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Reinvigorating Disability Inclusion Efforts Through ERGs

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Headshots of Lori Becker and Julie Kauffmann

Companies have increasingly prioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in recent years, resulting in the creation of employee resource groups (ERGs).

ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups that strive to create a culture of inclusion and belonging in their workplace. ERGs combat isolation for underrepresented groups, and provide allies a place to channel their energy for equity-work. ERGs, or affinity groups, may focus on a common identity such as ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation, LGBTQ+ identity, veteran status or disability. By serving as a voice for underrepresented employees, ERGs foster an environment where individuals can feel free to bring their whole selves to work each day.

Is your company culture truly as inclusive as it could be? Here’s how you can reinvigorate your DEI efforts by forming ERGs.

As Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications at the Starkloff Disability Institute, Lori Becker has been helping companies establish ERGs for the past eight years. While each organization is at a different place in terms of its DEI journey, the initial process for starting an ERG is fairly straightforward.

“If your company doesn’t have a disability ERG, start one! Ask a manager or director and go for it,” Lori explains. “All disabilities should be included: visible, non-visible, temporary. Get seniors who care about access, get family members and allies. Everyone can be included,” Lori explains. “Select a chair or co-chairs for the group. It is important to have a person with a disability as the leader of the group. Members of the affected community should be the ones who lead,” Lori goes on. “What is your mission? What are your goals and objectives? Find an executive sponsor who will truly listen and be a committed advocate. As your connection to the C-suite, your executive sponsor will play a crucial role in leveraging the goals and objectives of your group.”

ERGs for women and people of color began to emerge on the corporate landscape roughly a decade ago, but other groups, like employees with disabilities, have been a bit slower to follow suit. Julie Kauffmann, former Co-Chair of the RealDisabilities ERG at Realogy, says it presents a challenge when individuals are reluctant to self-identify.

“We need our seat at the table. Diversity includes disability. But there are so many folks who don’t want to raise their hands and say, ‘I have a disability,’ much less be part of a group,” Julie acknowledges. “The most impressive event I remember going to was where a senior leader said, ‘Hey, I’m the CEO of this company, I have epilepsy and I’m not afraid to say it.’ That’s what needs to happen.”

Once you’ve established your area of focus, whether it’s disability or any other identity group, the time comes to get the word out about your newly formed ERG. Your internal communications team can send out company-wide emails and announcements inviting fellow employees to your ERG’s upcoming meetings and special events. Julie also suggests Yammer as an effective tool for keeping everyone engaged with the latest news and information from the ERG. An enterprise social networking platform connecting coworkers across the various levels of their business, Yammer keeps all employees up to date with the latest news and information from RealDisabilities.

Forming an ERG comes with a considerable degree of responsibility. By giving a voice to underrepresented employees, your group can bring about a tremendous amount of positive change in the workplace. But while the ERG advocates on behalf of a specific cause, you should still be mindful of the values and policies of the company.

“For an ERG to be successful, its goals must align with the company’s business objectives,” Lori points out. “A lot of times you’ll see ERGs helping with recruitment of other candidates within an affinity group. They might also share insight regarding the retention and promotion of people with disabilities, for instance. ERGs may opt to create a mentoring program, in another example.”

Special events and presentations are informative, interactive ways to share the mission of your ERG with coworkers. As Julie describes, ERG activities can coincide with different awareness months. In recent years, RealDisabilities has hosted personal storytelling events and collaborated to distribute resource calendars in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month in May and Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September. RealDisabilities has also facilitated advocacy events during Fair Housing Month in April and National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October.

How can you tell if your ERGs message is resonating with coworkers and management? Lori says it’s important to track the numbers.

“Look at how many people are attending the special events. Monitor how many people are clicking on the email announcements and newsletter articles sent by your ERG,” Lori suggests. “Employee engagement surveys and pre and post event surveys are a great way to collect data and measure progress as well. This information can be collected and shared with company leaders to demonstrate progress towards DEI goals. However, feeling safe, worthy, and included in a workplace that hasn’t always been that way takes a long time to create and measure.”

In some cases, the impact of your ERG will be harder to quantify. But as long as your messaging remains consistent with the mission and values of the group, your ERG will continue to foster inclusion and psychological safety at work.

“During Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we had a couple of really courageous conversation events where people shared some very heartfelt true stories about their experience with suicide. I don’t know how many lives that saves. I don’t know how many people get the help they need after seeing our resource calendar for Mental Health Awareness Month,” Julie admits. “Some things are so very beneficial but difficult to measure.”

What is easy to see is the overwhelmingly positive influence of ERGs. According to Lori, organizations that fail to include ERGs in their overall DEI strategies run the risk of falling behind in terms of company culture.

“The results are obvious. It is very apparent that companies with ERGs outperform those without. Top performers are also adopting Inclusion Councils, in addition to the affinity groups, to work on DEI strategy across all sectors of identity and business,” Lori states. “ERGs give every employee across an organization a place to channel their inclusive energy and bring their entire selves to the workplace. This is what the current generation and next generation of employees truly want.”

The introduction of ERGs can come from any level of the business. But Julie concludes that it often becomes a matter of holding management accountable.

“If an ERG is not available at your place of work, start with your supervisor and/or your leadership team. Most companies, if they’re worth their salt, will have a diversity statement on their website or in their handbook. Use it as leverage to be a positive agent of change. If this is really what they stand for, then they should welcome the formation of ERGs,” Julie insists. “A lot of good things can happen from this type of grassroots approach.”

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