Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts at organizations can look like many different things, each towards the goal of making employees feel comfortable and welcome in their workplace. An important part of inclusion is creating space where employees, especially those who hold traditionally marginalized identities, can connect with like others. Towards this end, in the 1960s, Employee Resource Group (ERGs) started to proliferate in the workplace.
ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups that are sponsored by the workplace and serve as a space for connection on the basis of identity-sharing—whether that be race, gender, religion, sexuality, and more. The three largest categories of ERGs are social-cause centered, professional-centered, and attribute-centered, with attribute-centered groups taking up the most space. Ideally, an ERG creates space for open communication about experiences and needs in the workplace. But they’re also about professional collaboration, advocacy, and information sharing.
FFF vs ABC
At their origin, ERGs, or affinity groups, were about Food, Fun, and Famous People—FFF, as we call it. This is no longer the case. Instead, the ERGs of today are all about the ABCs; spaces to Affirm identity, Build community, and Cultivate leadership of underrepresented and marginalized identities.
We adopt the ABC approach in leading companies to develop affinity group spaces, drawing from the work of Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. Dr. Tatum, the former president of Spelman College, and renowned psychologist specializing in race relations. She is the author of the widely cited book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” and Other Conversations About Race. Tatum’s work in higher education aims to foster environments of connection across diverse groups. She uses the ABCs to describe the goals of inclusive spaces.
A is for Affirming Identity
We all hold multiple identities, and we want to see ourselves reflected in the identities of our peers. The more we can connect with people who share our experiences, especially experiences of marginalization and underrepresentation, the more we feel included and safe. In other words, we want our identities to be affirmed. Dr. Tatum puts it like this: Imagine a group photo. The first thing you’ll do is look for yourself. So many people are stepping into a group photo looking for themselves and seeing themselves left out of the picture. Affirming identity means making sure people are stepping into photos and feeling part of the group.
In the context of the workplace, an Employee Resource Group can serve as cultural centers that affirm identity, with the effect (consistently supported by research) of more feelings of belonging, investment in the goals of the workplace, and excitement to collaborate across groups. Yes—affirming identity through spaces of like people fosters more cross-identity collaboration in the future.
Think about this when creating ERGs in your workplace. People who traditionally don’t see themselves in their workplace can feel unwelcome, unheard, and therefore less engaged. When spaces exist for employees to see themselves in others, the opposite is true: they feel welcome, heard, and will be more engaged.
B is for Build Community
How do we create “unity from diversity,” in Tatum’s words? We work to Build Community. The desire for cross-identity connection is built on the sense of inclusion. Research demonstrates that inclusion fosters creativity, engagement, and excitement in the workplace. Community building follows naturally from this, breaking down barriers and fostering a more pluralistic, connected team. “If you feel like you belong someplace, you will persist there,” says Dr. Tatum. “If not, you withdraw.”
Don’t rush into this step, though. Lots of shared communities, explains Tatum, don’t take into account the A—unless everyone sees themselves as represented and equal in the group, it’s not functioning as the B.
Employee Resource Group is to intentionally build community, not only by affinity but also by the product of initiatives and problem-solving that take place in their work. One of the important aspects of this is the fact that ERGs are sponsored or supported by employers. Tatum has found that in higher education, teachers that actively seek and support diverse and equal collaboration end up participating more and feel connected by a common goal. It’s the same in the workplace. Employer-sponsored ERGs demonstrate to employees that leadership recognizes the challenges that historically marginalized groups may feel and the need for spaces of affinity to affirm that recognition.
C is for Cultivate Leadership
Tatum’s third prong to the ABCs of inclusion brings together the other two with a highly action-oriented mandate: Cultivate Leadership. Affinity and connection must be supplemented by tangible positions of leadership for underrepresented and marginalized identities. As Tatum writes: “As we consider creating climates of engagement, we must be intentional in structuring opportunities to cross the long-standing boundaries that separate us in American society.” This “border crossing” builds the context for workplaces whose initiatives integrate the positions of marginalized groups.
The 21st Century is about creating connections across lines of difference, explains Tatum. Most people grow up in segregated spaces, and it’s still true that “all the Black kids are sitting together in the cafeteria.” This is for a number of reasons, not the least including the effects of red-lining, unequal investment in urban public schools, and self-segregation along social, economic, and cultural lines. According to a study by the Othering & Belonging Institute at Berkeley, 54% of metropolitan areas are more segregated in 2020 than in 1990.
This means that a large number of people have never been exposed to multicultural contexts. “If you haven’t learned how to engage with people whose background is different from your own in that respectful, affirming way, you are essentially becoming a social dinosaur,” says Tatum. Leadership in the workplace of today must create affirming spaces for cross-identity interaction in order to stay relevant. Otherwise, the work being done is neither inclusive nor leadership-oriented.
ERGs open up the space for critique and comment on how identities are and are not being supported. The more these conversations happen, the more people holding marginalized identities feel like they have agency in decision-making, and that those decisions that are made have been done so with consideration of people other than the dominant group. The resulting empowerment contributes to environments that regularly engage in the type of critical thinking and debate that lead to inclusion in a pluralistic context.
ERGs also build stronger and more connected teams because they foster an environment for collaboration that pushes past the status quo and into spaces of productive growth and creativity.
Bringing it Together
As you create ERGs, keep the ABCs in mind. They build the foundation for a mutually-beneficial and productive relationship.
With all three ABCs, the Employee Resource Group in your workplace can become spaces for affirmation, connection, and representation, both individually and institutionally. Support your employees, see your employees, listen to your employees.
Berry, J. (Executive Producer); West, C., & Rose, T. (Hosts). (2021, March 9). Dr. Beverly Tatum: The ABCs of representation in education. In The Tightrope. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/dr-beverly-daniel-tatum-the-abcs-of-representation/id1524242837?i=1000512289989
Hastwell, C. (2020). What are employee resource groups (ERGs)?. Great place to work. https://www.greatplacetowork.com/resources/blog/what-are-employee-resource-groups-ergs
Menendian, S., Gambhir, S., & Gailes, A. (2021, June 21). The roots of structural racism project. Othering & Belonging Institute. https://belonging.berkeley.edu/roots-structural-racism
Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the Cafeteria? And other conversations about race. Basic Books.
Tatum, B. D. (n.d.). Creating climates of engagement on diverse campuses. Forum For the Future of Higher Education. MIT. http://forum.mit.edu/articles/creating-climates-of-engagement-on-diverse-campuses/