Why Leaders Should Cultivate Employee Groups To Foster Inclusion And High Performance

ERGs can serve as informal focus groups, helping to surface issues that might otherwise go unnoticed and which can even strengthen not only your culture but also your products and services.

Too many leaders worry about affinity and employee groups in the workplace because they’re concerned about what it will do to their culture. There’s a fear that the creation of these groups will further Balkanize the organization and that – worse yet – they could create clusters of dissent and overly vocal team members who develop a manifesto of impractical demands.

While this may sound implausible in this day and age, I’ve encountered plenty of leaders and organizations who have shied away from the notion of these groups. This is definitely the wrong thing to do.

At my own organization, AT&T, we have over two dozen employee groups, many of which have been in place for decades. The focus of these groups spans women, veterans, the LGBTQ community, Latinx/Hispanic, Black, Native American, and Pan-Asian communities, Gen Y, those 50+, and more. These groups have become integral to the fabric of our company’s culture and engagement is strong – both “bottom-up” and “top-down”.

Creating “communities within the community” is valuable for a number of reasons. For starters, it actively acknowledges and embraces the presence and power of diversity in your workforce. Second, employees help to codify a culture of inclusivity, which is essential to creating a high performing organization.

Any successful organizational culture involves high-performing teams which recognize the simple fact that people want to belong. They want to feel valued and respected for who they are and be part of a team that enables them to learn and grow.

If you’re looking to create an environment of belonging and authenticity — one where every person can bring their best selves to work and not have to suppress any part of who they are – you’ve got to have an inclusive environment that not only acknowledges but celebrates diversity. And employee groups are a great way to do this.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about employee groups is that you have to “be” of that particular community to join the group, which just isn’t the case. You don’t have to be a woman to join a women-focused employee group. You don’t have to be Asian to become a member of an Asian focused employee group. Does this sound uncomfortable? Well, don’t forget, if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing, are you? Plenty of people get involved in a wide range of groups because they just want to increase their understanding, enhance their empathy, and oftentimes, learn how to be a better ally.

The “open door” nature of these groups means that they don’t put up walls between different individuals in the organization: They break down barriers, allowing people to connect in even deeper and more meaningful ways. Worries about these groups creating competing factions within the organization are somewhat unfounded. In fact, cross-group collaboration, communication, and support are essential.

So, as a leader, what’s the best approach to take about these types of groups? There are a few best practices here.

In my experience, employee groups work best when they are self-organizing and run by the employees in a truly grass roots manner. Because they are employee-led and employee-governed, members will focus on areas that the group is passionate about (rather than being forced to focus on things that someone in a distant boardroom decided are important issues to discuss, events to hold, or activities to engage in). The work they do both inside and outside of the company should be theirs to envision, to plan and to execute.

That being said, while these groups should be very organic in nature, they should have executive sponsorship at the outset to really help affirm how important they are to the company’s culture. If building a culture of inclusion is truly a priority, executives need to show that all employee groups matter to them.

Be careful, however, not to let “championship from the top” drift into a compliance-oriented approach that says, “All executives above a certain level must join X number of affinity groups.” Participation in these groups should not be perfunctory. It should be based on a genuine desire to engage, learn, and contribute. Advocacy cannot be mandated. It must come from within each individual leader who authentically decides for themselves how they desire to champion change.

As a leader, you can even use these groups as an informal focus group, helping to surface issues that might otherwise go unnoticed and which can even strengthen not only your culture but also your products and services if properly addressed.

Leaders can tap into the power and insight of their employees through these groups. Why is it that more progress isn’t being made with more Black leaders in the pipeline? Why aren’t we having success hiring more female talent into sales roles? Why are we having trouble retaining Gen Z talent after two to three years? Why aren’t our services reaching potential customers in underrepresented communities as effectively as they should? These are hypothetical questions, of course – but each organization and company have its own unique set of challenges and opportunities where employee groups could help develop the answers.

It’s a given that workforces are getting more diverse as is the national and global marketplace. Any organization that doesn’t embrace this direction will be left behind.

There will always be those who are skeptical of affinity-based employee groups. But these groups can benefit everyone by helping to create a high-performance culture that can successfully adapt to this dynamic and ever-evolving world and do its very best work.

What’s not to like about that?

Anne Chow
Anne Chow is CEO of AT&T Business, the business customer division of AT&T, and co-author of “The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias: How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams.”