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Building Minimum Viable Employee Resource Groups

How LTSE introduced ERGs to support diversity and inclusion from the start

It took about 90 minutes to get our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) up and running at LTSE. As a startup we are constantly balancing what to do now and what we have to put off until we grow, but we discovered it was super simple to set up a lightweight version of ERGs.

Of the commonly recommended practices for supporting diversity and inclusion, ERGs seem to be one of the easiest to fit into an early startup. But as I started asking around, I discovered not many places have tried it out. Sharing what we have done can hopefully give some other folks a head start.

This is definitely not the only way to go about introducing ERGs; the path we took was particular to our situation. We have multiple offices and use Slack as our primary communication path, so that was the obvious place to start. We also have employees for the groups to support; for companies that have more diversity debt this might look different.

Here’s what we did:

  1. We identified an organizer for each group. They play two roles: both as an organizer and what at a larger organization would be considered the “executive sponsor.” Unlike traditional executive sponsors, our organizers are all members of the groups. Because of our stage, everyone in that role has regular one-on-one meetings with our CEO, whether or not they are an “executive.”
  2. These organizers wrote a description of whom each group was designed to serve, came up with a Slack channel name and created a private Slack channel. We chose to use private channels because our goal was to increase trust and create a sense of belonging and ownership. We also have open discussions that include allies and we celebrate public advocacy. The ERG Slack channels are primarily about providing support for their members, which we’ve found can best happen with a degree of confidentiality.
  3. We did a celebratory announcement and added those descriptions to our onboarding document everyone gets on their first day. New employees are encouraged to send a Slack message to the organizers for an invite, which allows for self-identification. There’s also the Slack handle of the overall ERG organizer to contact if you’d like to start a new group. That’s it! Bingo, we have ERGs. Now, what do they do? Well, that depends on what people are looking for. Our largest group has a monthly call. The smallest group that I’m in primarily just shares in-group articles and life events.

We didn’t have budgets to start and with a distributed team we aren’t throwing regular companywide events, but there are many things ERGs can do that require none of those things:

  1. Prompt the CEO to highlight specific days or events. It’s free and quick, but founders may not be spending time watching the calendar for when Pride takes place this year in each city or remembering that Juneteenth is just around the corner. They might not know what to say after a hate crime targets a community. Having the organizer ask them to say something and support them in figuring out what that could be can make people feel valued in this particular place and boost visibility to the broader company.
  2. Check-ins and troubleshooting. Having a space to talk about problems where you may not have a solution and may not even be looking for a solution makes it more likely you’ll be able to find resources that help. Because these groups are cross-functional, it’s more likely someone will know the resources available and be able to help address the problem. Event publicity and organizing to go together. In major cities there are often group-specific spaces, but it takes time and energy to find them, much less find the good ones. Our organizers sit on the mailing lists So You Don’t Have To, and organize groups so you aren’t walking into a room of strangers by yourself.
  3. Broader knowledge sharing. We’ve been organizing casual lunch-and-learns about the cool things someone here knows, which boost visibility without the after-work aspects or extra expense of the traditional ERG-hosted parties.
  4. Delegate second-shift diversity and inclusion work outside the groups. If someone has something they want to see happen but not the time or energy to do it, the organizer can bring it to the whole company and find resources to support it, either other employees or external to the company.
  5. Relax. We often find ourselves using articles or memes as jumping-off points for socializing in the channels. The relationships I’m building in my ERGs are one of the great things about working at this job. As open as I am about myself and my identities, there is a difference between being able to bring my whole self to work and having a space where my whole self is already celebrated.

So that’s it: a quick and easy way to create inclusive spaces at a small company and support your early employees. Sometimes it turns out we think of things as being a heavy lift because in large, bureaucratic companies they are.

Have you been experimenting with inclusive practices at your startups? Are there others that may be easier than we think?

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