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Where Are the People Like Me?

July/August 2018

By Margo Vanover Porter

Employee resource groups give staff members from underrepresented groups a sense of belonging and engagement on campus.

Think back to a time early in your career when you were the new kid on the block and feeling unsure just how to fit into your institution’s culture. How did you find other employees with whom you could identify?

That’s the role that employee resource groups (ERGs) can now play in institutions, giving staff members—primarily of underrepresented groups—a sense of belonging and engagement. While some ERGs come equipped with specific mission statements that require members to meet recruitment and retention goals, others merely consist of like-minded people getting together in an informal structure to talk about their shared personal and professional issues and concerns.

Because ERGs, previously becoming a mainstay in the corporate world, seem to be making headway on campuses across the country, Business Officer contacted four institutions to find out more about the purpose and structure of their employee resource groups.

Princeton: An Early Adopter

The Princetonians of Color Network, formed more than a decade ago, was the first-ever ERG at Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. The Women of Princeton Employee Resource Group, started last fall, is the newest alliance. 

“All our ERGs are made up of employees who come together in the workplace based on shared characteristics, interests, and concerns to create a campus environment that is more inclusive,” explains Romy Riddick, assistant vice president, client services team, office of human resources. “These groups contribute to work-related objectives. We think of ERGs as a way to increase the institution’s gateway to hire, develop, encourage, advance, support, and retain a diverse population of employees, so that people feel comfortable as part of an extended community.”

While it guides, instructs, and provides structure, the office of human resources does not dictate which constituencies should band together. “The ERGs are budgeted through our office, but we don’t run them,” Riddick clarifies. “We let the ERGs form organically. We provide a framework, and they are self-directed.”  

Since their origination, Princeton’s ERGs have evolved from largely social entities to institutional units with annual work plans. Each year, the groups develop strategies and tactical activities with expected outcomes in four areas. “That is as structured as we get,” Riddick emphasizes. “That’s our blueprint. They can really populate how they want to function under that umbrella. This is a cooperative and collaborative environment.”

The four areas of focus include:

Because each of the four areas contain a section on metrics and analysis, the ERGs are asked to document quantitatively or qualitatively the measurements they use to analyze success. Metrics could be the number of members, the growth of the ERG over the past year, the number of volunteer hours spent on recruiting or on programming events, or attendance levels at meetings and events. “This is a challenge for us,” Riddick admits. “It is about building culture and having people feel good about their workplace, which isn’t easy to measure, but we’re trying.”

Official Entities 

ERG leaders helped create this structure, Riddick says, emphasizing, “HR did not create the framework in a vacuum.” Each ERG is led by a president, vice president, and secretary. Some ERGs, but not all, choose to form steering committees that focus on each of the goal areas. “Governing articles stipulate that officers serve for a two- to three-year period and then cycle off so that nobody has to serve a life sentence,” she explains. 

A popular concept introduced three years ago is the ability to choose an executive sponsor. “The ERGs can seek out an executive sponsor from a senior member of the university, [someone] who could be a member of faculty or staff,” Riddick says. “The executive sponsor serves, in effect, as a mentor, suddenly giving this cross section of employees direct access to a senior member in a way that they may not have in their regular jobs. That’s been a highlight.”

According to Riddick, about 1,000 to 1,200 of the institution’s 4,500 employees, not including faculty, are involved in ERGs. “All of the groups get the same amount, a few thousand dollars, on an annual basis to support their efforts,” she says. “As we evolve, one of the things that we’re questioning is whether the dollars allotted should be scaled to the number of members. We haven’t done that yet.”   

Most of the ERGs meet monthly over lunch for an hour or 90 minutes, in addition to participating in activities in between, such as hosting an event or helping with a recruiting fair. Although most managers support their employees’ time away from the regular workday, Riddick has no problem calling a reluctant manager to say, “This is an official construct supported by the university.”

It’s usually when employees want to spend five hours at a recruiting fair—on a busy workday—that her negotiation skills may get tested. “We’re realists: Operational concerns and being able to get your core work done are important,” she acknowledges. “We certainly don’t want to leave a department in a lurch, so we talk through those issues. ‘Can two people go instead of four?’ We have those kinds of conversations.”

Prior to performance appraisals, the managers of ERG officers receive letters explaining the effort put forth by their employees. “We want to acknowledge the important work these volunteers contribute to the greater university community,” Riddick explains. “We consider ERGs to be official entities. They are not side of the desk.”

When dealing with the groups, Riddick indicates that she has learned an important lesson: Give ERGs an appropriate structure without being overly prescriptive. “Don’t be shy about requiring governing articles and work plans,” she advises. “While ERGs grow organically at Princeton and are driven from the bottom up, the top-down support and structure are very beneficial. We provide the blueprint, but they have a lot of wiggle room to make these groups what they want.” 

Harper ERGs Identify Weaknesses

To help the institution identify potential weaknesses, live up to its core values, and reduce its exposure to potential litigation, Harper College, Palatine, Ill., created in 2012 an office of diversity and inclusion that reports directly to the president. One of that office’s first initiatives: Laying the groundwork for the formation of employee resource groups.

“Employee resource groups are investments that, over the short- and long-term, pay dividends on Harper’s ability to expand the diversity and inclusion of the college’s workforce, which is a strategic initiative of the college,” explains Ron Ally, executive vice president of finance and administrative services.

Harper has three ERGs, says Roger D. Spayer, chief human resources officer. “We did not launch them as an institution. We made available a process for ERGs to form organically and achieve recognition. We have an application that speaks specifically to what an employee resource group is and what we intend for it to be, which is to help the college create an environment and culture that is welcoming and supportive to all employees, particularly those who might be members of historically underrepresented groups.”

  Harper’s three ERGs, which may receive $5,000 annually for activities, include: 

Helping the College Grow

“These groups can be really useful in helping us figure out any weaknesses that we may have before we launch a policy, procedure, process, or activity, especially if we are not close to a particular situation,” Spayer says. “They save us from embarrassment and make us more effective.”

To illustrate his point, he cites the following examples. “Every year we pick a topic for a half-day diversity symposium on our campus,” he says. “Let’s assume for a moment that we didn’t think to invite interpreters—so we’re hosting a diversity and inclusion event that is not inclusive. Or we show videos that we haven’t captioned. Or we hold an off-campus celebration event at a location that is not accommodating for employees in wheelchairs. These are important considerations for LAND members. ERGs help us avoid embarrassing oversights that are not intentional.”  

At the end of each academic year, Harper’s ERGs provide an annual report that includes a record of their accounts and transactions, as well as a summary of their events and goal attainment. 

“You need to have a process in place for applying, vetting, and supporting these organizations,” Spayer says. “They’re going to do work for the college. The more we learn about people who are different from us, the more it increases our competence in dealing with a variety of people. ERG members help the institution by serving on committees, providing reports of their activities, sponsoring events on campus, and providing a different perspective. They’re helping the institution grow.”

Spayer believes that requiring written expectations gives the groups a greater voice. “If you just throw an ERG together and let anybody who wants to have a group have a group—without any expectations or reporting—you get what you deserve,” he insists. “If you formalize it, you give credence to voices. If you operate it as a free-for-all, an ERG doesn’t have the same value.” Leaders have to be careful so that they don’t approach ERGs as a check-box activity just so they can say, “Oh, sure, we have ERGs.”  

Harper maintains a diversity scorecard with various targets, one of which is to consider how many individuals who are members of an underrepresented group leave the institution. To determine whether people feel welcome, leaders track whether that percentage is higher than the college’s normal turnover rate.  

“We’re still pretty new at this,” Spayer says. “Our oldest group is about five years old. The newest is about two years. We continue to learn as we go along, but that’s part of the process. You open yourself up to learning and hearing other voices.”

A Reincarnation at Columbus State

Only one of the ERGs started about seven years ago at Columbus State Community College (CSCC) has survived. “Over time, the resources for and interest in earlier ERGs dwindled until only the caregivers group persisted,” says Phyllis Gorman, assistant director of professional development and retention. “That [group] continued because it knew how to take care of itself and others.”

After senior leaders recently made a commitment to re-establish ongoing support for ERGs, CSCC staff polled employees and eventually set up six additional groups to support: African Americans, women, LBGTQ, disabilities, young professionals, and singles parents/guardians. With no set budget, funds are provided as needed. 

“Over the course of the past year, we have been in the stages of getting the groups back up on their feet and functioning with a different structural support to maintain longevity,” Gorman says.

For example, a consultant recommended the formation of a working group that performs a variety of duties, such as setting up a website, keeping track of the meeting calendars, and helping with logistics for scheduling rooms. “The working group provides institutional support and structure for all the groups,” Gorman explains.

In addition, each unit has a liaison, who brings issues and concerns of that particular ERG to the working group, and an executive sponsor, who has an affiliation with the group but is not a participant.   

“The liaison performs administrative functions and maintains a relationship with the executive sponsor of that group,” she explains. “For example, the liaison from the women’s group would meet periodically with the executive sponsor of that ERG to share issues, request resources, and provide updates on activities. The executive sponsor’s role is to be a champion.”

Earning Credits

Although most meetings are open to all, the LBGTQ and people with disabilities ERGs occasionally decide to close their activities “if they perceive they could expose themselves to ridicule or discrimination,” says Gorman, who cites a personal example of why closed meetings can be appropriate. “I have ADHD,” she says. “Since I am not required to disclose that to my employer, let’s pretend that I haven’t told my boss that I take Ritalin. Maybe I want to see if I can get support from the disabilities ERG, but I don’t necessarily want to out myself.

 “We want to be sensitive,” she continues. “If the LGBTQ group wants to have closed discussions, it is permitted. Particularly in the current political climate, some folks fear support and protection around sexual orientation isn’t moving in the right direction. If that group chooses to close a particular session or meeting, it’s within the guidelines that we have set up.”

Lynda Anderson-Casey, executive director of human resources, points out that ERG participation helps employees meet their service obligations to the college, which account for 10 percent of their annual performance reviews. “Membership in employee resource groups, serving as a liaison, being a part of the working group, and serving as an executive sponsor all provide service to the college,” she says. “We want to give credit for that good work.”

Despite the service component, she believes that the primary purpose of ERGs is to give employees a sense of belonging. “I never saw these as anything structured by administration,” she says. “As the groups become more established, we might require outcomes, but right now, our focus is on allowing employees to make a connection, encouraging recruitment activities to build membership, and allowing the groups to determine their purposes.”

As a member of the caregiving group, Anderson-Casey has firsthand experience with the support ERGs can offer. “I am a caregiver for my adult child who has mental illness and some developmental disabilities. Other members are caregivers for parents and spouses. It’s wonderful to know that you are not alone.”

Before she joined the caregivers ERG, Anderson-Casey asked the liaison if her presence might stifle other employees’ involvement. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s participation,” she explains, “but members were absolutely welcoming. They know, in my role, I can keep confidences. It wasn’t a problem.”

MIT ERGs Tackle Policy Issues

Benchmarking and best practice research led to the creation of ERGs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Each group has a stated mission that supports the institute’s initiatives around recruitment and retention, says Alyce Johnson, staff diversity and inclusion manager.

The seven groups include: 

While some groups concentrate on events and community building, others may focus on advocacy issues, explains Libby Mahaffy, diversity and inclusion specialist. 

For example, the disabilities ERG is creating a series of videos about its members’ experiences, to raise awareness, and the LBGTQ group is encouraging administrators to expand parental leave.  

“The LBGTQ ERG, which has been around for a while and is pretty well established, tends to have at least one policy initiative a year,” Mahaffy explains. “One of the current initiatives is around paid parental leave. Members have been working with the folks in HR benefits to advocate for increased paid parental leave. Right now, MIT offers one week of paid parental leave for the nonbirth parent.” Conversations continue, she says.

Make a Sincere Effort

At MIT, each ERG typically sponsors an annual signature event. For example, last October, the Latino ERG invited Jennifer De Leon to speak during the Hispanic cultural heritage month. De Leon, whom the Boston Public Library named as Children’s Writer-in-Residence for 2015–16, edited a book of short stories, Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). The lunchtime event included a reading, interactive workshop, and book signing.

Individual groups receive a budget of $1,800 annually and the ERG application process at MIT is informal. “A group of people might reach out and indicate that they are interested in coming together around a particular topic or identity,” Johnson says. “Part of the reason we start with those identities is that we want to recruit and retain more people with disabilities, more people of color, and more millennials. That has been one of our guiding forces.”

Most ERGs have at least two co-leads—a few have three, explains Mahaffy, who was hired in late 2017 in a newly created position. “I’ve been getting to know the ERG cultures and what they want for their communities. What I’ve heard over and over is ‘I knew there were people like me here, but I didn’t know where they were.’” 

In addition to attending job fairs, ERG members receive a weekly listing of all new nonacademic postings. “We ask them to share it with their network,” Johnson says. “That’s part of their giveback to us.”

One of the initiatives Mahaffy is currently tackling is assessment. “It’s very important to me to make the business case for ERGs,” she says. “At this point, they have a really good reputation, but how can we show and prove their worth? We have data for certain affirmative action categories and information that people disclose on surveys. We hope to be able to gather statistics proving that people involved in ERGs stay at MIT longer and contribute more to the institution.” 

While she recognizes the value that ERGs can contribute to institutions, Mahaffy urges administration leaders to pursue the initiative only if their motives are sincere and in the best interests of employees. “People can tell if you’re just giving ERGs lip service or if you really support and are behind them.”   

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.


Related Topics
Human ResourcesDiversity and Inclusion

“If you formalize it, you give credence to voices. If you operate it as a free-for-all, an ERG doesn’t have the same value.”

—Roger D. Spayer, Harper College