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Seven Things to Know When Creating a Successful Employee Resource Group

November 30, 2023
By Christine Lydon

Being brutally frank, disability inclusion wasn’t necessarily on my horizon up until a few years ago. I’d been in my role at FleishmanHillard for just a year when I was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that necessitated four months of chemo, surgery, radiotherapy and physiotherapy. I took a couple of months off after the diagnosis but otherwise continued working, albeit from home and just a couple of days a week. This was a godsend for me personally as it meant when I recovered, I wasn’t having to navigate “the big return.”

But of course, anyone who’s had a serious illness knows recovery doesn’t end once the treatment is over. I had a new perspective on navigating the workplace with physical challenges like post-cancer aches and pains and fatigue. These unexpected difficulties inspired me to get involved with DEI, with a specific focus on disability, firstly leading on Hidden Disabilities here in London, co-chairing Omnicom’s Open Disability ERG and then, in the past 18 months, leading FleishmanHillard’s Global Disability ERG.

FleishmanHillard’s ambition is to be the most inclusive agency, and DEI is very rigorously integrated into the heart of what we do. Within the Hidden Disabilities steering group here in London, we’ve done a range of things in the disability space, including training on neurodiversity and communicating with diverse audiences. Digital accessibility is another focus for us. We’ve refreshed things in 2023 with the establishment of FHAT – FleishmanHillard Accessibility Taskforce – which sees digital accessibility led by our creative studio. It’s very much about embedding accessibility principles into our work and ensuring that clients are aware of it too.

FleishmanHillard’s Global Disability ERG was set up two years ago and is just one of the Global ERGs within the agency. I took on the role of global lead when it was set up – initially just as a caretaker but I knew, and I think all those around me knew, that I’d be in it for the long-haul. It’s a unique space with a casual relaxed remit, no expectation of deliverables and no fixed agenda when we meet once a month. It has been created as a safe space for anyone living with a disability, along with allies, to come together, share experiences, learnings, tips or just take the opportunity to vent, if that’s needed. And, while we don’t have any specific asks of us from senior leadership, we did co-create a neurodiversity guide that was shared with our offices across the globe. The seeds for the guide were sown during one of our meetings when it became apparent that there was limited awareness or understanding of neurodiversity and how conditions in this category can impact the work experience. The guide is used in new joiner inductions and is a part of line manager training.

What does success look like for an ERG? Simply having the group in existence, with people showing up monthly and being there for each other counts as success. Along with the monthly calls, we do check-ins with members to elicit their needs and their feedback to ensure that the group continues to add value and stays relevant. Relevance is vital. It’s about constantly asking the questions: Are we still serving a purpose? Are members still getting what they need from us? And if not, why not? What can we do to refresh our approach?

Lessons from leading an ERG

Recognize that every ERG is different and offers a unique experience.

Some act as informal, safe spaces with a flexible structure and others are firmly focused on encouraging change within an organization. Still more may be a mix of both. And what one ERG looks like in one company may vary drastically to another. The focus should be on what the community needs. Is it to initiate far-reaching change in your workplace led by senior management? Or is what’s actually needed a ‘softer’ group that offers peer support and that sense of togetherness?

Be open to change.

None of us can stand still. What worked last year may no longer be relevant today. The most significant gap that you’ve identified today may not be an issue in the new year. It’s vital to keep informed and be ready to pivot. 

Listen closely.

You’ll only know if things need to evolve if you listen to your ERG members. Pulse surveys carried out quarterly can shine light on member perspectives and needs.

Realize that your impact within the ERG can be more far-reaching than you think. Applying your learnings from the ERG to client counsel and client work can be powerful and instigate meaningful change. We’ve seen this first-hand within FleishmanHillard where understanding what it takes to make digital content truly accessible to all has filtered through to our client work. It’s been so encouraging seeing our clients embrace what we’re doing in this space and commit to applying these principles.

Secure leadership buy-in.

Without it, an ERG will not flourish. In fact, it’s unlikely to last more than a couple of meetings. I’m grateful to be part of FleishmanHillard where DE&I is embedded in all we do with a tangible commitment from the very top of the business. Keep in mind it works both ways – as an ERG leader, it’s important that you keep senior leaders informed of what’s going on and how the ERG is progressing. This can range from informal check-ins to detailed write-ups, depending on requirements and your own style.

Keep the broader team informed.

Any one of us could face illness or disability at any point. Any of us can be an ally to those who are already living with a disability. Twice-yearly newsletters from our Disability ERG have helped ensure we stay visible, relevant and accountable. It’s an opportunity to capture what we’ve done and report on what we’ve said we’ll do.

Know that DE&I belongs to everyone, and not just a select few.

There can be a temptation to take it all on yourself but each of us has a responsibility to ensure that people from all backgrounds, thinking, abilities and experiences feel included, protected and involved. Meaningful change can only happen when we all play our part.