Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a critical and important part of any corporate Diversity, Equity & Inclusion program. They encourage employee engagement, offer a place to build trusting relationships, increase retention, and encourage mentorships that spur career growth. However, ERG leaders can often suffer from burnout, especially those founding and pioneering the group. Here we examine five key ways to avoid founding ERG leader burnout and creating successful and sustainable ERGs.
Why is burnout so common among founding ERG leaders? Founding members of ERG’s are often passionate about creating a community space where belonging is exemplified. This often creates urgency and can be a stressor. Stephanie Trevino, CEO of Inflection and veteran ERG founder of a multinational large organization suggests starting with a pilot group, “start slow and think sustainability and scalability”. But that’s sometimes difficult to do. So founding members may surge to build employee engagement, which requires event planning, monthly programming and editorial calendars for communication and content. Depending on the size of the business, this can fall on the ERG leaders themselves.
Second, founding ERG leaders are usually individuals who volunteer their time and energy to programming, organizing, and developing the ERG in addition to their regular work, and often without guaranteed remuneration. While passion is often the impetus for starting the ERG, these founders may have little framework to establish what success looks like, and may aim higher than the company’s expectations, or, may aim higher than the company is prepared to support. They may also underestimate the planning and efforts needed to develop a large-scale program at a corporation. Burnout can happen quickly and can have downstream impact to their job role as well.
While every organization is different, there are five things any organization can do to ensure sustainable success for founding ERG leaders and the ERGs they lead:
Most ERGs will have an executive sponsor, someone in executive leadership who supports, promotes and encourages ERG planning and promotion. However, true executive support goes beyond that. It means the majority of the executive team attends important kick-off meetings, contributes content and has visible and vocal allyship. Not only does this offer clear support from the top, but an ability for the founding ERG leaders to have visibility and direct engagement with the executive team.
Employee Resource Groups and recruiting programs are not the only aspects of a DEI program. A DEI Council, comprised of a transdisciplinary group of individuals across the organization’s functions, geographies and management levels, exists in the organization to support policy, advocacy, education and organizational awareness. This multi-functional council can act as a megaphone and adoption program for the ERGs leaders. This council can also act as a way to recruit additional volunteer support for specific events and programming.
Employee Resource Groups are often started by passionate members of the community. These individuals may have many ideas and high expectations for what they want to achieve. Set expectations early and let the founding ERG leaders know that this is a multi-year and long-term effort. Focus on a few key months or days that highlight the community, and consider a goal for the year that keeps the focus achievable. This is especially important for smaller organizations or if the pace of change in an organization is high, where volunteers will have less predictable time to devote.
Focus on the Why & the Who
One of the heavier lifts for an ERG is content and programming. Commemorative days, history months and the awareness months often lead to programming for a broad audience. For organizations in early stages of DEI, founding ERG leaders may feel the burden of building content and programming to support the whole organization’s education. This cannot be the role of the ERG. First, laying the burden of diversity education on a resource group is misplaced and belongs on the organization’s DEI leaders and top-level organizational commitment. Second, this directly and consistently exposes the ERG leaders to any resistance and aggressions in the organization and exploits the very members of the community that the ERG seeks to support. By encouraging the founding ERG leaders to focus their content and communication “by the community and for the community,” it can narrow the aperture and keep the effort in supporting and engaging the community.
Before executing that big partnership contract with a national community, or focusing on gathering all the funds for that keynote speaker, survey the community and get a sense of what is important to them. Small efforts to support and reflect individuality can make a big difference – technology that enables a social media-like environment at work for the community, even a virtual cocktail hour once a month may be enough to start.
The beautiful thing about creating a community is that engagement can be simple. The founding ERG leaders may be as equally surprised that small acts make big changes. Community members may be satisfied by the simple, powerful act of being encouraged to bring their whole authentic self to a space where folks like them, from all levels of the organization, see them and support them.
About the Author
Sarah Ratcliffe, CIC, SPHR, a VP in Product Management at Applied Systems, also leads the company’s new LGBTQIA Employee Resource Group and is a founding member of the company’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Council. Her passion is to see folks excel at work and help everyone recognize that happens best when everyone can be their authentic selves. In Sarah’s spare time she’s a writer, dancer and choreographer and runs a social enterprise that focuses on using accessible movement as a source of fitness, liberation and resistance.
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