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With a little help from your friends: The big business benefits of Employee Resource Groups
May 06, 2019
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” That’s a quote from 19th century Irish author and poet Oscar Wilde. It’s a quote that reminds us to be comfortable with ourselves and not conform to who we think we should be. Based on experience, however, I know that’s not always easy. I also know that when you can be yourself – especially in your workplace – good things can happen – for yourself and for the company.
That’s exactly the incentive behind company-sponsored Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or as we call them at AXA XL, Colleague Resource Groups (CRGs). According to a 2016 Bentley University study on ERGs, 90% of Fortune 500 companies and an average of 8.5 percent of employees in US-based companies belong to ERGs.
Many ERGs started in companies out of the need for people of difference to feel a sense of belonging. By getting together, employees created a sense of community with colleagues of similar backgrounds. But ERG’s are more than just a social community. ERGs have become opportunities for employees to offer and find support and understanding, to educate and share information and resources, and are a source of innovative thought. ERGs also provide employees the opportunity to accomplish even more:
• They are a forum to look at problems and find innovative solutions together
• They allow colleagues to demonstrate their leadership skills that they might not have the opportunity to showcase in their day-to-day job, and
• They give colleagues the opportunity to develop relationships with others at all levels within an organization.
Leading one life
While ERGs have been around for decades, I personally think they are more important than ever. I wish ERGs were there for me when beginning my career. For me, it took a cancer scare with my wife 15 years ago for me to start openly talking about being gay. (Read more about my journey here.) Up until that point, I decided to keep that part of my life out of my workday. And that, I discovered, is easier said than done, especially with the added stress of a wife with cancer. During trying times, everyone can use a little support. But when you are hiding a part of yourself, its impossible for your friends and colleagues to offer support if they don’t know it is needed. And I know that I wasn’t the only one trying to keep my personal life off the radar.
In fact, my ERG co-lead, Jeff Calvi, only came out at work with the launch of Pride@AXAXL. He has worked at AXA XL since 2007 but was not out; even though he had been out to his family and friends since 2000. When he married his husband in 2009, he shared the news with only a few close colleagues. He still actively changed pronouns and referred to his “spouse” or simply “Chris” when talking to the majority of people at work. He stated, “It wasn’t until the company launched the LGBT+ ERG, Pride@AXAXL, that I felt supported enough by the company to fully step out of the closet and be my authentic self at work. I was done with living two separate lives.”
Living one life is enough for most of us. One life can be filled with plenty of challenges – balancing work and family life, helping with a sick family member, enduring a personal illness or loss, or simply being different from the majority can present challenges in our lives. And, there is always the chance that these challenges add stress that can impact our effectiveness or our productivity. Studies have shown that a diverse and welcoming work environment results in happier employees, better teamwork and greater innovation because of the wide range of experiences employees bring to the table.
A little help from our friends
I am proud to see the insurance industry, including my own employer AXA XL and our broker partners like Marsh, AON and Willis, recognize the need to build supportive work environments. In fact, I participate in two ERG’s – AXA XL’s WoMen@AXAXL and Pride@AXAXL. The primary purpose of WoMen is to provide development and networking opportunities for women at AXA XL. Insurance industry statistics continue to show that women are not well represented in senior insurance leadership levels. According to WoMen@AXAXL co-lead, Audrey Geiger, “By providing forums like WoMen, AXA XL and other carriers and brokers who have also developed such networks, are providing a forum to empower female colleagues in the hopes of lifting those numbers of female insurance leaders. And these networks are not exclusive to female participation but recognize that male colleague involvement is valuable in pioneering and championing women in the workplace.” All colleagues are welcome to WoMen events, regardless of your gender, age, background, or stage of career.
I am particularly proud to be a participant and founding member of AXA XL’s LGBT+ CRG. Established in 2018, The Pride@AXAXL colleague resource group (CRG), offers peer support for colleagues who identify as LGBT+ and for those who support the shared goals of the LGBT+ community, our Straight Allies, or for colleagues who simply want to learn more about LGBT+ issues at work. Pride@AXAXL has proven to be a great forum to get not only our AXA XL colleagues together to learn about LGBT+ issues but also it has been a way to connect Broker and other industry ERG’s together to establish an even broader sense of community.
All of us seek some sense of belonging. We want to part of something. We want to be engaged at work and we want to develop, to advance our careers, or just to be better human beings. By acknowledging differences and creating opportunities for employees to engage, learn and support each other, company-sponsored groups like ERGs can play a key role in developing a company culture that enhances our work experience, cultivates relationships and builds a community.
Big business benefits
Especially today, given our super connected world and our global economy, our workdays, our work lives, do not fit into a 9-to-5 box. The old corporate mentality may have been what we do outside our work hours, outside the office, is our own business. We all know though that isn’t the case nowadays. Who we are and all our differences – which is largely based on our lives outside of our professions – is what we bring to the office every day. And, it’s no secret that diversity in the workplace is good for business. The future innovation and success of our industry relies heavily on our ability to create a diverse and inclusive workplace that motivates every employee to reach their full potential. Studies have shown that a diverse and welcoming environment results in better teamwork and greater innovation due to the wide range of experiences that employees bring to the table. That’s why we need to celebrate our differences and make the most of them.
I know that my openness with my colleagues has made me a better leader, a better employee and a better friend. I want to make sure that the people around me feel comfortable being themselves, no matter what that means to them. ERGs have a lot of potential to impact the workplace in a positive way. I’ve seen it firsthand right here in our own offices where ERG’s have had a positive impact on real people – our friends and our colleagues. With increased participation in ERGs, we can help empower more colleagues to join in, to get engaged with others just like them or colleagues they want to know more about. In turn, we’re helping our companies, our industry, develop an inclusive culture that we want to be part of. We can help create corporate cultures where everyone feels that they belong, because they do. Businesses, like AXA XL, are showing their employees that they are on the right side of history, and groups like WoMen@AXAXL and Pride@AXAXL are one of the most strategic and beneficial ways we can do that.
About the Author: Anne Marie Elder leads AXA XL’s North America Marine insurance business. She can be reached at AnneMarie.Elder@axaxl.com.