Throughout my years of experience in employee resource groups (ERGs), when organizations devised structures for ERG development and management, I’ve come to notice behavior quite troubling, in which employees rummage for opportunity instead of change. Such a motive reinforced itself within systems intentionally designed for power-grabbing, validating one’s false sense of importance, and disregarding the concept of intersectionality.
The Power Grab
I initially noticed that race-based ERGs tend to be the only ERGs with a leadership team representative of the identities it seeks to support. Beyond that, other ERGs were all White, with a few that saved a seat for their token employee of color.
Then, I came across groups of well-connected employees who held leadership roles in multiple ERGs while sitting on a diversity and inclusion (D&I) council made up of a never-ending hierarchy that diminished the creativity and power of ERGs. ERG monopolization resulted in a silent partnership because those who held numerous leadership roles were stretching themselves thin. This selfish behavior was detrimental not only to themselves but to their co-leads who might not have been as opportunistic and, most importantly, ERG members.
D&I councils lacked diversity and mainly included employees whose formal roles were human resources (HR), talent acquisition (TA), and outreach. Council members in traditional HR roles preoccupied themselves with ensuring they could check-off their D&I tasks for the quarter and report stale percentages on “all-hands” calls.
To avoid this type of approach to addressing D&I, councils should contain a healthy mix of HR and non-HR employees possessing diverse, intersectional identities. There should also be a rotating selection process established for both council and ERG leadership teams to avoid a resemblance to oligarchy.
Individuals seeking to sit on every D&I council or ERG leadership role leveraged their roles to justify why they needed to be the sole and frequent faces of company-wide initiatives whenever there were discussions in response to either internal or external injustices.
Unaware of how their presence looms over their peers in meetings, these individuals must be at the center of it all to make decisions on ERG engagements, funding, issues, etc. Yet, they are unwilling to be transparent and timely with information beneficial to ERGs. Nor do they consult ERGs for their experiences before creating company-wide events centered on those groups’ experiences.
These individuals validate their roles by behaving in non-collaborative ways and gaslighting non-opportunistic ERG leaders into believing their primary mission is D&I and nothing else.
The idea that race-based ERGs should address gender, disability, sexual orientation, and a range of other identities within the racial group to which an individual identifies is discriminatory. This thought process unwittingly suggests that all other groups are White spaces in which individuals of underrepresented racial groups must enter and by which they must abide.
As an example, and as someone who identifies as a disabled, Black woman, I’ve often defaulted to engaging in discussions about Black disability or Black female experiences within a Black ERG group. ERGs for disabled or female employees did not make a sincere effort to creating spaces where I felt comfortable sharing my intersectional experiences.
ERGs should have flexible leadership and dedicated liaisons to spend time connecting with other groups and maintaining relationships to foster safe spaces that address intersectionality. D&I councils should provide the tools and diverse thinking necessary to facilitate a system that genuinely tackles diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging. But when such individuals continuously and consistently focus their energy on “D&I politics” instead of prioritizing intersectionality, companies end up with a fragmented ERG structure that threatens the sole purpose of an ERG — the needs of its members.
When companies are looking to their fellow employees to solve their diversity issues but would blocklist an individual for speaking out and with frankness, it is challenging to want to make a difference in the way you might’ve hoped. I continue to witness organizations with D&I hierarchies that are dreadfully unconsciously biased through their intentions to play corporate politics. Yet the individuals who comfortably sit in longstanding, unattainable leadership roles would have you know there doesn’t exist a biased bone in their bodies.
According to Conway’s Law, the systems or entities we develop reflect an organization’s communication structure. Related to D&I, the D&I systems we create within our companies reflect how we communicate with each other. These methods of communication align with an organization’s values.
Continue to speak out and remind colleagues and yourself that we create these systems according to how much we value our fellow employees. As such, D&I systems should reflect an organization’s investment in improving communication and appreciation.