Employee resource groups at two major companies in the Cincinnati area are finding ways to promote inclusion and keep employees connected, even as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to keep most workers at home.
The Resource Groups, or ERGs, are company-sponsored, volunteer-run organizations that are built around a common interest, identity, or profession and provide members with a personal and professional support network.
“When you think of diversity, it has to represent the communities and environments you belong in,” said Joe Allen, chief diversity officer at GE Aviation, the Evendale-based subsidiary of General Electric Co.
“We’re constantly focused on making sure we represent our community, that we keep improving that representation every year,” said Allen, adding that the company’s resource groups are a key element of that focus.
Originally referred to as affinity groups, according to experts, workers began forming these groups in the 1960s to address problems of discrimination in the workplace, at a time when racial tensions were exploding across the country.
While ERGs largely started out as race-based organizations, over the past few decades the groups have expanded to include gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
Allen was hired by GE a little over 30 years ago, and during that time he has seen firsthand and played an active role in growing his stakeholders.
GE has seven company-wide employee resource groups with plans to add more. The oldest is the African American Forum, which Allen co-founded shortly after graduating from the company’s financial management program.
“There weren’t many African American finance professionals at GE at the time,” he said, adding that he was an active member and ally of all of the company’s ERGs and helped coach these organizations.
Allen said the real benefit resource groups bring to the workplace is a sense of belonging.
“You have a chance to come in and feel safe that you have a network,” he said. “That sense of belonging means so much.”
Since the pandemic started, the company’s ERGs have had to find new ways to keep in touch with their members, according to Allen.
“It’s hard because people not only feel like they’re on an island, so to speak, but their whole life is now upside down,” Allen said, referring to the problems in their private lives. “So we just want to be there as a resource to help people on their way.”
Cincinnati Bell Inc.’s employee resource group program is relatively new but has grown rapidly, according to Christi Cornette, the company’s chief culture officer.
Cornette said there was an explosion of groups during the program’s launch in 2017 and the number of resource groups has steadily increased since then. Cincinnati Bell now has a total of 13 ERGs with groups centered around parents and carers, veterans, disability awareness, fitness and environmental protection.
“We believe it is absolutely important that employees are empowered to bring all of their selves to work,” said Cornette. “We know these invisible barriers negatively affect employee engagement and keep talented people from engaging fully with their team.”
Cornette said the Cincinnati Bell resource groups have been involved in numerous community initiatives.
The company’s Pride ERG, which aims to promote a welcoming environment for LGBTQ workers, is partnering with nonprofit Lighthouse Youth & Family Services to partner with homeless LGBTQ youth.
“So they contacted us a few years ago to work with us … and wanted to know how they could help our young people in any way they could,” said Isaiah Febus, a life skills specialist at Lighthouse.
LGBTQ youth are over-represented in the homeless population, with 20 to 40% of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ.
A couple of times a year, the group will drop off supplies like personal care kits that include deodorants, shampoo and other toiletries at the Lighthouse homeless shelter in Walnut Hills, Febus said. Over the summer, the resource group also took a dozen teenagers to a Cincinnati Reds game.
“Just being able to see other people represented in different organizations makes sense to some of our young people, in my opinion, because they may not have seen that when they were growing up,” said Febus. “That’s why it’s important to have the feeling that you can get in touch with everyone at all levels.”