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 4 top tips to create the perfect ERG

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

Words by Isabel O'Brien

Employee resource groups hold huge potential for the pharmaceutical industry to boost internal and external inclusivity. This how-to guide explores how pharma can ensure these ERGs succeed

Employee resource groups (ERGs) are rapidly multiplying in number, but these initiatives are at risk of running aground without wider participation and support by organisations.

It is widely understood that 90% of Fortune 500 companies have at least one ERG. This figure is impressive, but less so when compared to the fact that only 8.5% of employees are taking part in these groups. So, how can companies get more people involved in ERGs, and what does it take for groups to have an impact, both internally and externally?

1. Communicate the purpose

For all their benefits, ERGs need a publicity overhaul. The first ERG was founded at Xerox in response the 1960s US race riots with the aim of improving diversity in the organisation and race relations in the local community of Rochester, New York state. Known as an ‘affinity group’, this arguably remains a far more astute evaluation of the value they deliver.

“ERGs are imperative to cultivate a sense of belonging and to help companies understand the unique perspectives and needs of their employees, patients and communities within diverse segments,” says Pamela Fisher, Vice President, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS). ERGs should have specific goals and be positioned to prospective members as catalysts for change both inside and outside company walls.

Fisher also highlights the opportunity to build connections as another pull to be noted. These aren’t just altruistic ventures but could serve as professional springboards as well. In fact, a recent report by McKinsey showed that 40% of ERG members said participation could lead to career advancement.

2. Create a safe space

Encouraging employees to join ERGs must be coupled with empowering groups to fulfil the purpose for which they were formed. “The best way to drive the most value from an ERG is to support and encourage employees to feel psychological safety and [offer] empowerment to have a voice,” says Dee Dhamija, Global Talent Scout and Co-lead, Disabilities and Allies ERG, AstraZeneca.

To achieve this, group leaders must urge employees to share their experiences and critique company strategies freely. Not only will this create closer bonds between members, but it will enable organisations to gather vital feedback on company policy, tools, processes and systems. A safe space can be created by group leaders “sharing a personal story, lived experience or challenges”, says Dhamija, both in the room and on public forums such as social media.

3. Ensure senior leader support

Participants are the bedrock of these groups, but as is the appropriate backing to turn ideas into action. “Senior leaders can be instrumental in driving the success of ERGs,” asserts Ester Banque, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Haematology and Cell Therapy USA, BMS. Leaders should advocate for their reports to take time out of their day to take part and volunteer as an executive sponsor themselves, she says, sacrificing their own time to join panels, keynotes and presentations.

Senior leaders can be instrumental in driving the success of ERGs

In addition, many ERGs fail as they lack clear avenues to convert the ideas they have generated into company policy change. This can be avoided by ensuring groups have “a direct reporting line to their executive sponsors in the C-suite”, says Fisher.

4. Reward participants

Whether ERG leaders should be financially compensated is hotly debated – for example, LinkedIn recently announced it would give leaders $10,000 for each year served to mixed reactions. But, either way, there must be mechanisms for remuneration for all.

“While I do not feel that employees that volunteer to lead ERGs should be incentivised monetarily, their contributions and hard work should be taken into consideration during yearly employee reviews and appraisals,” asserts Dhamija. She adds that companies could also use internal award schemes to recognise ERG leaders for their efforts.

Companies must ensure every participant feels valued by organisations for their contributions whether that is via feedback actioned, connections built, opportunities for professional acceleration, or, ideally, all of the above.

This feature appears in GOLD 27 – read the full issue here.

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