Why ERG volunteer work is both important and masochistic

Row of closely spaced unlit wooden matches next to two that are burning against a red background
ERG roles can contribute to the fatigue/burnout that *every* underrepresented minority experiences at least once (and sometimes continually) in their lives

It’s July. And if you aren’t in the US or don’t eat, live, breathe, and sleep disability as I do, you might not know that means it’s “ADA month.”

I’ve talked a lot recently (including July 14th at Bay CHI) about how incredibly important disability-related Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are to having an overall organization that feels inclusive and authentic to employees with disabilities.

But in this article, I’m going to talk a little bit about the dark side of ERGs. People who volunteer for them should do so with a bit of foreknowledge of what they may be facing.

Launching an ERG is a TON of work

Disability@VMware is the latest of 27 Power Of Difference groups (PODs, which is VMware’s name for an ERG). We had the good luck to have an amazing intern help us launch the Disability POD. She drafted a *26-page* cookbook just for planning launch events for any future VMware POD launching wannabes. The cookbook contained steps, communication templates, contacts, approvers, cost centers, and lead times. Smaller organizations probably have less overhead.

At a minimum, people who want to start a new ERG need to identify a key leadership group, find an executive sponsor, set goals, agree to mission/vision, figure out the budget, draft communications, design a logo, build internal and external web pages, plan a slate of events, determine sponsorships, craft social media campaigns, order swag, process invoices, determine key performance indicators, etc. If the launch is in-person, coffee/food and rooms may have to be booked. Captioning is required, and interpreters and working with a dedicated AV team to handle all the technical details is usually a good idea as well. It may not sound like enough to eat your life, but it is.

  • If your ERG is global and not just US-centric, it’s probably triple the amount of work. The extra workload comes from timezones and cultural differences that require a lot of thoughtful choices and lots of discussion around the pipeline for employees with disabilities, language, and activities.
  • If you are lucky, you might be able to step into an ERG that already has a mission, a vision, and a twelve-month plan. Then you can execute that plan while planning events for the subsequent twelve months cycle.
  • If you are really fortunate you can volunteer for a junior role in an ERG for a year before moving into a more senior position, then roll off to make room for others to have the same opportunity. Many companies have term limits on ERGs for a good reason.

You will run out of spoons

“Spoon theory” is a disability metaphor first written about by Christine Miserandino. Spoon theory represents the intersection of ego depletion, fatigue, and other factors that characterize the reduced amount of mental and physical energy that an individual with a disability has available to get through the day. In short,

  • You start the day with a certain number of spoons — which may differ day-to-day.
  • Each activity subtracts some number of spoons from your spoon inventory.
  • When you run out of spoons, you either have to borrow spoons from future days (which has collateral consequences), or stuff just doesn’t get done to your normal level of satisfaction.

There isn’t a day that goes by without me dealing with this. As I write this article, today is Thursday, which is my lowest spoon inventory day for the week because of my medication and work schedule. I plan my life around this fact.

ERG work takes spoons. Lots of them. The implications of the practical application of “spoon theory” is why we need allies to help us with the work because allies typically start the day with a higher spoon inventory than people with disabilities do.

ERG volunteers usually get lots of praise, but no extra financial compensation for the work

A big motivation for me doing disability ERG work is the ADA “nothing about us, without us, is for us” mantra. People with disabilities and their allies should be at the core of all disability ERG leadership groups. Successful ERGs are not made up entirely of people who show up because they get to rub shoulders with the Chief People Officer.

However, having taken an informal poll amongst people I know outside of VMware, very few of ERC leaders get any substantially additional financial compensation above their base salary for their ERG leadership work. Effectively we are being asked to volunteer our services in a for-profit business setting to help raise corporate awareness of bias against us.

People who rely on commission income or are committed to product release dates are horribly under-represented in ERGs

Remember those time commitments? Because of the lack of additional compensation, anyone whose salary is based on commission is out of pocket for the sales that they don’t make when working on ERG-related events. That means a lot of people who would otherwise be motivated to volunteer typically adversely select out of the process; when ERG leadership opportunities are announced, they simply don’t sign up. ERG hours are largely overtime for those that mentally get past the lack of compensation issue. Overtime uses up LOTS of spoons.

As is the nature with sales/consulting, people who work in these organizations are rarely available to assist with events at the end of quarters, whenever the EOQ happens to be for your company. That’s because they need to focus on their day job, which is to keep money flowing into corporate coffers, which in turn generates the compensation that puts food on their family’s table. Product deadlines are very similar in this regard. I wish there were a way to have more people in product and sales positions involved. Still, unfortunately, it’s rare for a manager at any company in sales/product organizations to be willing to lighten a day job load so a team member can contribute to an ERG.

ERG work exposes you to many difficult conversations

If you get past the overtime, compensation, and logistical hassles, many ERG related conversations are painful to both initiate and participate in.

  • I have sat on a zoom call and cried listening to co-workers tell stories about their lived experience as People of Color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and all the other diversity dimensions.
  • I have sat in a room full of my fellow POD leaders and made THEM cry as I told of the burden I feel compelled to carry as one of only three wheelchair users (and the only female wheelchair user) at a very large company, and the lack of belonging I feel when I am on the receiving end of corporate ableism and unconscious bias.

The first year of my VMware tenure was repeatedly marred by being blocked from fully participating at many events because the event planners just weren’t used to thinking about having people with mobility issues (or hearing/vision loss) at events. I experienced the occasional embarrassing emotional melt-down because I could not understand why some of the seemingly minor things I was asking for were met with such resistance.

How hard should it be to stop serving food at group events on tables I can’t reach on the grass I can’t get to?

“Just ask someone to help you,” is never a valid answer.

Being first at anything is hard, especially in business. However, internalizing that difficulty only makes life harder for yourself. If you don’t speak up, that needle will stay stuck as if in concrete exactly where it currently resides. Being silent may cause you to experience “internalized ableism” as you blame yourself for needing accommodations that others are not willing to inconvenience themselves to help you obtain. You have to make your voice heard to achieve positive change for everyone.

I remember crying the first time we captioned an all-hands meeting — I was interviewed (with 11,000 people watching live — thank goodness I didn’t know this until after it was over), and I could play it for my deaf daughter afterward which meant a lot to me. Most people forget that happy tears are tears, nonetheless. Crying as a result of experiencing the intense emotion caused by the cessation of discrimination requires the person crying to process the fact that up until that point, the discrimination existed. It is as if up until that point, you were not worthy of including. This dance is something that people who do not identify as underrepresented minorities really don’t understand. It is why it is so vital for people with disabilities to share our stories and share them loudly. Calling out ableism in any form is sharing the story of every person with a disability.

So why do ERG work?

I am privileged in so many ways. I am white. I grew up in a middle-class family in Silicon Valley, with incredibly supportive parents who could have lowered the bar for me, but chose to go the tougher road. Socio-economic and race factors have never intersected with my identity as a disabled woman.

I’ve got to be honest, I’ve come close to walking away several times due to the stress and workload. However, while ERG work is not all rainbows and puppies, it’s also not all doom and gloom.

  • VMware is good about making sure that POD leaders from all 27 PODs get executive visibility, leadership training, and coaching. But that isn’t true at all organizations.
  • Important people at VMware frequently thank me for launching and helping to run Disability@VMware. They call out the corporate changes that were made because of the POD’s efforts. For me, that’s a big motivation.

But, the number one motivating force for my ERG participation is that I’m not just making VMware better for me, I am making it better for the people with disabilities who come after me. Hopefully, someday I won’t be individually identifiable as “the woman who uses the wheelchair.”

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