How to Organize Your Diversity & Inclusion Council and Employee Resource Groups

Best practices for setting up successful Diversity and Inclusion Councils and ERGs 

In Corporate America, most large corporations have had long standing diversity and inclusion organizations.  They formed Employee Resource Groups around gender, race, ethnicity, and other dimensions of diversity decades ago as a safe place for people in minority groups to support one another.  Since then, many also have launched Diversity & Inclusion Councils to facilitate positive change on workplace inclusion.  

It is not a one-size fits all model for diversity and inclusion.  Some keep diversity and inclusion at the senior leadership level.  Small and medium sized organizations often do this because they may not have enough people to represent minority groups or there are limited resources to support diversity and inclusion.  Larger organizations may have more complex layers of organization with multiple teams focused on it, or better yet, embedding diversity into every aspect of the business.

D&I Council vs. ERGs

Despite your organization’s structure, it is important to know that different organizations have unique purposes.  Employee Resource Groups exist to provide support and connection for people that experience marginalization in the workplace.  Most commonly, they are organized based on dimensions of diversity (i.e. race, gender, disabilities, LGBTQ+) and may occasionally engage allies from the majority group ((i.e. white, straight, male, cisgender, able-bodied).  I have also seen ERGs focused on age, veteran status, and dimensions like parental status too.  The groups generally have budgets for educational programming, have senior level sponsorship, and have charters stating their mission and goals.

D&I Councils, on the other hand, tend to exist to make decisions on systemic changes to support diversity and inclusion.  They have significant budgets, they have senior leadership team members and representation across the organization, and exist to drive positive change.  They partner with Human Resources and the broader Diversity and Inclusion team to solve problems related to inclusion.  They likely have a strategic plan to facilitate change with specific goals and action plans to get there.

Both D&I Councils and ERGs are necessary to promote workplace inclusion.  They are two sides of the same coin – one to offer support, community, and learning – the other to address systemic issues of change.

Case Studies

I have a client in the IT recruiting space that in light of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 decided to develop a Diversity & Inclusion Council.  They were incredibly humble and clear that their leadership team was largely white male and that they had been woken up to diversity by the murder of George Floyd.  It is never too late to start.  The journey begins with a decision to commit to diversity long-term.  In a series of strategic planning sessions with the full leadership team, decisions were made about their diversity and inclusion purpose statement, goals, and action plans.  They formed five key initiatives on diversity on training and development, interviewing bias, measuring diversity and inclusion, having a dedicated communications process on diversity, and improving diversity in hiring.  All of these initiatives addressed systemic barriers to inclusion and were led by a member of the senior leadership team in partnership with team members interested in participating in the initiative.  

Another client early on in their diversity and inclusion journey started with ERGs on gender and race, then quickly realized that these groups, despite having great ideas, lacked the right level of expertise and decision making to address systemic barriers.  They elected to keep the two ERGs focused on support, while adding a Diversity and Inclusion Council to better address foundational issues preventing diversity.  They used the ERGs to get feedback on topics for training and areas for improvement, while letting the ERGs stay focused on their core mission to provide support for marginalized communities.

HBR Women at Work Podcast

A recent episode of the Women at Work podcast Helping Men Help Us tackled the challenge of engaging allies in women’s ERGs.  David Smith and Brad Johnson provide tools to support difficult conversations about gender and race in the workplace, and Lilly Zheng offers frameworks for addressing systemic barriers.  She argues that allies can help advance diversity and inclusion, but the real work is in eliminating the systemic barriers that women and people of color often face.  Both ERGs and D&I Councils, if set up for success, can accelerate positive change.

If you liked this post, check out my Next Pivot Point podcast.  We have over 100 interviews with diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders all over the world.  Be an ally and leave a review on iTunes – it helps other allies find it.