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Starting a Disability Employee Resource Group (ERG)

Last week, I wrote about how important disability-focused employee resource groups are to creating an environment where employees with disabilities feel comfortable disclosing them and in turn helping others. This week I’m going to describe some steps to take to build or relaunch one.

What is an ERG anyways?

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are voluntary, employee-led groups that help to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace aligned with the organization’s mission and values. ERG group membership is typically rooted in some common characteristic such as gender, veteran’s status, age, disabilities, ethnicity or geographic location. To be an ERG member, one should either have one of the common characteristics in question or be an ally of those with the common characteristics and want to be seen as publicly supporting that group. The point of ERGs is to be inclusive, you would not want to exclude men from a women’s ERG, able-bodied people from disability ERGs, or straight allies from an LGBTQ+ ERG.

ERG leaders and participants can:

  • provide/receive support
  • enhance career development
  • obtain professional networking, and;
  • increase their personal development in the workplace

I have personally found ERG leadership is a really good activity to face professional fears — public speaking or having difficult conversations for example. Having a passion about a topic and a safe space makes it easier for one to confront those barriers that have been looming in front of their continued professional development.

For the organization, ERGs:

  • develop future leaders
  • increase employee engagement, and;
  • improve recruiting in the areas the ERGs focus on

How do ERGs help People with Disabilities?

Some of the common reasons cited by people as reasons they chose not to disclose a hidden disability in the workplace include:

  • Stigma
  • Concern about mis-perceptions.
  • Denial
  • Lack of Awareness

A disability ERG can help overcome all of these objections. People hiding their disabilities at the office are less happy at work. They also had significantly higher rates of feeling nervous, anxious, or isolated in the employment setting. Anyone spending cognitive time hiding or worrying about disabilities is not bringing 100 % of themselves to work.

Finalize mission, vision, and first year objectives

Before you can go in search of an executive sponsor for your ERG (hint: you need one and their participation is important) you first need to have some basic information about your ERG put together. This includes:

  • ERG Leadership — who is working with you on this and why?
  • ERG Mission — short statement of the overall mission of the ERG
  • ERG Vision — short statement of the ERG’s objectives
  • First year ERG objectives — It is really important not to boil the ocean. Pick 1–3 objectives related to the common characteristic of your ERG and focus on those. Use small victories to snowball into bigger ones.

It also doesn’t hurt to have sign-off from the managers of the ERG Leadership team. ERGs do take time to run and that will be time you can’t spend on projects that the people who are writing your reviews may want you to do. Finally, you need to understand where you are starting so you can objectively prove the worth of your ERG. A frequent Year 1 objective is improving the disability self-identification rates of your employees. You can’t tell how much impact the Disability ERG had in this area unless you know the rate of self-identification *before* your ERG started.

ERG Leadership Plan

It is important when starting any type of ERG not to overload too few people with too many responsibilities. Almost no one has running an ERG as their primary job, most people try to squeeze ERG work in around their other main job responsibilities. Identify who will own:

  • Communications
  • Budget
  • Events
  • Year 1 ERG objectives (each should have a different owner)

Document this all in an ERG charter — if your organization has other ERGs, there may be a template for this, it doesn’t have to be too complicated. Also having an ERG leadership transition plan is important. There will be turnover due to people changing jobs or having life events take precedence over ERG participation, and there needs to be a succession plan to give others the opportunity to lead.

Find an Executive Sponsor

Executives and senior leaders play an essential role in times of change. Creating an ERG inherently creates change: Sometimes through its very existence, and other times through the ERG objectives. Executive sponsor support is important because visibility, authority and credibility of senior leadership helps demonstrate why the change the disability ERG will be bringing is necessary.

Once you have found an executive sponsor, then you want to make sure you also address the following issues:

  • Get periodic meetings (no less than quarterly) on the sponsor’s agenda
  • Attend the executive sponsor’s All Hands meeting
  • Executive sponsor announcement

Avoid choosing a leader from HR or Diversity and Inclusion. While those departments are the low hanging fruit, their support of an ERG won’t be a huge surprise. Instead, dip your toes into sales, professional services, or technology. Pick an area where a potential member reading the announcement says “Wow, John Smith is supporting the Disability ERG — must be important.”

Create your disability ERG logo

The “Picture or it didn’t happen” meme applies here. There are many communications and tchochkes that won’t be doable until the logo is done. Many larger companies have branding guidelines that must be followed, so make sure you find them and stay within those if this applies to you. If other ERGs exist at your organization, looking at the way they have done things is frequently a good guideline.

Plan your disability ERG launch

For a disability ERG, it is excruciatingly important to have a fully accessible launch. That includes things like food in wheelchair accessible areas and heights and a ramp to the speakers’ podium. Read this article for more information on those considerations. Other essential activities include:

  • Book a room for the launch
  • Decide on launch activities
  • Food
  • Announce your meeting schedule for the next 12 months

This may also be a good time to reach out to your facilities management group.

Disability ERG Communications Plan

A lot of Disability ERG work revolves around communications, especially if you are a large multi-national corporation. Some things that you may need to accomplish to saturate your potential members with information about your group include:

  • Internal web pages
  • ERG Swag (stickers, coffee cups, and shirts are very popular)
  • Posters for information tables(to cross promote your ERG at other’s events)
  • Email Template / Group
  • Slack channel

Conclusion

Every company that is large enough to have any ERG needs to have a disability ERG. Failing to do so can seem #Diversish — that is, caring about other more traditional areas of diversity and inclusion, but not disabilities. Recruiting goals for people with disabilities and veterans with service-related disabilities are hard to meet without disability ERGs. Either your organization:

  1. Won’t be able to find candidates with disabilities;
  2. Might find some candidates with disabilities, but they don’t feel comfortable self identifying, or
  3. There will be retention issues because employees with disabilities don’t have a collective mechanism to air common grievances and support one another.

Disability ERGs are a huge win for everyone — employees (both those involved in the group that are leaders, and those that are members), the organization itself, and members of the public who may be treated with less bias when applying for a position with the organization.

Published inAccessibilityBusinessDeafDisabilitiesDiversityInclusion

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