Employee Resource Groups: The Time is Now

I was excited to be joined by Farzana Nayani, the author of a new book called ‘The Power of Employee Resource Groups; How People Create Authentic Change’. I get a lot of questions from my clients about how to run effective employee resource groups or ERGs. These questions are about how to make sure that people running those networks are really empowered to deliver effective change in the organisation; how to capitalise on their efforts and how to make sure those ERGs are also strategically aligned with the organisation. So, Farzana’s book was perfect to have stumbled across when I was browsing diversity and inclusion books.

We started with me asking Farzana to share a bit more about her background; how she ended up working in this field and writing books because Farzana has written several other books as well.

‘Thank you for having me. So, my journey as a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant spans not only helping organisations like corporations and non-profits and higher education institutions, but I also do work doing speaking engagements and coaching as well. I advise individuals and groups as to how to be more inclusive and cultivate belonging in the workplace and in their own lives.

I’ve written a couple of other books. The first book that I wrote is called ‘Being All of Me’ and it was done in partnership with a non-profit called the Multiracial Americans of Southern California, where I live. It focused on how to support families and children from multi-racial backgrounds.

My publisher, North Atlantic Books, saw that book and decided to do a longer version and that’s what came out. It’s called ‘Raising Multiracial Children’. That came out two years ago and it’s still going strong. I’m excited about that being at the forefront of people’s minds. During the pandemic home-schooling and children being at home with parents, talking to kids about race was a big issue and still is. The new book ‘The Power of Employee Research Groups’ came out about a month ago. I’m seeing a lot of momentum around organisations taking up the mantle and looking at how to cultivate that belonging especially with all that’s going on in the workplace and in the world today.’

Farzana’s written a very much-needed book. I thanked her for writing it and I’m glad she has. Having written a book myself, I know it’s not an easy thing to do.

The first thing that the book discusses is getting started on the ERG journey. I wondered what Farzana’s advice is for organisations that are getting started on their ERG journey.

‘I think something that’s obvious is that you need to have people who are interested, but at the same time, sometimes we want to start groups because we believe in the cause. I have to caution the organisations to be aware of how many people they have. I’ve personally worked with organisations that have thought of certain groups and we don’t want to overlook anyone, but they just haven’t had the momentum to do it.

The first thing you need, which I recommend in the book, is at least five to seven people who are willing to be a part of the group. Ideally, you would have an executive sponsor who’s a leader. They don’t have to be a full executive technically, but that’s what they’re called. So, they could be at director level and above. Ideally, an executive to help mentor and advise the group. You need to have support from the organisation whether it be through budget or infrastructure, guidance, and also the time allocation where people can work on the group and work within the group.

Those are the key elements to get started and as groups form, they often have charters. Charters are a written living document that guides the group and it doesn’t change from year to year, but really is the goal, the signposts, the stakes in the ground, about where people are going with the group and what the purpose is.’

What I like about the advice there is that it’s really practical stuff. Farzana mentioned some things that a lot of my clients ask me about in terms of best practice. So, make sure that you’ve got an exec sponsor who can unlock things for the network and remove any obstacles that the network might face. Managers need to give people the time and space to get involved in the network especially if you’re in a client-facing organisation where maybe you’re looking at your billable hours of people. Make sure that you’re freeing up time for people to work on networks because they are important to developing the culture of an organisation. This is not a nice-to-have. It’s a critical part to creating an inclusive culture for the business.

The second part of the book is called Transforming Organisations: The Time Is Now. I talk to quite a few potential clients who say, ‘Oh, diversity and inclusion is so important to our organisation, but we’re not going to do anything until the next quarter or next year after we’ve done our annual strategy and our annual budgeting.’ I asked Farzana, ‘So, why is your perspective that the time now?’

‘As we look around, there are so many political events, global events. We’re still in the pandemic. We keep thinking we’re coming out of it and then there’s a new variant. We’re learning about how to be better colleagues to each other during the ongoing need for racial justice and there are health issues that are surfacing as a result of COVID. The need is now.

There’s the great resignation that is an ongoing issue with a lack of talent coming back to the workforce for various reasons as well as competition for markets. Some businesses are having trouble staying relevant and need to pivot and expand and adapt.

With all of that, there’s tremendous pressure on organisations to maintain and keep their workforce. Employee research groups are a great way to not only engage people, but involve them, and help them feel a sense of not only support but community and belonging. They are really fostering a lot of responsiveness to tragedies whether it be the killings or shootings that we have here in the United States, unfortunately, as well as specific issues like anti-Asian racism, which I’m personally affected by being someone who’s multi-ethnic Filipina and Pakistani.

So given all of that and the anti-blackness that permeates through global society, we do need the employee research groups to support our teams. We’re seeing a lot of issues to do with the LGBTQ+ community and rights and inclusion for them and we want to support groups. We need to do that by gathering people, making sure we’re aware of the causes and the issues, and then finding out a way to support through action.’

Farzana is right. These issues are happening right now on our doorstep. Farzana is in the US and I’m in the UK and we’re facing similar issues here. For people working in an organisation, these issues are affecting them right now and it’s really important that businesses take a stand and make sure that they’re creating those inclusive work environments. One of the risks is that people will leave an organisation if they don’t feel like they’re included or that they belong.

When it comes to forming and operating effective networks, Farzana talks about the five Ps of effective functioning. I asked her to walk me through what those five Ps are.

‘I am excited to share the five Ps of ERGs with the world through the book and as I do in speaking engagements with organisations. So, as we develop our ERGs, no matter what stage we’re in it’s a good reminder.

The first P is purpose. Why are we involved with the ERG? What is the ERG’s purpose? Not only your personal purpose but the group’s purpose.

The second P has to do with people. Who are the key stakeholders involved? Who are the communities that we’re serving? Are there external groups, or internal groups, that we need to be in contact with and a part of?

The third P has to do with processes. A lot of organisations and ERGs fail because they don’t have processes in place. We need to think about how we’re passing on institutional knowledge and be mindful of what it is that we need in terms of plans and processes.

That leads to the fourth P, which is planning. We do that inherently in ERGs, but do we actually take a step back and think about how we can segment that into quarters or maybe plan for not only the year but over a two-year span?

That leads to the last P, which is priorities. This is where I strongly encourage groups to take a look at what they have on the docket and think about not overloading themselves. Thinking about pacing themselves and making sure that there is time not only for recuperation and rejuvenation but also to spread the work around and make sure it’s not just overloading the group that’s currently in the positions at present.’

I love those five Ps because they create a practical framework. I think Farzana and I have got a similar style; both practical people who want to get stuff done. I asked Farzana how she thinks organisations can make sure that they’re making the biggest impact possible? 

‘I have a section in the book that’s on metrics and measurement and organisations love to know how to measure the effectiveness of ERGs. What I like to say is that impact can look like different things and organisations need to define that for themselves. So, is it the number of employees involved? Is it retention? Is it promotions that you can track through the ERGs? Is it simply that there’s a satisfaction survey that’s done and people feel more okay at work?

Those things are different areas of attention and concern. I think a lot of the time we plan events with ERGs and then once they’re done, we give a sigh of relief and then plan the next event. But we really need to look at what impact it’s creating. I have a model in the book that looks at the pillars within organisations, for example, the workforce, the workplace itself, marketplace, community and supplier diversity as some areas to look at. By and large, I feel that many of the different initiatives that ERGs do fall in not only one, but definitely more than one of those areas. I think pushing ourselves to realise that the goals and achievements are multi-fold and can intersect is a message in the book as well.’

I’m glad that Farzana touched on that concept of intersectionality, because I work with clients where they’ve got multiple networks and I always encourage them to work closely together as much as possible because you might have one network focusing on LGBTQ issues and then you might have another network focusing on women in technology, and then you might have another network looking at race and ethnicity.  But actually, there’s so much overlap we need to make sure that those networks operate effectively together and share resources and share experiences and come up with joint plans as well.

Farzana agreed. ‘I talk about collaboration amongst the groups too. I think that’s a great way not only to conserve resources like time, money, and effort but to show solidarity amongst the different causes and groups. I think that is also related to the idea that the time is now because we can’t work in silos in order to achieve the impact that we’re looking for.’

I know Farzana talks about building solidarity and a community of belonging. I asked her to share some ways she thinks that organisations can do that.

‘There are several different causes that span multiple employee research groups. One I can think of is, as I mentioned, is with the black community and the Asian community, there are a number of different issues that both groups are facing. Rather than feeling like there’s a competition over attention to these different matters, why not join together and do a panel on this, or to look at how the communities are affected in totality? That could also include the Latino Latina Latinx community for example.

Another example I give is that we’ve seen in the military, how LGBTQ+ rights have been challenged, and I’ve seen veterans ERGs, who are in the military or former military, be a part of movements to support LGBTQ+ people and vice versa. So that is a great way to show not only solidarity but some active engagement around issues that affect groups together.

If we can think about it that way it’s limitless really, right? If we think about gender and the different issues that we’re facing around our civil rights, and how we can come together and support women professionals, people returning to the workplace after parental leave, or even young professionals who are joining the workplace for the first time. Or if we’re talking about ability and disability, how those things come up with neurodiversity. Those are aspects of inclusion that really need looking at more closely because sometimes they’re overlooked because we often look at a couple of the different groups at the forefront.’

I remember I watched a Netflix documentary about the disability rights movement over in the States. It was in the 1960s, I think. What was interesting was how disability rights advocates collaborated with the ethnicity rights movement as well and how each community supported one another, and how the black community supported disabled people to get more rights in the US.

They had a very collaborative approach and helped each other out, which I thought was really cool. I mean, running ERGs in organisations isn’t always plain sailing. I mentioned some of my clients who find that managers don’t always give people the time to get engaged in networks because there are other priorities maybe. One of their KPIs is their billability with clients, and that takes precedent. For some clients there’s a lot of momentum at the beginning, and then things tend to kind of fizzle out. I know that Farzana talks about this in the book, around all the best practices and pitfalls, but I wondered what her advice is for overcoming some of the most common challenges for ERGs?

‘I think the first step is identifying what the issues are. I believe that there’s always a solution. Let’s take the example given around billing and time and members of ERGs being challenged to have their hours up on billing client-facing work. I’ve actually seen an ERG pledge time back to the organisation. So, they have a set budget and then any time an employee research group member or leader utilises time towards the ERG, then it gets taken down to the bank and put back into the organisation. So, it’s interesting that that was a solution, but they came up with it because they really needed to.

I’ve seen this with consulting organisations, let’s say an architectural firm and different types of client-facing organisations do that. I think it is a creative process. Now, someone could say, “Well, shouldn’t the organisation just comp all of that?” Well, they can, but they still at the end of the day have metrics and calculations, and we don’t want the employee to be harmed, or their department to be harmed, right? I thought that was a great solution.

There are also a ton of other solutions around how much time is being spent and who’s doing what. I’ve seen different leaders and organisations rotate responsibilities. Maybe there are term limits or caps on who’s doing what. I think, again, if we surface what those issues are, then they can be dealt with and have a solution around them. It’s a great way to model having dialogue while finding a way forward together.

It is a simple solution and at the same time, I’m sure it took a lot of creative influence in order to get the different parts of the organisation to agree on this model. If you think about it, it affects so many different departments, so we need that collaboration, awareness and that key commitment from leaders that this is important. The executives need to understand why this dynamic is occurring, someone’s got to also do the formulaic representation of the equation of the hours. Part of it is all the different people that need to be involved, which is one of the Ps in the five Ps.’

Farzana’s penultimate chapter of her book is called ‘ERGs as Opportunities, Cultivating Creativity and Growth’. Obviously, this is the Inclusive Growth podcast, and it’s based on my book, ‘Inclusive Growth’, where I basically try and reframe diversity and inclusion to be an enabler of growth for organisations. So given that quite neat synchronicity there between us. I asked Farzana for her thoughts around creativity and growth, and in particular, inclusive growth?

‘There are two parts to it. I talk about in that chapter and throughout the book that ERGs are the sandbox of possibility. It’s where you can play and experiment and have the creative juices flow with low risk and support of the organisation through many different aspects of it. So that’s one part of it, but I think inclusive growth comes from within. I’ve seen how the journey of personal development really mirrors an organisation’s inclusive development, and we need to have both at the same time in order to have that ultimate success. I encourage people to not only identify the different parts of their identity that are part of being privileged or marginalised, but also how we can come together and build community as allies and members of each demographic.’

To find out more about Farzana Nayani’s books and work you can get in touch in a few different ways. There’s her LinkedIn page as well as a new website called ergdynamics.com where people can sign up for news and download an excerpt of the book as a free giveaway. The website will grow to become a hub for community, resources, tools. You can also buy Farzana’s most recent book in different formats here.

Employee Resource Groups: The Time is Now - Mildon