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.

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Red “U” shaped magnet with a white wheelchair symbol on it attracting metallic cartoon figurines

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.

  • enhance career development
  • obtain professional networking, and;
  • increase their personal development in the workplace
  • 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:

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

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 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.

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:

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

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.

  • Attend the executive sponsor’s All Hands meeting
  • Executive sponsor announcement

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:

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

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:

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

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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