or vision that an organisation foster.  

“Should there be the need for some engagement, or if someone is a little bit confused about something, those are your go-to individuals who help to facilitate what that looks like in a respective department. 

“The C-suite should then use this rich information gathered from affinity or employee resource groups to reassess their strategic plans as needed.”

Move beyond racial dynamics

He makes the point that, traditionally, employee resource groups, were convened based on racial dynamics and that companies should take the opportunity to include all the communities represented in the organisation. 

“For example, having a white caucus would be a great way to demonstrate that individuals from this particular background also have great insight,” Don argues. “And diversity, equity and inclusion are not just for people of colour or non-white. I think that’s part of the problem.  

“It needs to be taken beyond the race agenda to look at all the identities that may make up the organisation, including the level at which someone sits.

“From a professional development standpoint, it allows the leadership or the C-suite to look at what is needed to create a trajectory for people, not only to be retained but to be promoted, to have the necessary education and foundation that they need internally. This insight may not be visible in the absence of an affinity or resource group.

“It will empower them to note that we do want to hear from you, good, bad or indifferent, and really using that to celebrate those voices. In an ideal world that will create more buy-in. It would also allow more individuals, once again from a systems perspective, to directly have an insight that feeds into each other.”

All this would then tie directly into diversity and organisational strategies, so enabling individuals to contribute to the direction of the company.

Be structured and transparent

Don suggests that, while setting the agenda for the employee resource groups should be a mutual agreement, there needs to be a proper structure. Without it, there is the danger of not having a beneficial outcome.

“I also think that transparency is critical,” he adds. “For confidentiality purposes, I don’t think you have to divulge everything that comes out necessarily, but I do believe high-level themes that emerged from those types of meetings should be communicated. 

“It allows a level of transparency from the leadership to put in motion ways in which to move forward. I believe it should be a benchmark for people to realise wow, we shared this, and the organisation not only heard us, but they were also listening, and now they’ve made XYZ changes as a result.”

HR should be a part of it as employee resource groups often fall within their remit. Where companies have an HR business partner, it is important to identify how they were being trained to address equity and inclusion issues beyond race.  

Don argues that generational dynamics in the workplace can get overlooked. He addressed this recently by organising a conversations and cocktails event for millennials.

“It was a nice way to bring together the millennials so they could discuss what’s going on, going well and their thoughts,” he says.” And it was a social setting but we had table topics that everyone was discussing. Afterwards, I was able to gather the generational feedback to look at what’s happening in our organisation.”  

Valued and respected

He recommends that companies who adopt the approach of including employee resource groups in their change management processes should first pilot it to see what works and what doesn’t. 

That’s what Don is currently doing within NeighborWorks America. Is he confident about the outcome?

“I believe that it will change the organisational climate and it will create a sense of people feeling that they belong and that they’re not only being valued and respected but that their dignity is being considered as well,” he replies. “That’s critical and invaluable to an organisation and culture.

“One of the charges, when affinity groups emerge, is for an organisation to really evaluate what diversity, equity and inclusion mean uniquely to our organisation. That’s my challenge to leaders across the world, to evaluate what equity and inclusion really mean for us?  

“How do we then tie it into our operations, the way we market and brand ourselves and into our vision as well as mission?”  

Hear more from Dr Don Trahan by joining him at the DiversityQ D&I Practitioners Summit in San Francisco on March 26, or subscribe to the DiversityQ newsletter for further updates.  

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