Are Employee-Resource Groups Relevant to Younger People

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.


Question:

I recently attended a generational-differences class in which the instructor mentioned that younger employees are frequently less interested in traditional employee-resource groups than older employees because the younger employees are so used to having all different types of people working together that they don’t like to be divided apart. The instructor gave the example of his four kids, two of whom were half-Hispanic and two who were not.

If the two of mixed descent were to join their company’s Hispanic employee-resource group, they would literally be separated from their brethren. This observation seems to be in line with comments from a speech you gave at a conference recently where you said that one company found that younger people leave if they do not find the [plurality] in the workplace that they were used to while growing up. This also is similar to my experience: I am not interested in joining the women’s resource group at my company because I’ve participated in all-female groups before, both inside and outside the workplace, and do not wish to replicate the experience.

How do you see employee-resource groups evolving to accommodate this craving for inclusion

Answer:

Employee-resource groups are extremely important in managing diversity. We ask several questions regarding employee-resource groups (ERGs) in The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity survey and have learned some best practices over the last eight years of running the competition.

In a nutshell, there are demographic reasons for ERGs. Younger people are more diverse in our country–for example, there are more than five white people for every one person of color for Americans older than 70 years old. For American children younger than 10 years old, the ratio is almost 1-to-1.

That means there is naturally more diversity in junior levels (because younger people tend to be more junior) than there is at the top levels in most corporations. Smart companies realize that this is an asset. At better-run companies, ERGs are structured, sponsored by an executive, given goals and utilized for two primary purposes: Business ideas and recruiting.

There is also an advantage for the people in the ERGs. We are visually oriented tribal animals and it is psychologically debilitating to be a minority. Most straight, white men have never experienced this and have no real appreciation for it. I recommend Dr. Beverly Tatum’s book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria as a great guide to understanding this process. ERGs help people recharge their psychological batteries. This is a necessary part of life; if the company facilitates this process, they get the benefit of appreciation, engagement and loyalty from their employees.

In the talk I gave to your company, I mentioned that young people (“millennials”) have grown up in an era of economic pluralism–since the 1980s, formerly oppressed groups had gained enough economic clout via the civil-rights-era laws that, by then, they had household income that warranted the attention of corporate America. It is my opinion that much of our societal behavior is shaped by economics. What we call diversity management is certainly the result of affirmative-action laws that lifted people from oppressed poverty and facilitated the opportunities that the “free market” would never offer because of our predisposition to tribal behavior.

If you combine the threads–increased diversity of America’s population, increased desire of progressive companies to leverage that diversity and need for structure to overcome and/or leverage our common human tendencies to be tribal–you can see where ERGs are really important and, effectively managed, can be extremely beneficial for the host organization.

The instructor you mention in your question may be missing some information. As we have discovered through our Top 50 process, the best-run companies allow anyone to join any ERG. For example, my wife and I have two adopted daughters from China. If I were in a large company with ERGs, I would join the Asian-resource group. Therefore, in your example, the siblings who are not Latino would be welcome to join the Latino-resource group in a well-run progressive company’s ERGs. By the way, currently 22 percent of American households have a biracial component. As our country continues to become more diverse, this will certainly increase.

Last week, we had a global-diversity roundtable, which will appear in the September issue of DiversityInc magazine. It was videotaped in our new video studio, so you will be able to see that online too. In the roundtable, part of the discussion involved global-diversity-resource groups, and Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole (chairwoman of the JBC Institute, which is responsible for the Chief Diversity Officers Forum) said that she saw the goal of an ERG to be a safe space where people can be affirmed and able to contribute in a structured way. She also that ERGs are a formalized means for learning to take place.

I think that’s a wonderful synopsis. ERGs will need to evolve as our society evolves, and depending on the corporate and indigenous/regional culture, ERGs may have different membership guidelines, but the goal will remain as Dr. Cole so well described it.

Please understand that this response is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of ERGs. You may use the search feature of our web site (and the magazine-search feature) to look up articles on ERGs, as we’ve written many..

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