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Fostering workplace belonging

Companies leverage ERGs to attract, retain, support employees

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December 1, 2022

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) – also known as workplace affinity groups or employee business resource groups – are nothing new.

In fact, Rebecca Deschane, vice president of talent development at New North Inc., said the concept itself dates back more than six decades.

“Historically, ERGs were started at Xerox in response to racial tensions in the early- to mid-1960s,” she said.

The focus remains the same – offer an opportunity for people with common identities, backgrounds or interests in the workplace to come together to connect, engage and build affinity within the organization.

However, Deschane said the importance of ERGs today is even more amplified.

Jess Lambrecht, executive officer of the division for Continuing Education and Community Engagement at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, agreed saying though ERGs have been around for decades, employers now are seeing the “fruits of the labor.”

Lambrecht said research shows more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies have some variation of an employee resource group.

“The data shows that when you do these things, you have a greater sense of commitment and ultimately retention, which in this current economy, everyone is clamoring to keep their employees happy,” she said. “You’ll (also) find that organizations who have ERGs have a higher level of production and have a higher level of output than you would if you hadn’t had that.”

Deschane said part of her knowledge of ERGs stems from the work she does helping identify initiatives, best practices or solutions that can be adopted to help organizations and businesses with their talent and workforce pipelines.

“The best practices for ways to engage your employees, to create that corporate culture that people want to be part of – ERGs are part of that work,” she said.

Deschane said more and more companies are finding that a large part of why someone accepts a position or stays with a company centers around a sense of belonging, which most ERGs aim to provide.

“(ERGs) create a place for people to feel empowered, to make recommendations, to build that trust and that network internally,” she said. “And as you’re building those internal relationships with your coworkers, it strengthens your connections to your workplace.”


Employee resource groups help bring individuals with common identities, backgrounds or interests in the workplace to come together to connect, engage and build affinity within the organization. Submitted Photos

Lambrecht said the current population of graduates – when they are looking to go to the next company – want to feel welcomed and know there are people they can immediately connect with.

Dylan Polkinghorne, assistant teaching professor of Human Resource Management at UWGB, said ERGs are not only a resource provided to employees, but can also help benefit the organization in terms of recruiting, mentorship, education programs and career development resources.

Polkinghorne said employees will leave an organization based on the way they are treated and will continue to search for and leave jobs until they feel valued within their organization.

“Organizations need to understand that meeting their employee’s basic needs and providing them a culture where they are comfortable working in, will help the employees feel as though they are not just a number, but rather an asset to the organization,” she said.

Polkinghorne said ERGs can benefit the employee’s overall well-being, as well as the organization’s.

“The organization will have a competitive advantage over other organizations if they put the effort into their employees and are known for having a culture where employees prefer to work,” she said.

Diversity, equity and inclusion
Deschane said when one thinks about ERGs, it is often in connection with diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We’re seeing a growing number (of ERGs) around gender inclusion,” she said. “Veteran inclusion is another really important area that we are seeing a number of growing ERGs as well.”

Darcy Pierson, the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Oshkosh Corp., said ERGs play an integral role in strengthening inclusion.

“We know that the broader global demographics are rapidly changing, and sometimes we don’t feel it quite the same way in Northeastern Wisconsin as other parts of the nation, but we are feeling it,” Darcy said. “So, as that is changing… we need to collectively change (with it).”

Pierson said ERGs bring together team members, colleagues and employees that have common interests and affiliations – while also giving a voice to underrepresented employees.

“They really help set the stage for people to be able to bring in their authentic, their true self into the organization,” she said. “We know that when we’re not hiding, when we don’t have to twist, bend and hide parts of ourselves to fit in – that we perform at our best.”

Pierson said the driving purpose behind ERGs is giving individuals that are underrepresented within an organization an opportunity to come together to, what she likes to refer to as, “co-create the future culture of the organization.”

Lambrecht said ERGs are meant to build a sense of community and connection.

“We know (individuals), underserved populations, in particular, feel more connected when they can identify with others of a related background,” she said. “Whether that be a disability, whether it be gender, whether it be a religious aspect, whether it’s ethnicity and background, whether it’s people of color – there are 100 different ways that you can slice it, truthfully.”

Inclusion without exclusion
Deschane said a critical aspect of all ERGs is creating inclusion, while not creating exclusion.

“I’ve been in a roundtable session where an individual shared that they’re the lead within their LGBTQ ERG, but that she doesn’t identify as LGBTQ, but is a strong advocate for it,” she said. “So, it’s being able to have that ability to support your fellow co-worker in areas that you feel strongly about as well. So, you can be an ally and an advocate, as well as an individual who may identify with how an ERG is set up.”

Pierson said that involves being mindful of what inclusion means.

“(It) includes ensuring that the programs that you offer, the learning opportunities, the ability to create those safe spaces to ask questions about things that you might be unsure of – are open to all,” she said.

Lambrecht said this starts with an ERG’s mission and goals.

“I think it’s really important that when ERGs are established and they determine their mission and their function and what their goals are, that they ensure that their language is very much inclusive,” she said. “That it’s not exclusionary. That it’s not only for people who identify as X. It has to be much more encompassing because frankly ERGs are intended to help better advocate and if they are exclusionary, they’re going to miss the mark.”

An example of this, Lambrecht said, is UWGB’s Women’s Leadership Institute.

“It’s not a women’s organization – it just happens to foster leadership for women,” she said. “Men are invited to the table, specifically because we want their voice. We want them to help the equation. We need them just as much as they might be trying to learn from us.”

Lambrecht said company size also plays a part in the conversation.?

“If you’re too small, you might just be developing subgroups that might not feel super comfortable for others who are maybe not a part of that group, if you will,” she said.

Building ERGs on a grassroots effort, Lambrecht said, is critical.

“When you can foster it from a very grassroots effort versus something coming from the top down, I think you develop a better system, a better place of people really wanting that, versus forcing it down people’s throats,” she said.

Talent attraction and retention
Pierson said ERGs can also help broaden a company’s talent acquisition and retention efforts.

“Especially right now in this immensely competitive talent marketplace that we’re in, ERGs drive that workforce sustainability,” she said. “And once somebody gets into the organization and they find individuals that they can become friends with, that they can have conversations with and find a sense of belonging, it really is a strong retention tool.”

Deschane said ERGs help build those connectivities across multiple layers.

“It helps you become more aware of the choices, from a business standpoint, that perhaps you didn’t know or hadn’t heard about,” she said. “(ERGs can create) a safe place to have conversations around things that are impacting work that might be able to be addressed through HR corporate standpoint, to make sure that the workplace is safe and inclusive.”

Lambrecht said she doesn’t see ERGs going anywhere anytime soon.

“Especially with the social unrest that we’ve seen in the last several years, people are clamoring for that much more connectedness in their workplaces,” she said. “I also think that in the space of a virtual work environment, people are trying to figure out, ‘Alright, is this just a job or do I feel connected across the organization?’”


Darcy Peterson said fostering regular growth and training opportunities are key components of a successful employee resource group. Submitted Photos

Polkinghorne said employee resources groups – though varied based on company size – can be beneficial for all companies.

“An organization that values diversity throughout their workforce, and values their employees as individuals should have ERG available,” she said. “To provide a better culture, and a sense of inclusion throughout, organizations should take the steps to provide as much support as possible to their employees.”

Polkinghorne said employees who are happy at their job, often results in better performance.

?“Employee resource groups can cost nothing to the organization, and in the bigger picture are about benefiting those employees that are employed,” she said. “Bottom line – happy life at work, equals a happy employee; which then brings in more profits, and productivity to the organization.”

Leadership buy-in necessary
Deschane said senior leadership buy-in is among the most critical parts of a successful ERG.

“ERGs can be successful in any organization, but it has to be with the right buy-in,” she said. “Creating them without that executive buy-in or that high-level leadership buy-in – they’re not going to be effective.”

In agreement, Pierson said though ERGs are grassroot, employee-driven groups, they still need “strong senior leadership, participation and advocacy.”

“They need that mentoring, that guidance, that really active support from senior leaders,” she said.

Parker Wolf is the chair of the Breakthrough Sustainability, Community & Company Engagement Committee, as well as a participant in two of the parent company U.S. Ventures’ resource groups – SheVentures & YPVentures. 

Wolk said part of why she has been successful participating in, and leading ERGs is because of the support she receives from management.

“I have great support from my direct manager,” she said.

Wolf said she also does what she can to encourage others to take advantage of ERGs.

“I think so many people are focused on their career and they have those streamlined goggles on, but they don’t realize all the resources (available),” she said.

Lambrecht said the Women’s Leadership Institute also supports businesses in establishing, creating and developing employee resource groups.

“When organizations, especially in the Northeast (Wisconsin) region, are willing and interested in spending time and effort in building an infrastructure… they’re looking for an organizational partner to help guide them in that path,” she said. “So, as part of our women’s leadership group, that’s one of the offerings that we have as part of our business membership.”

Lambrecht said the institute has a number of materials it developed and designed about how to go about doing that.
“The steps it takes from a very grassroots, organic effort from a small nonprofit and everything up to the major corporate partner,” she said.

A struggle, Lambrecht said, some ERGs find themselves tackling is finances.

“Can you do them for no cost?” she said. “Sure. But if the institution or organization truly believes in retaining whatever it might be, they have to be able to put some dollars behind it – to help them foster regular gatherings, lunch and learns, training opportunities, access to growth, things that will bring people naturally together on whatever frequency or whatever basis that might be.”

Making sure someone from the leadership is an advocate, Lambrecht said, and continues to be an advocate of ERGs is instrumental toward their success.

“If you don’t have that, I think you will struggle for a much longer period of time until someone within an executive level says, ‘yes, this is a worthwhile effort,” she said.

?Lambrecht said creating an ERG just for the sake of checking off a box is doomed to fail.

“It can’t be one of those things that you do twice a year to check a box,” she said. “I mean, what is the purpose, right? They have to have some periodicity or some regularity in the frequency of meetings.”

Whether that means they take place during work hours, lunch hours or after hours, Lambrecht said, will depend on a variety of things.

“Does your company allow you to utilize your time in the office toward an ERG effort?” she said. “Or does it have to be during your lunch hour or in the evening? Then I think there are some barriers there, too, because then you’re really catering to a population that might not have childcare, for example. Or they’ve got other family dynamics that they need to spend time on.”

Polkinghorne said though it’s understood that not everyone will be eligible to be in every ERG the organization provides, “it is best to ensure that there is at least one group designated to each employee to keep the peace throughout the organization.”

Deschane said at the end of the day, it’s important to remember the reasoning behind ERGs.

“If you’re doing them correctly, you’re helping to bridge that equity gap and build more equity and parity across all voices,” she said.

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