Culture and research

Disability Employee Resource Groups - An effective tool for strengthening companies’ inclusion efforts

17 Jun 2021

By the Editorial staff

Committed people are any organisation’s most valued asset. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), voluntary associations of dedicated employees, organised around shared interests, are an important case in point. They are a driving force in fostering cultural change in workplaces, contribute to company diversity efforts and, if systematically consulted, can help shape inclusion policies and improve the workplace. When establishing disability ERGs, institutions need to be aware of the opportunities and challenges that may arise.

Disability ERGs bring a number of benefits to organisations. They provide a safe environment for people with disabilities to speak up and be listened to and help raise awareness among staff through informational events, panel discussions and celebrations such as the International Day of Persons with Disability. As people are sometimes reluctant to disclose their disabilities, employees at companies with well-established ERGs have an additional, independent and, if desired, anonymous forum for conveying concerns. Managers and HR partners, when informed, can offer staff more targeted and effective support. Disability ERGs also act as ambassadors of the company's commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Institutional reputation is enhanced, which helps recruit and retain more diverse talent, to the benefit of decision-making processes and staff wellbeing. As research conducted by Software Advice shows, the presence of ERGs is an important factor for people choosing to apply to or stay in an organisation.

Finally, people with disabilities have to cope with accessibility barriers on a daily basis. The military-like project-management expertise and innovation skills they develop to overcome obstacles are an institutional asset. ERG members can, for example, provide invaluable insights into making the company's website and buildings more accessible, and more generally in the development of disability-proof policies. A recent blog post on Evenbreak, an innovative UK disability job board, underlined that "living with a disability in today's society comes hand-in-hand with outstanding creativity, determination, and problem-solving abilities". Firms should take advantage of these qualities by facilitating the participation of ERG members in accessibility testing exercises and product development activities.

Disability ERGs create challenges as well, which must be managed. Smaller companies in particular may rely too much on ERGs as change-management players instead of tasking the relevant subject-matter experts. Members may help identify HR policies and practices that need to be updated, provide psychological support and coaching to other members and engage with external associations, but as volunteers with full-time jobs, they can invest only limited resources in these activities. In addition, working time and a budget should be allocated to establishing disability working groups, running alignment meetings with other ERGs, co-organising educational events and designing and implementing Inclusive Leadership training. Furthermore, if the company culture is not sufficiently mature, managers may not see participation in ERGs as adding value and may underestimate the development opportunity these groups offer to their staff in terms of leadership responsibilities, gaining cross-departmental expertise and cultivating a company-wide network. Finally, Judith Katz and Frederick Miller suggest in their research that "ERG members need to be recognised and rewarded for their contribution to the organisational goals: not as a sideline but aligned with how the organisation evaluates all the elements of performance." A lack of explicit recognition in terms of extra pay, participation in conferences or formal allocation of part of their working time leads to frustration and, eventually, withdrawal. At Google, for instance, employees can dedicate up to 20% of their working time to such activities. The strategic decision HR leaders face when starting or endorsing ERGs is whether to consider them informal social groups or formal organisational partners. This is particularly important when considering disability ERGs, whose unique competences cannot be found elsewhere within organisations. Experience shows that a more participative approach leads to a more resilient and attractive company. The participation of disability ERGs in designing policies that affect disabled employees can contribute to the development of a truly inclusive working environment.

I founded the Disability ERG at the European Central Bank (ECB) in June 2019, along with two other colleagues, after several years of informal activity. We have a well-functioning board and a committed group of members and allies, and since our establishment have maintained a regular dialogue with all departments that deal with disability matters. This approach has created several measurable benefits. In the last two years the ECB has implemented a number of changes to its buildings and website to improve accessibility. In 2020 our HR department established a central HR contact point dedicated solely to disability, and published a Disability Guide and Disability Framework. Our staff members with disability benefit from dedicated support in dealing with social welfare authorities. The choice of our HR leaders to consider ERGs an organisational resource, accompanied by the strong commitment to diversity topics shown by our President, has been a game changer for the institution and for colleagues with disabilities. Other organisations may also wish to consider this win-win approach.

Disclaimer: I am expressing my personal views, which do not necessarily reflect those of the ECB.

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