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Dynamics of Employee Resource Groups: Investigating the Experiences of their Leaders
Steven Schlachter
PhD student; Research Assistant
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Skylar Rolf
PhD student; Research Assistant
University of Nebrsaka-Lincoln
Theresa M. Welbourne, PhD*
FirsTier Banks Distinguished Professor of Business
University of Nebraska-Lincoln and
Affiliated Research Scientist, Center for Effective Organizations
University of Southern Callifornia
*Dr. Welbourne is the corresponding author.,
+1-402-472-3353, 1320 Q Street, Lincoln, NE 68508
Organizations are often forced to react to external stimuli or jolts. A key environmental
jolt, the race riots of the 1960s, created a situation in which organizations were forced to respond
to growing concerns about equality. One of the innovative solutions that emerged was affinity
groups, which was the precursor to Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). However, despite the
long-standing existence of both affinity groups and ERGs, they are not well understood, and
there is very little research on these organizations. In order to move scholarly work forward on
the topic of ERGs, we introduce a study focused on the leaders of these groups. We conduct
interviews with ten ERG leaders working in three different organizations. The research deploys a
subjectivist interpretive perspective to shed insight into the dynamics of the leader roles and their
ERG work. Through this process we find and describe five key themes of interest: (1) The first
topic explores the role of leadership - A Mixture of Hierarchy and Grass-Roots, (2) ERG Purpose
is Not Singular, (3) Finding Their Place, (4) Time Is Short, and (5) ERG Success Starts and Ends
at the Organizational Level. Additionally, we propose avenues for future research and provide a
definition of ERGs that reflects the findings of both the literature and ERG respondent insights
so others may continue this investigation.
Employee resource groups (ERGs), diversity and inclusion, human resource management
Prior event studies have demonstrated that organizations often are forced to respond to
external stimuli that presents a threat to their continued survival. For example, the scandals
involving Enron and WorldCom have created organizational changes as firms have had to adapt
to the requirements of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act (Barney, 2005). Organizations essentially
have two choices when responding to these external events, or ‘jolts’, defined as “transient
perturbations whose occurrence is difficult to foresee and whose impacts…are disruptive…”
(Meyer, 1982: 515). The first is to use a rule-bound approach in which an organization invests
itself in existing routines and processes. However, new circumstances can lead these routines to
be dysfunctional (Marcus, 1988). Alternatively, organizations can use the jolt as a spark to
embrace a new outlook. In this way, the external stimuli can act as an impetus to incite
innovation (Van de Ven, 1986). We argue that one important event in the 1960s inspired an
innovational approach that largely has been ignored by researchers despite continued prevalence
in firms today (Friedman & Craig, 2004). Specifically, in response to the race riots in 1964,
Xerox Corporation established a group of employees (named the ‘Black Caucus’) to “address the
issues of overt discrimination and agitate for a fair and equitable corporate environment”
(Douglas, 2008: 12).
Over the years the terminology for the groups has evolved from caucuses and affinity groups
to network groups and employee resource groups. They have also have moved beyond only
focusing on racial issues and recently have been described as “a gathering space within the
workplace for employees who share a social identity” (Scully, 2009: 76). However, ERGs are
much more than a gathering place as noted by the more comprehensive definition provided by
Kaplan, Sabin, & Smaller-Swift (2009: 1). The authors describe ERGs as “…groups of
employees in an organization formed to act as a resource for both members and the organization.
ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups that can have a few members or a few thousand.”
Unlike the caucus established by Xerox Corporation, ERGs that are present in firms today may
focus on any one of an array of diversity and inclusion issues, such as gender, sexual orientation,
professional background, and life stage (Mercer, 2011; Kaplan et al., 2009). Organizations that
have ERGs provide a place for their employees to feel included, which can have numerous
positive benefits for the individual (Shore, Randel, Chung, Dean, Ehrhart, & Singh, 2011).
However, ERGs are more than a group where employees can find acceptance and inclusion.
ERGs may also have specific missions that they work towards, whether that be to act as an
advocate about a specific issue or to serve as a resource for the organization (Kravitz, 2008;
McGrath & Sparks, 2005; Van Aken, Monetta, & Sink, 1994). For example, an ERG at
Prudential helped the firm by partnering with the marketing department to form a more cohesive
marketing strategy “across all markets”. Similarly, ERGs are seen as a way to add value to the
marketing done by Best Buy (Jennifer Brown Consulting, 2010). ERGs are also considered to be
“thriving” (Mercer, 2011) and are so prevalent at Nationwide that their diversity and inclusion
lead officer declared “everyone knows about [ERGs]…[and] what they should be used for and
not used for” (Jennifer Brown Consulting, 2010: 19). In sum, both the increasingly widespread
prevalence of ERGs as well as the ways they add value to their organizations suggests that these
groups are important to firms.
Despite their growth and importance, ERGs are a relatively understudied phenomenon.
Much of the literature on ERGs has been presented as historical reviews (e.g., Baillie & Gedro,
2009; Briscoe & Safford, 2010), has focused on a single organization of interest, or has housed
discussion in the context of a single type of group (e.g., LGBT). While this work is valuable, it is
important to understand how ERGs operate across organizations and across group types to better
understand their purposes and goals. Finally, it is critical to assess how those purposes and goals
arise out of individual sentiments and opinions. Given the lack of research about ERGs, the
purpose of this paper is to learn about ERGs and the leadership systems that they employ. We
seek to shed light on this phenomenon through an exploratory qualitative study using semi-
structured interview techniques. Although we commenced this paper with an initial working
definition of ERGs to provide context, given the discrepancies in current definitions and our own
findings here across multiple organizations, we would like to offer a new, more comprehensive
definition immediately to provide context for the reader and provide insight into the rest of this
Employee resource groups (ERGs) are organizationally-sanctioned groups built around a certain
set of shared attributes (e.g., demographic, identity, and attitude). Although staffed largely by
volunteers of the organization participating outside traditional work hours, additional
organizational members can provide direction and oversight; ERGs can therefore have either a
hierarchical or flat structure, depending on specific organizational systems. ERGs participate in
a wide variety of activities and goals, including, but not limited to: networking, recruitment,
retention, organizational change initiatives, and knowledge dispersion.
Upon conducting the study, five key themes emerged that illustrate a more complete
understanding of the overall phenomenon that help illustrate our choice of wording in this
In this study, we interviewed ten ERG leaders from three different companies. Each
company operates in a different industry (technology, communication, and utility), is publicly
traded, has an average of 30,000 employees, and averaged $19 billion in total revenue for their
most recent fiscal year. The ERGs varied in identity and included but were not limited to groups
focused on ethnicity, age group, and gender. The respondents were roughly split between male
and female. One of the authors, who had previous connections with these organizations,
contacted the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer in each firm, and that individual referred the
team to the individual in HR who was responsible for ERGs. The HR / ERG manager agreed to
participate, and that individual then forwarded an email and information packet to current ERG
leaders who then volunteered to participate. The researcher then set-up times that for the
interviews. The sessions focused on three distinct groupings of questions, and the discussion
lasted roughly 45 minutes per participant. The interviews were standardized, (Fowler, 1991;
Fowler & Mangione, 1990) and we used neutral probing techniques when the respondent
requested clarification (Schober & Conrad, 1997) so as to not introduce our own knowledge of
the ERG system onto the respondents. However, if individuals still struggled with the meaning of
a question, the interviewer would assist as needed.
In addition, to make the respondent feel at ease, the interviewer participated in a form of
conversationally flexible interviewing in which some ordinary conversation was allowed to
develop that made sure that full information was gathered to avoid inaccuracies (Suchman &
Jordan, 1990). Given the trade-offs discussed by Schober & Conrad (1997), we determined that
this approach provided both a way to interpret the data across multiple individuals while not
minimizing the opportunity for the respondent to form their own narrative. Besides the
connection to the original points of contact, the interviewers were not personally connected with
any of the respondents, reducing the potential for ethical conflict (Jarvie, 1969). In line with
previous research (e.g., Bansal & Roth, 2000; Brown, Sorrell, McClaren, & Creswell, 2006;
Mantere, Schildt, & Sillince, 2012), interviews were audiotaped and were transcribed. Although
the names of the participants and their organizations were in the initial coded documents, they
were removed by the original author who collected the data prior to the viewing by the additional
Following the steps of Braun, Clarke, & Terry (2014), it is important to understand our
ontological and epistemological frameworks that underlie the use of thematic analysis. Given our
desire to understand Employee Resource Groups from the ERG leaders’ viewpoint, we employ a
subjectivist, interpretive perspective, which seeks “to understand the actual production of
meanings and concepts used by social actors in real setting” (Gephart, 2004: 457). This
perspective allows us to draw upon the constructed realities of our interviewees to share an
authentic, integrated story about what it means to be an ERG leader (Cunliffe, 2010) and helps
“fill in the gaps between theory and practice” (Lincoln, Lynham, & Guba, 2011: 106). To
accurately do so, this approach requires researchers to be participants in the research process
while acknowledging that our own experiences and previously gained knowledge will influence
our interpretation of the data (Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Lincoln et al., 2011).
Due to the importance of rigor in qualitative research (Creswell & Miller, 2000), all
researchers initially went through the comments individually to create an overarching impression
of the data at hand to understand the contents and truly immerse themselves in the data, while
still retaining distance (Braun et al., 2014). The researchers then independently created short
annotated notes of the core meaning, or codes that conveyed the “key idea in the data without the
researcher needing to see the data themselves” (Braun et al., 2014: 100), for the first fifty
comments. As a midpoint check, fifteen of these first fifty responses were chosen at random and
discussed in detail amongst the coders. Once these annotations were completed, the researchers
constructed a codebook of five themes. The researchers then deliberated once again to ensure
that all themes were relevant to the research question and demonstrated consistency in
The following five themes were identified: A Mixture of Hierarchy and Grass-Roots,
ERG Purpose is Not Singular, Finding Their Place, Time Is Short, and ERG Success Starts and
Ends at the Organizational Level. Below each of these themes is investigated in more detail,
incorporating direct quotations from the respondents where possible.
ERG Leadership: A Mixture of Hierarchy and Grass-Roots
The current literature on ERGs notes that they use voluntary leadership systems run by
organizational group members (Bowie & Bronte-Tinkew, 2006; Friedman & Craig, 2004;
McGrath & Sparks, 2005; Van Aken et al., 1994) with formalized member roles (Bowie &
Bronte-Tinkew, 2006; McGrath & Sparks, 2005; Van Aken et al., 1994). However, the exact
structure is rarely described in much detail. Thus, we asked respondents to describe the structure
of their network. Surprisingly, despite the discussion of the importance of a horizontal system
(McGrath & Sparks, 2005; Van Aken et al., 1994), ERGs actually had a rather complex
hierarchical system.
Although the structure certainly varied by organization, almost all the ERG leaders spoke
of a steering committee. This steering committee often included “executive sponsors” or
“chairs”, which were terms developed to describe some of the senior leaders in the organization
who assisted with that specific group, as well as the representative from the Human Resource
(HR) department. The group also had presidents, leaders, or co-chairs (terms used for roles
varied by company). These individuals are those that are more directly inside the group and
assist in the running of general activities. Specifically, the interviewees often provided the
impression that the steering committee was largely responsible for assisting with vision, while
the leaders and co-chairs, having internalized that vision, realized it through specific action.
These actions were divided up amongst the co-chairs, or similar termed individuals, who would
gain a grouping of responsibilities. One interviewee describes this in more detail:
“I’m a co-lead for the group overall and then we, we set up three different focuses. One
for employee development, one for community development and one around business
development and then we have leads for each of those…”
Through this system, the individual members are able to delegate the specific tasks that
need to be accomplished to certain individuals, who can further utilize other group members as
needed. Given the inherent time constraints that an ERG presents to the group leaders, this
seemed like not only a rational, but a necessary component of ERG structure. In addition, the
structure appeared necessary in order to provide ‘point of contacts’ for inviting guest speakers
and providing performance data to organizational members.
Despite the hierarchical model that would suggest a deliberate company-wide plan
directed from the top-down, interviewed leaders often spoke of the tremendous growth that the
group had undergone over the last few years despite relatively minimal interest initially. This
often was spoken of as a notable accomplishment, as leaders often remarked on the few dozen
original founders. In reality, the majority of participants appeared to be attracted through word-
of-mouth, the organization’s internal networking site, or organizational member
communications. One respondent remarked, when asked about how they attract new members:
“It’s a lot of right now…I would say it’s a lot of word of mouth and references so like for
example I think we had said earlier that we have about 160 members and we’re planning
our first kick-off event for this year so it’s a matter of getting that word out to get people
to attend.”
However, perhaps what best exemplified the grass-roots portion of this system was the
rationale behind the leader’s choice to become participating members. In interviewing these
individuals it became clear that there were largely two types of individuals who ascended to the
position of ERG leader. The first type was in many ways typical to a general idealized
conceptualization of a leader. They often spoke of how being a leader was ‘in their DNA’ or that
it was a ‘natural tendency’. These respondents spoke of having been ‘inspired to start or help
establish the ERG because they had been members at other organizations previously, had seen
the success at the current company, or just wanted to promote the importance of diversity where
they felt it wasn’t being recognized.
The other group are best termed reluctant leaders, a phrase specifically employed by one
respondent, who said:
“…I’d be happy to work with her on coming up with some ideas and she pitched it to me
and I initially declined um, because I have issues with over commitment…”
These leaders were often resistant to the idea of taking on the added responsibility or did
so only because others had left and no other individual was willing to assume the role. Other
reluctant leaders understood the internal and external pressures to develop themselves. They
therefore saw the ERGs as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills and show the ability to
craft a successful team. One individual remarked:
“…sometimes in the environment it’s just so busy that you kind of feel that you get thrown
to the walls and it’s kind of a sink or swim mentality now a days and so I think any
opportunity that you can have to develop yourself professionally and personally should
be taken so that was one of the reasons why I was really interested in being involved on
the leadership level is that in my current role I don’t have any direct reports. I manage
certain tactics but you know I’m not technically a manager so I wanted to take this
opportunity as a development, as a development role and a leadership role so I could
kind of hone that talent for my next step in my career.”
Finally, when prompted about how leaders were elected or appointed, almost all of them
referred to the importance of volunteering or ‘passing the baton’. Although they would often try
to take into consideration specific skills (if possible) and there were discussions of formalizing
the process, the leaders often just encouraged individuals who expressed interest. Thus, unlike
traditional team leadership positions, the push had to emerge directly from the individual
participant more often than formal systems.
ERG Purpose is Not Singular
The first employee resource group described by many authors who write about ERGs is
usually that of the Black Caucus at Xerox Corporation (Briscoe & Safford, 2010; Friedman &
Deinard, 1991; Scully, 2009) whose broader purpose was to seek equal opportunity and pay for
individuals of different racial groups (Scully, 2009). This purpose of attraction and retention was
still clearly evident in many of the ERGs’ missions, goals, and activities. For example, one
respondent stated that “in essence our goal is to attract, to engage, to develop, to promote, and
retain highly talented employees…and then the bottom line is to contribute to the success of [the
organization]”. However, although easily articulated, fostering this attraction and retention was
done through a variety of avenues.
A principle method for attracting and retaining, in the eyes of leaders, was through
programs designed to educate others on the culture and history of each group’s identity. These
educational moments manifested themselves at organizationally sponsored events or during
times that already reflected the importance of certain cultures (e.g., Black History month). One
respondent, speaking on behalf of a Latino ERG, discussed the importance of the World Cup.
Employees were welcome to watch the games as they played out. The ERG incorporated Sumba
dancers and giveaways from a sponsor to increase entertainment. While this may appear simply
as a way to increase employee morale, the ERG leader was adamant in articulating the
importance of these events as a way to showcase group culture. Ultimately, regardless of the
mechanism used, the purpose was clearly to create greater acceptance and understanding of
individual differences among groups and cultures. Although not always overtly stated, the
premise was that, by creating a more accepting and inclusive atmosphere, employees from
minority groups would feel drawn to the organization as a potential place of employment.
ERG leaders also sought to increase employee retention. One of the primary avenues for
accomplishing this was through ensuring career opportunities for members. While this partially
was done through webinars or events specific to an organization, each leader commonly spoke of
the importance of networking sessions. As discussed by one leader: “We know that networking
and you know sharing information back and forth is enormously important to each person’s
career opportunities”. In theory, ERGs are partially attractive because they allow members of an
organization to come together from different hierarchical levels and operate identically,
regardless of status (Connelly & Kelloway, 2003). Some leaders specifically pointed to the
participation of their organizational (firm level vs. ERG) executives leaders in events as key
accomplishments. Networking was emphasized as even more important inside extremely large
companies as an “opportunity to meet employees of various levels that you would normally not
meet”. The ERGs, they believe, can act as conduits for fostering communication and connections
amongst individuals that would have not been previously crafted otherwise. One ERG
specifically sought to highlight individuals that they felt were deserving of future recognition
through their future leaders’ event:
“…one of the biggest things that we’re going to be doing next year is we’re going to be
showcasing 12 future leaders which was a nomination process…every month of 2015
we’ll…be showcasing one person who has been nominated by their peers or their boss
and selected by the board and they’ll be completely anonymous so it’ll really be based on
merit only which is kind of exciting…and it’s just really giving us kind of an opportunity
to highlight someone who’s up and coming in the company, someone to keep your eye on
and then also just give recognition where they may not, they may not be a, given
recognition on a larger scale.”
While networking was often spoken of as a system to create connections for future
collaboration or promotion opportunities, it was also seen as a way to integrate individuals
amongst others so that they increased their own personal social network. This was evidenced by
the additional use of monthly luncheons and more general social events outside the work arena.
While many events designed for benefitting the ERG population were presented by the ERG
leaders and members themselves, they also recognized the importance of outside informants for
inspiring ERG members. For example, three respondents discussed the use of guest speakers.
Although the goal was to “bring in someone…that’s going to share information that’s really
going to benefit…our employee base”, they ranged in topic from “gender diversity” to “stress
management” in an effort to offer general advice to all participating members.
ERGs were also seen as groups that could incite fundamental change to the organization
to assist current members. To them, while education was important to fostering acceptance, key
changes at the organizational level were also needed. For example, an LGBT leader spoke about
policy changes implemented through the discussions of their ERG:
“We had some significant policy changes in order to get there that we worked with our
HR department internally so we added, so we had to, we had to amend our non-
discrimination policy to add gender identity and gender expression. We had to sort of
update our parity within our benefits so that we provide equality for domestic partners
and same-sex spouses or same-sex domestic partners and same-sex spouses so you know
401K hardship withdraw, death benefits, all that is on par for everybody. We started the
group, the added ERG group um, let’s see, what else did we do? Oh, we have
transgender health benefits, um we all of our training incorporates positive portrayals of
LGBT people”
Finally, ERGs also sought to benefit those other than themselves. Almost all the leaders
remarked about their various community outreach programs and some rearticulated their benefit
when discussing their group’s greatest accomplishments. To them it was almost seen as a
responsibility, given their ability to incite change, to give back. One respondent remarked that
All of us have been fortunate in life and we want to make sure we step back and look back and
try to pull some of the folks that maybe not are quite where we are just yet”. These activities
ranged in purpose, from “spending time with high school and junior high school programs” to
collecting holiday gifts for “children that…might not otherwise receive a…gift” as well as
charity events like AIDS walk” or collecting “items for the troops”. Ultimately, although each
ERG usually participated in a host of similar activities, the actual tasks completed ranged
depending on the ERG itself, the issues facing the group, and the larger organization.
Finding Their Place
The theme of ‘Finding Their Place’ refers to the inherent struggle that ERG leaders often
felt towards maintaining alignment with their own true values and systems while appeasing
organizational desires for accountability and tangible benefits. This theme was almost removed
due to similarities to the previous and some of the following themes. However, upon further
reflection, we thought that this theme contained enough supportive content and individual value
that it should be identified in its own right.
To provide context, a recent trend in ERGs has been the transition to what we call
Business Resource Groups (BRGs). While the term BRG has existed in itself as another term for
the ERG (e.g., similar to the term ‘affinity group’ or ‘employee network group’), we have
adopted the term as a construct to represent recent practitioner articles that have suggested the
need to re-brand the ERG as one that is a resource for providing value to the organization itself
(e.g., Llopis, 2012). In interviews, the researchers used the term ‘Business Resource Group’ and
then provided a definition to correspond with this trend to assess its validity in the minds of
respondents, of which the majority understood our questioning without any additional
elaboration required. While the previous discussion may lead the reader to the conclusion that the
majority of activities ERGs participate in are ultimately beneficial to the organization as a whole,
the absence of metrics has led to an inability to provide inarguable proof. Ideally, through these
groups, BRGs should be able to provide clear articulated results to employers that demonstrate
an added value.
Some of our respondents were completely accepting of this perceived transition and
believed that their ERG already had many of the qualities that represented a successful BRG. To
some of them no activity was worth arranging if it did not provide a direct link to the bottom line
of the organization. One respondent remarked:
“…from my standpoint we’ve always been focused on or part of our mission has always
been focused on that business opportunity and um, looking at the…group or community
as an affinity group and how do we reach out to them and make money for the company.
You know using this, using diversity as a strategic advantage so I think that’s always been
part of our mission. I think it’s interesting that there’s you know been this shift in thinking
that ERGs are going to be turning in to BRGs since from my standpoint I’ve, I’ve always
thought about it, that as a part of our, part of our mission.”
Others admitted that they weren’t quite there yet, but that “it’s definitely a 2015 goal and
objective”. To them, the transition to BRG was accepted, as in their minds they believed that
their group was already providing a fundamental value to the organization. This does not mean
that they were all necessarily working towards providing an identical output however. When
asked about how their group could best provide value to the organization, the responses were
varied. While previous goals and values such as helping with recruitment and supporting
diversity and inclusion goals were still mentioned, others articulated a specific focus on helping
with organizational innovation by acting “as a sounding board”. Explained in an example, one
respondent remarked:
“You know I think that if you, if you’re in the position where you can help your
organization beta cast a new concept or pilot a new idea and if you’re ERG could help
the firm do, do that it would, it would really make your ERG look cool and be cool. I met
an ERG from a different company at this conference in July who had created a product
for the company to sell during a specific month and they actually generated revenue for
the company by doing so.”
Others, however, were less accepting of this transition to Business Resource Groups. In
their mind, this focus on organizational outcomes meant that clear, tangible benefits had to be
demonstrated to the firm’s performance. Rather, they argued, value could be found in less
traditional avenues, such as by impacting perceptions of work/life balance or individual attitudes.
The value of the ERG wasn’t necessarily evident in the short-term, but rather could have more
distant long-range relationships with organizational success. As remarked by one respondent:
“I think that we’re able to get our employees to share new thought trends for themselves
to again, to think of, to realize ideas that they had not thought possible and that’s where I
think we’re benefiting our employee base…I’m not sure that we’re a Business Resource
Group that the company can come to us and help sell more…but I do think that we’re
helping the company…because we’re creating more engaged employees and more
leaders from our employees.”
Throughout our interviews it became evident that individuals were struggling with their
own perceptions of the ERG value. The leaders expressly understood that, in order to remain in
existence and stay affiliated with the organization, it was important to provide clear business
results and report them. However, leaders also desired simply to help develop people so that they
could more successfully move up the corporate ladder, or help the organization exist in a more
inclusive environment. Much of this related to the perceived reach that these leaders felt their
group had. To some, the ERG was a system to help a certain sub-group inside the larger
organizational population. To others, the ERG and the advances that it provided were simply a
starting point for affecting the larger overall community. Reconciling these multiple stakeholders
was a constant process, but a potentially rewarding one, as summarized by one ERG leader:
“You know, I work 12 to 15 hours a day so it’s not like, you know I’m doing this, I’m
doing this because I have extra time. It’s because I love doing it. I love to give back to
the community. I love to work. I like to help people grow within the company.”
Time Is Short
Regardless of how positive the leaders were about their expected contributions from ERG
involvement both at the individual-, group-, and organizational-level, there was always a
generalized concern about the inherent limitations of time. None of the leaders were specifically
hired to coordinate or lead an ERG; rather, they were voluntary organizational members who
adapted the added responsibility in their own time, congruent with the previous literature
(Friedman & Craig, 2004; Kaplan et al., 2009). However, this does not mean that these leaders
took this consideration lightly. Rather, limited resources, namely in time, often affected their
decision to participate and lead.
Half of the respondents considered time management to be the single largest challenge of
helping to run an ERG. One respondent remarked “…we don’t have time and since the ERG is
not…part of your normal job function you’ve got to find a few minutes where you have spare to
fit it in and that doesn’t always work depending upon what’s going on…”. This issue with time
management was especially juxtaposed with the demands of the current job and specifically with
the desires of the immediate supervisor. Because of this concern, some respondents suggested
that it is important to create expectations early about ERG participation with the direct manager.
One respondent remarked, in regard to their supervisor, that “he knows the importance of this
work with this company so he’s really supportive of what I’m doing but that’s a lot of time out of
your day job so if you’re not in agreement with your manager on how important this is overall
it’s really difficult to um, have the facilities to invest in the time in doing this work.” While most
understood the importance of communicating prior to joining, some joined regardless of
considerations, but suffered when opinions did not align. As remarked by one respondent:
“…one of the issues as far as leading the group…it’s good and bad because my
immediate boss couldn’t care less if I was really you know participating in such a goal.
You know he wants me to spend 100% of time on you know the projects, right? On what
he’s responsible for and what I’m responsible for in my day job. Unfortunately he doesn’t
see the importance of an ERG…”
This constant balance between ERG participation and traditional job requirements often
resulted in decreased attention to the former, despite the leader’s best wishes. To them, the ERG
could be “a full time position” and they have to constantly remind themselves that “that’s not my
job”. Individuals thus would create certain conditions for themselves in order to manage the time
effectively, deciding either to do ERG things “on [their] own personal time” or choosing to come
in “early or leave late” or “get [their] work done and make time to see the different initiatives”.
Yet, even when leaders seemed to indicate that they understood the time commitments
prior to choosing to participate, their expectations were often not completely accurate, especially
when considering metrics of success, as evidenced by one respondent:
“It takes more time than I expected it would take…I would say that there is rarely any
business day where I don’t have to devote a portion of it to my ERG and before I started
an ERG I can’t say that I had any extra time to fit that in so trying to make yourself better
and yourself more efficient is…is advice I would give to anyone considering a leadership
role in an ERG and you can’t lose that focus.”
Largely as a resultant of this compression of time, individuals discussed the importance
of having “the passion for it because when it is something that is coming out of your free time
and your personal time you want to make sure that it is something you’re enthusiastic about and
not…not something that you’re either going to resent or feel burdened about later”. To
compensate for this issue, respondents called for quickly finding individuals to delegate
responsibility to. To them, this was not only a matter of convenience, but one that was inherently
necessary given their already stretched time limitations in performing essential job functions in
conjunction with ERG responsibilities.
ERG Success Starts and Ends at the Organizational Level
Although the previous section discussed the importance of direct managerial support in
the ERG leadership process, participants felt that ERG success was also contingent on overall
organizational support. Although the ERGs often had grass-roots beginnings, they still required
commitment from the top management team in order to succeed. Specifically, ERG leaders often
spoke of the need for these members to participate in meetings or to “to jump on a call every
now and then and announce that he or she is on the call or unannounced so that they can hear
some of the, just the raw grass-roots data and things that are important to the employees that
make this company run”. Yet, this does not mean that they never participated – rather, a group of
respondents expressed CEO involvement or awareness among senior leaders as one of their
proudest accomplishments.
Even when organizations did have top level support, it did not mean that the positive
ERG sentiment permeated throughout the entire ranks. As discussed by an ERG leader below:
“You know we have kind of a disconnect here and it’s probably true at other companies.
Our senior most leaders…sort of CEO and C-suite leaders are very supportive. Where
we run into challenges is more the like first, first line leadership level where to them it’s
more an issue of control of people’s time and not seeing the full benefit and value of
someone going to a lunchtime meeting, hearing a speaker with interesting ideas that they
can bring back to their department and also forming relationships with people across the
company that brings them also new ideas and helps them do their jobs better. That’s been
a challenge.”
But having top management support was described as more than just a process in which
the team gave ERGs the power to operate. Rather, some respondents remarked or implied that
the top management team had ingrained in them a level of legitimacy that allowed their future
conversations to hold meaning. For example, one respondent described how they had received an
article written in a newspaper from a number of fellow employees that described the difficulties
that women face in organizations. She ultimately decided to start a dialogue about the article
itself because she felt that the CEO had endorsed the group and provided her the clearance to
provide that conversation.
ERGs were largely started as a diversity initiative to recruit and retain minority
employees (Scully, 2009). However, the research here has shown that they now participate in a
number of goals and objectives, including networking, creating cultural understanding, inciting
organizational change, and the original intent of recruitment and retaining. In addition, although
research has articulated that they can begin at the corporate level (Douglas, 2008), our research
argues that it is a combination approach that requires both volunteer demand (e.g., Friedman &
Craig, 2004; Kaplan et al., 2009) and top-management support not only to be created, but to
thrive. Finally, the research reported suggests that ERG leaders suffer from a shortage of time
reinforced through managerial expectations.
As research on the topic moves forward, there are still many more facets of the ERG to
explore. Recently, organizations have started trending towards what is termed a Business
Resource Group (BRG) as discussed earlier. Although the interviews here showed some small
deviations about the influence the organization had on ERG missions, activities, and goals, there
may be a transformation forthcoming in which organizations have greater influence. This context
of transformation is important to investigate. Although we have alluded to research on all three
throughout this paper, it may also be fruitful to examine how ERGs have evolved previously, as
terms such as ‘Employee Network Group’ (Friedman, Kane, & Cornfield, 1998) and ‘Affinity
Group’ (Douglas, 2008) tended to be more prevalent. Future research should seek to remain
constantly vigilant about how power and influence may impact ERG design, systems, and the
definition that best describes them.
Research may wish to investigate how the type of ERG may influence members and
provide variance in outcomes. Previous research has suggested a typology of ERGs (Welbourne
& McLaughlin, 2013). For example, professional-focused ERGs are likely to bring together
members who wish to personally benefit from their membership and thus may be more apt to
provide developmental opportunities rather than focusing on organizational change initiatives. As
discussed in our research, given the many objectives each ERG operates under, there should be a
number of factors worthy of investigation, regardless of specific typology. However, this
typology may help to provide preliminary understanding of what variables should be
investigated. It will be important to first conduct qualitative interviews or investigative methods
in order to ensure that the outcome metric is relevant given the various ERG objectives.
Similarly, ERGs were traditionally based on demographic characteristics that represented
certain subsets of the organizational population. Although these groups were often small initially,
such as the first Black ERGs, their numbers eventually rose since their mission was largely to
recruit and retain (MacGillivray & Golden, 2007). However, as ERGs gain in popularity, they are
becoming increasingly more specialized and focused on issues such as beliefs and ideologies
(Mercer, 2011). As these attitudes and beliefs are largely hidden or difficult to detect amongst
strangers, it is potentially more difficult to recruit to these specific groups through traditional
word-of-mouth communication. Therefore, the type of ERG likely dictates the number of
available members. In addition, since ERGs are inherently composed of individuals from an
organization across many business-units, they can rely on member’s abilities for the formalized
roles characteristic of ERGs (Bowie & Bronte-Tinkew, 2006; McGrath & Sparks, 2005; Van
Aken, et al., 1994) such as marketing or management of the group. Therefore, the type of ERG
may also affect the amount of skills from which each ERG is able to draw on to further group
effectiveness and future research should investigate how that phenomenon may influence related
Due to the purpose of this paper we have omitted some discussion, mentioned by a few
respondents, that management may view ERGs as a pathway to unionization. The literature on
ERGs does suggest that this is a potential concern of management in these organizations in
allowing the social groups to exist (Friedman, 1996; Friedman & Craig, 2004) and even some
definitions of the groups take pause to point out their operation “outside the jurisdiction of
collective bargaining laws” (Briscoe & Safford, 2010: 1). While we have largely omitted
discussion on this topic, future research may wish to explore how management fears of
unionization practices may impact potential ERG outcomes and membership.
In conclusion, this paper sought to shed light on the phenomenon of ERGs, specifically
from the viewpoint of leaders. Through the results of our exploratory qualitative study, we
contribute by expanding the literature on ERGs and revealing a greater understanding of how
leaders of these groups view both the structure and the purpose ERGs serve. While not
comprehensive, our research here acts as a starting point for the future investigation of ERGs
across organizations. Clearly, ERGs are filled with diverse individuals that are influenced by
multiple stakeholders that ultimately impact the purpose and goals of the group. Future studies
are needed to empirically test hypotheses related to both the nature of ERGs and the outcomes
they produce. As organizations continue to incorporate ERGs into their structure, research will
need to further illuminate their trends and directions.
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