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Exploring the History and Evolution of Employee Resource Groups

Employee resource groups (ERGs) are powerful resources for facilitating discussions and providing networks for professionals based on shared identities, experiences and allyship. These groups have roots in the desire to advocate for employees and give them a space at work to be their best authentic selves. In the past few decades, companies have expanded ERG topics and begun implementing chapters worldwide, and today, ERGs are integrated into business strategies as imperatives. All of the 2020 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity have ERGs.

Let’s take a look at the history and evolution of such a vital part of diversity and inclusion efforts at today’s top companies:

Roots in the Civil Rights movement

ERGs, originally called workplace affinity groups, began in the 1960s in response to racial tensions in the United States. In 1964 along with the company’s Black employees, Joseph Wilson, the former CEO of Xerox came up with the idea in response to the race riots that occurred in Rochester, New York where Xerox was headquartered. At the time, Xerox had a progressive hiring program, but once hired, Black employees still faced discrimination. In 1970, Wilson and Xerox’s Black employees launched the National Black Employees Caucus to create a space for Black employees to discuss their experiences and advocate for change within their company. This caucus was the country’s first official ERG.

Ten years later, Xerox founded the Black Women’s Leadership Caucus, acknowledging and empowering the intersection of gender, race and career aspirations. In the ’70s and ’80s, ERGs focused on LGBTQ+ employees and their allies began. HP (No. 43 on the 2020 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) began the first LGBT ERG — called the Gay and Lesbian Employee Network (GLEN) in 1978. The group is now known as the PRIDE Business Impact Network.

AT&T’s (DiversityInc Hall of Fame) LEAGUE LGBTQ+ ERG is another example of an early LGBTQ+ ERG that has remained successful into the present day. In the late ’80s AT&T founded LEAGUE and has continued its mission to drive business impact, professional development and community engagement for LGBTQ people and allies. At DiversityInc’s 2019 ERG Festival, AT&T’s Dale Street discussed the longevity of the group, and attributed it to acknowledging the progress that the LGBTTQ+ community has made while recognizing how much more work needs to be done to ensure LGBTQ+ individuals are comfortable being out in the professional world. Historic ERGs that still exist today do so because they have remained flexible and adaptable. 

Related story: Celebrating Success: AT&T’s Latya Taylor and Dale Street Discuss the Longevity of NETwork and LEAGUE ERGs

ERG Growth and Expansion

ERGs are often part of these diversity and inclusion efforts. They began in the U.S., but companies with international operations have also begun introducing ERG chapters worldwide. A study by Mercer found that a decade ago, women’s ERGs were growing in popularity in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Australia and New Zealand. Multicultural, LGBTQ+ and diverse abilities ERGs were also on the rise.

Related story: ERG Forum: ERG Festival Participants Feel ‘Inspired,’ ‘Informed’ After Final Session

 In the past decades, ERGs have grown to include not only cultural and other identity groups, but also groups based on experiences or interests, such as parenting, volunteerism, wellness and environmental activism. According to research for the Academy of Management Annual Meeting Proceedings, many companies’ ERGs have evolved to include an emphasis on community volunteer work, and some companies have created entire employee volunteer networks. The term Business Resource Groups (BRGs) is gaining popularity as corporate responsibility and business goals increasingly intersect, ERGs are becoming more tied to achieving business goals.

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