An inclusive work culture can increase productivity, improve innovation, and ultimately produce better results for a company. However, perhaps the greatest impact of inclusivity is on the lives of the employees themselves.
“If my place of work doesn’t make me feel good about who I am as a person, it’s not good for myself and it’s not good for the business… because I’m not going to be happy.” Meet Reebok’s Matt Wyman, who is the co-chair of their Colorful Soles Employee Resource Group in Boston. His experience as part of this group has provided a sense of belonging within a work community that he hadn’t found anywhere else.
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are voluntary, employee-led community groups, focused on specific identities or experiences of people within an organization. These groups serve as an important resource for members and organizations alike by cultivating and fostering a diverse, inclusive workplace.
First and foremost, they are communities created to support their members, and for many employees. They offer a safe space within an organization and the world outside. In a group, members are surrounded by people of similar identities and with similar life experiences, who are willing to support and advocate for them. For some, this may be their first or only opportunity to be seen for who they are, and to be supported in this way.
The origin of Employee Resource Groups
In 2013 adidas employee Johannes Donath was working at adidas HQ in Germany researching LGBTQ+ issues for Diversity Day. He remembers having a revelation after reading about the mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people around the world: “I realized how fortunate I was that I grew up in a society that let me express who I am, and that I work in a company that allowed me to come to work as who I am. I do not have to hide. I can show up at work and be open to my team.”
He decided to form an official group for LGBTQ+ colleagues, to send a clear signal for people inside and outside the company that adidas is a supporter of LGBTQ+ issues.
At the same time on the other side of the Atlantic an LGBTQ+ community was also forming at adidas North America. The title, and official status, of Employee Resource Group was not being used at that time, but this group went on to become the ERG called ‘Proud to Play’.
Founder Norbert Teston says that the impact of the group on its members soon became obvious. “I received personal messages from employees across the country saying: ‘Now I know that I can be myself, I don’t have to hide my sexual orientation or gender identity, I don’t have to spend all of that mental energy trying to pretend. I know that, within this organization at least, I’m protected. I’m accepted for who I am.’ It’s who we always were as an organization, but now we were clearly saying it.”
Since then, the number of ERGs has grown. We now have more than 40 communities globally in both the corporate and retail environments. From the ‘Lean In Mentoring Circle’ in Brazil, to the ‘Xperienced Generation Network’ in Germany. These groups provide support and community to employees connected by gender, age, parental status, disability, mental health, faith, and more.
Since their creation, Employee Resource Groups have been driving important conversations and supporting communities, both inside and outside the organization. This support has been more important than ever in 2020, a year where employees have had to contend with a global pandemic, continued social injustice, and increased civil unrest, on top of the regular challenges of everyday life.
Communities that drive company culture
ERGs provide purpose to their members and offer an opportunity for employees to make their voices heard. As a result, those involved engage with the company (and the company culture) in a meaningful and impactful way. This amplifies diverse voices, making businesses better overall.
“It’s a great way to show that our skills are not just applicable in our day jobs; that our life experiences are applicable to not just bettering the organization, but also bettering everyone in the organization.” So explains Krys Burnette, co-founder of United Voices, an adidas ERG launched earlier this summer to elevate the voices of BIPOC employees across the globe.
Our Black employee communities at adidas and Reebok were key to the development of our United Against Racism commitments. Members of both the Progressive Soles and T.I.E.D. (Talent Invested in Ethnic Diversity) ERGs in America worked with senior leaders to cement these commitments. The groups now continue to support the efforts to accelerate diversity and inclusion in both companies.
Driving awareness through cultural celebrations and education
Employee Resource Groups play a key role in bringing awareness to cultural and community topics, something that is essential in a global business. ERGs at adidas and Reebok have created classes, facilitated panels, and hosted guests from the community to offer important perspectives and celebrate cultural moments.
For Lunar New Year, PACE (Platform for Asian Community & Engagement ERG, adidas North America) coordinated several events to celebrate this cultural moment with the employee community:
“The Lunar New Year celebration in 2019 was PACE’s first event and how the ERG was launched,” explains Vicki Ng. “I realized that for many of my colleagues this was their first time seeing lion dancers, something I’ve grown up with my whole life and take for granted as part of my culture. It was incredibly meaningful to share that experience with my co-workers and was one of my proudest moments at adidas.”
The groups also help highlight the important intersection between communities. “Employee Resource Groups are here to help each other; as much as possible we want to leverage each other’s power and accomplishment to really help develop diversity as a whole,” continues Norbert Teston. “A lot of employees are part of more than one group, because they represent that intersectionality. And that’s really powerful.”
Supporting women in the workplace
Across the world women’s networks at Reebok and adidas have flourished. Currently there are nine groups including one in China formed in 2018 and co-led by Shirley Li from the Shanghai office. “We aim to inspire, connect and support women to take action on topics of importance,” says Shirley.
One regular event the group runs is their mentoring circle. Senior leaders facilitate sessions personalized to members to help them grow professionally. Shirley says, “This creates a casual and unbiased environment for colleagues to share their experiences with each other. I know how powerful this can be for a person’s development having benefitted from a strong mentor in the past.”
adidas and Reebok are committed to creating an inclusive workplace for all and on this journey the importance and impact of Employee Resource Groups cannot be overstated. They serve a significant role in supporting and enhancing our communities, our brands, and the people who work within them. Krys Burnette sums it up: “As we expand these communities, the more people feel like they are a part of this organization. It is for the good of the company and for the good of the community.”