HR pros may want to think twice before joining ERGs

Intent, identity, and company culture should all be taken into consideration, DE&I experts say.
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Photo illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Source: mphillips007/Getty Images

· 4 min read

A fly-on-the-wall is usually harmless. They mill about and don’t generally cause a disturbance. An elephant in the room, on the other hand, does just the opposite. And when HR leaders join employee resource groups (ERGs), they can wind up being a fly or, however unintentionally, an elephant.

ERGs have gained popularity at a rapid pace since 2020, and can be an effective tool for supporting marginalized communities and their allies.

“ERGs are a great way to mobilize people and to build community within an organization and to increase the safe spaces to talk about some of the challenges that people experience,” Ella Washington, professor at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University told HR Brew.

However, because some HR leaders are seen by employees as not to be trusted, DE&I experts who spoke with HR Brew said that people people should consider how joining an ERG might affect their colleagues.

“A lot of employee resource groups can be safe havens [in] organizations that may not have high levels of trust or psychological safety,” explained Nani Vishwanath, consultant at the Courage Collective, a DE&I consultancy. “These are places where people who share identities can feel known and understood without risks that they may otherwise feel in other parts of the organization.”

Proceed with caution. Washington said HR must understand the overall tenor of their company’s culture and have an awareness of their perception among employees before deciding whether to join an ERG.

HR’s participation should vary based on the topics discussed in meetings. For example, if a BIPOC group is discussing a racist incident at their company’s executive level and feelings of unsafety, the presence of an HR leader “would drastically change the dynamic of that conversation,” said Nani Vishwanath, consultant at DE&I consultancy the Courage Collective. “It’s important for the HR person to be mindful of: is this a place where I could bow out?”

Transparency and boundaries. Even if employees might be hesitant about HR’s presence, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t join. Vishwanath explained that there are a few ways they can do so without putting off others in the group.

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“They must share the identity of the group,” she said. “Seeing organizations where HR leaders or other leaders have tried to join in an executive sponsor capacity, but they are not necessarily a part of that community—that just negates the entire intent of that community in the first place.”

And their presence needs to be explicit, according to Washington. “They need to say something to acknowledge the elephant in the room…name the awkwardness of it. And then hopefully everyone gets to a place where there’s a higher sense of trust.”

Vishwanath also said that HR should make their intentions clear to the ERG leaders before joining. For example, a CHRO joining an affinity group because they’re looking for connection is different from doing so to learn about diversity initiatives.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vishwanath said she was part of her company’s HR team and also led its working parents ERG. While it was important for the other members to know they could look to her for guidance as an HR person, she also had to establish the boundary that she was in those meetings as a fellow working parent.

Ongoing self-reflection. There may also be times when it’s not appropriate for HR pros to be part of ERGs, but that doesn’t mean they should set aside their own well-being. Washington recommended that they instead seek out external groups to make sure they have a safe space, too.

Vishwanath said that people in HR should have honest, ongoing conversations with themselves to ensure that ERGs remain healthy and productive for all. “As a leader, you have a responsibility to be mindful of how you’re impacting those spaces if you are truly there for the humans of that organization,” she said.—KP

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