Inclusion 2021: the importance of employee voice

Employee resource groups can give many groups a voice at the table, but they need to be properly supported, a recent diversity event heard.

Group of business people in office standing with folded hands, smiling - ERGs


How can employers take their employee resource groups (ERG) to the next level, avoid burnout and be properly recognised for their contribution?

A panel discussion at the Inclusion 2021 event late last month heard that the last year has put D&I and related ERGs under a lot of pressure, with burnout related to supporting colleagues’ wellbeing and promoting D&I in the workplace increasing. Often, ERG work, done on a voluntary basis, is not recognised by companies as being part of a person’s job or working hours. According to one speaker, Gurchaten Sandhu, President of UN Globe, an LGBTQI ERG in the UN System, employers should ask themselves these questions: “Are you giving your co-leads and other volunteers time to do this? Is it part of their performance structure as well? Are they being reviewed on this as part of the business review?”

Ratidzo Starkey, Member of the Secretariat at Financial Stability Board and former co-chair of the Ethnic Minority Network and BAME Taskforce at the Bank of England, also witnessed the burnout issue regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, where fighting for equality turned into a full-time job so people ended up with two full-time jobs and struggling to balance everything. This led some to prioritise the cause they were passionate about over their office job and they were punished for doing so.

She said: “There needs to be some recognition and encouragement for employees, when they take up the banner and volunteer their time. There needs to be some acknowledgement of the fact that they’re doing this work.”

The panel discussion was moderated by Sarah Garrett, the founder of Investing in Ethnicity and the British LGBT awards. The annual festival is for all those invested in diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace and offers ideas, tools, resources and practical strategies to implement equality, diversity and inclusion within organisations.

The importance of executive sponsors

The event kicked off with a discussion of the role of executive sponsors and whether they have helped their respective companies to boost ethnic minority voices in organisations. The answer was unanimous: in order to drive inclusion and diversity in the workplace, it is necessary to have someone representing the views of minorities or marginalised groups on the board.

Even if they have executive sponsors, however, ERGs do not always receive the financial support they need. Sandhu said: “It’s often left to the employee resource groups to raise their own funds as well.” He said executive sponsors could, however, help with connections and fundraising suggestions and help to develop proposals to access funds as well and how to put a business case forward to access them.

He added: “Having said that, the independence of an employee resource group is important. It can’t always be management-led; it should be driven by employees. So there needs to be some kind of independence and it has to be grounded in critical principles and rights at work.”

For Starkey, ERGs are the heart of an organisation and providing them means that “you enable people to see people like themselves, who are in an organisation. You provide that safe space, both to the group that you’re representing.” He added that ERGs also helped executives to navigate issues that they might not fully understand or be comfortable with.

Making ERGs more inclusive

One point Sandhu made regarding ERGs is that they need to be intersectional and inclusive. “We’re trying to make sure that we have a cross-cutting lens and it varies on so many intersecting points of our lives and we hold so many different identities,” he said.

Starkey added: “There are so many dimensions to people and you can’t box them into one. But I think the beauty of that is that, if you’re allowed to unleash all the different parts of you, it provides your organisation with untapped potential so it’s critical being able to work together for a common cause.”

In order to overcome compartmentalising people or assuming someone else’s view on an issue, they encourage people to come together, talk to each other regularly, listen and share information and, most importantly, not see all under-represented group members as one.

Starkey said: “My perspective is totally different from my Asian colleagues and my Jewish colleagues and so understanding what my biases are and being willing to listen and take on board what our members want from us and being brave enough to know when a certain sub-sector of your group is overly marginalised is important.”

At UN Globe, they have put in place a new process that says that the coordinator role can be split between two people but that, for example, those two people can’t be from the same sexual orientation.

Allies in the workplace

Rachna Patel, Director of Reward Workforce Planning, Diversity & Inclusion at The Walt Disney Company – another member of the panel – mentioned the effectiveness of allies in cases where there is no representation of certain groups at executive level. Indeed, allies can be a crucial way to allow discriminated groups to have more visibility, particularly where there is a dominant demographic in leadership positions.

Sandhu talked about how allyship needs to go further and be about solidarity generally. It should not be just an “office thing”, he said, adding that allies also need to be supported to ensure they feel included.

Patel believes that it is important to explain what being an ally means and recognise other forms privilege might take. “Just because I’m an ethnic minority female doesn’t mean that I don’t have privilege,” she says.  “It’s not always as black and white as that.”

She also reminded people that they can start small: being an ally does not necessarily mean attending a protest, but informing yourself, reading books, talking to colleagues or joining an event are all small steps that can and should be taken.

In addition, having more people as allies can help to avoid D&I backlash. Talking about The Walt Disney Company, Patel says: “We’ve sensed a lot of D&I fatigue in the past year, so we want to engage and make people want to understand and get educated, and feel that it’s something that we should all be doing together.”


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