ERGs take extra work. Should employees be paid extra for participating?

There’s growing support for paying members of ERGs for their extra work, but that could bring up several unforeseen dilemmas.
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Francis Scialabba

· 7 min read

As civil unrest and demands for racial justice erupted in the US during the summer of 2020, corporate America responded with statements of solidarity with the movement, offering public pledges to champion inclusivity in the workplace. The police killings of Black people prompted an acceleration of conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives across the corporate landscape, Lauren Romanksy, then-managing vice president of HR at Gartner, noted in an interview on the company’s website last year.

Part of this renewed push for equity are employee resource groups (ERGs), volunteer organizations traditionally comprised of employees from underrepresented backgrounds and identities, though they can sometimes serve as support groups for workers of the same age or job function. Romansky praised ERGs, calling them “agents of change, advising senior leaders as well as HR on what they can do to help create a more diverse and inclusive environment.”

But some members of ERGs say that the heavy lift of effecting change within an organization can amount to what feels like an unpaid second job. “We weren’t getting paid for the work, and they were definitely passion projects and treated as such. And my manager was very explicitly clear that my promotions and bonuses are not going to be based off of the ERG work,” Matthew J. Yazzie, a former Google employee and ERG member, told Protocol. Google ERG leaders are still unpaid.

In a statement, spokesperson Shannon Newberry said, “We want everyone to feel like they belong at Google. One way we do this is through supporting employee resource groups that provide additional connection and community for underrepresented employees and their allies. Today, over 35,000 Google employees participate in 16 employee resource groups across 52 countries.”

In 2020, only 5.6% of companies with ERGs provided their groups’ leads with any compensation for work that stretches beyond their normal responsibilities, but that number rose dramatically in 2021 to 28%, according to annual survey research from  diversity consultancy The Rise Journey. Advocates of the concept see the work of ERGs as a vital and undervalued form of labor that must be compensated, while others caution that paying these employees extra for that work could open the door to unforeseen complications.

To pay or not to pay

ERGs didn’t first materialize during the summer of 2020, of course. They have their roots in civil Rights Movement, when Black employees at Xerox founded the National Black Employee Caucus in 1970. Back then, they were commonly known as affinity groups, and they are often alternatively referred to as business resource groups today. Traditionally, these groups have coalesced around shared identity and experience. They host events, network, and provide a structure to share concerns and interests with management.

Currently, “there’s definitely an overwhelming interest in recognizing the work ERGs leaders are doing. But there’s a controversy on how we do that,” Theresa M. Welbourne, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Alabama, told HR Brew. For one, there’s the question of what kind of compensation to tie to the extra work of leading an ERG, said Chelsea Rosenberg, the head of talent and culture at marketing technology consultancy Etumos. “There isn’t really any info available to determine the ‘fair market’ pay for such work. How would compensation be determined?” she asked.

Organizations make that determination differently, according to The Rise Journey’s research. Across the 166 organizations of various sizes surveyed, 29% said they compensate through “professional development opportunities,” 20% through extra monetary compensation, 18% use a not-guaranteed “spot bonus,” while 11% provide company swag, 7% use gift cards, and 2% subsidize cost-related travel.

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Welbourne told HR Brew about the multiple dilemmas that can emerge when ERG members are paid. She said oftentimes a kind of “punishment syndrome” develops “where if you’re spending time on your ERG, your manager gets mad at you, because you’re not doing your day job. That’s an inequity which I don't think you’re going to fix by paying them. So probably, it’s better to get at the root of where the unfairness lies and then try to fix that situation.”

Welbourne has argued that ERG leaders are often motivated by responsibilities outside of their normal job descriptions. She wrote in Tlnt last year: “My own research with ERGs finds that even though they are doing the work as volunteers, ERG leaders are more energized and engaged than many other peer employees. It is the fact that they are doing the work outside of their job that engages them.”

Both Autodesk and LinkedIn provide $10,000 annually to their ERG global co-chairs, while Twitter hasn’t made public how it compensates its ERG leaders. Moreover, ERGs are not  monoliths—they can be comprised of a “few members or a few thousand,” according to a 2016 research paper co-authored by Welbourne. They’ve evolved tremendously over the years, encompassing groups for working mothers, neurodivergent employees, and workers with palliative caregiving responsibilities, to name a few.

Their myriad structures and the various roles and responsibilities present a conundrum when tackling the question of compensation for ERG leads and participants. A “big company with a global ERG, they often have chapters,” Welbourne explained. “So the structure ends up being pretty complex.” This raises the question of “choosing which volunteer jobs to pay for and which ones not to pay for,” Welbourne said. “So I haven’t yet seen [a company] who’s paying everybody.”

The case for pay

When it comes to combating inequity in the workplace, “ERGs are kind of doing this course correction,” in which decades of entrenched inequality are addressed head-on, Sarah Johal, a global brand marketing manager at Workday who founded its Families @ Workday ERG, told HR Brew. “Right now, as it stands, most of the time, companies are getting all of that ROI,” she added. “The ERGs themselves are rarely.”

Even though the events of Summer 2020 “triggered a reckoning on diversity, equity, and inclusion,” according to a 2021 McKinsey report, calls to compensate ERG leaders aren’t new. “It’s been a long-standing call from ERG leads, even before 2020,” Johal explained. Recently, there’s been a surge in interest in the groups: The same McKinsey report, which surveyed 423 organizations (with a combined total of 12 million employees), and more than 65,000 people, found that 38% of organizations have either added or expanded their support for ERGs since 2020.

“It is real work that benefits the business and benefits the environment, and so should be compensated,” Allison Rutledge-Parisi, the senior vice president, people team at the HRIS software platform Justworks, explained. Justworks started compensating the leaders of its seven ERGs in June 2020 with an “additional salary,” Rutledge-Parisi explained, because leaders “are responsible for creating structure and organizing things and bringing people together and making sure it’s a good experience and having a strategy…that’s real work, and it should be compensated.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.