Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream
The focus of employee resource groups needs to move beyond group to an individual talent discussion. Instead of focusing on barriers that only impact...

By Trevor Wilson

Recently, I was asked to speak at an internal diversity conference where the audience was made up of the company’s eight employee resource groups (ERGs). Throughout the conference, each ERG was asked to make a presentation on their progress to date and plans for the future. I was impressed that the organization had ventured beyond the usual constituencies of gender, race and sexual orientation to create several other non-traditional employee resource groups. For example there was an ERG for English as a Second Language employees, an ERG for new and young employees, and even an ERG for faith-based employees. From the outside it appeared as if the organization’s diversity strategy was inclusive and the established, sanctioned ERGs covered all bases. However upon closer inspection there was one very important group missing. I generally refer to this group as SWAMS, i.e. straight, white, able-bodied males.

It turned out that I was not the only one who had noticed this “oversight.” In fact I was informed that a new employee resource group dedicated to SWAMS had organically formed in one of their regional plants. They called themselves WOMEN, an acronym which stands for the White, Original, Men’s Employee Network. The organizations’ leadership was not amused and did not consider the possibility of sanctioning this upstart ERG.

This particular organization was in a resource-based industry which has been dominated by straight, white, able-bodied males for the past century. So how was it that this group was not seen as worthy of being part of the organization’s well-developed and long-standing affinity group network? The unarticulated and somewhat politically incorrect answer is the belief that this group faces no employment barriers, no discrimination, and no unfair treatment, which is the reason straight, white, able-bodied males have held power positions in most organizations for so long. I would suspect that this model of “SWAM exclusion” is prevalent in most organizations pursuing diversity today.

It is important that as organizations move beyond diversity, towards human equity, that the role of the employee resource group also evolve. In the early stages of the diversity journey the employee resource groups’ role is to be an internal advocate for their particular constituency. For example, if I am a member of the African-American group, then I am to come to the table advocating for the issues and interests of African Americans. My role is to help the organization identify and remove any barriers that stand in the way of my group’s selection, development, promotion and ultimate success.

I was amused to see that every resource group at this ERG conference had an almost identical mission statement. The women’s group’s mission was “to help the company become the employer of choice for women.” The minority group’s mission was “to help the company become the employer of choice for people of color.” In fact, all eight ERGs had exactly the same mission with only the name of the group being different.

This approach breeds a dilemma, identified years ago by Nelson Mandela. He called the phenomenon “the hierarchy of inequity.” This is the notion that the exclusion or bias I face as a black man is somehow more important than the inequity my fellow white male employee may face due to his age, education or historical group membership. The hierarchy of inequity breeds the insidious and destructive mindset that until you are finished dealing with the unfairness facing my group, you should not start dealing with the inequity facing any other group.

When the situation devolves to this point, then the role of the ERG must evolve. The focus needs to move beyond group to an individual talent discussion. Instead of focusing on barriers that only impact my group, the focus must evolve to identify barriers to becoming the employer of choice for all.

In cases like the one referenced above, a good place to start is with the group that has traditionally been excluded from the diversity strategy, i.e. straight, white, able-bodied males. My last word to the leaders of the organization was to fully sanction the WOMEN group and make them a part of the solution rather than a resentful problem.

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