How Executive Sponsors Can Support Disability ERGs/BRGs

By Nereida (Neddy) Perez NCLBN Board Member and Principal of D&I Creative Solutions

­For more than 58% of corporations, nonprofit and government agencies with Diversity & Inclusion programs in place, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)/Business Resource Groups (BRGs) are at the heart of their corporate culture transformation. These groups were originally created to help support diversity awareness and enable safe conversations on race, gender, gender orientation and disability topics to take place. Many of these groups are volunteer based and report into the company’s diversity &inclusion office. ERGs/BRGs have in past been crucial to identifying and growing the leadership skills of employees, recruiting talent, connecting and uncovering new market niches to position products and services and serving as advocates for policy and process changes. Normally, ERGs/BRGs are provide with an executive/corporate sponsor to help coach and guide the group within the company. The sponsors are selected from the company’s executive leadership team and often report directly to the CEO or President of the business.

What is your role as an executive/corporate sponsor?

Executive Sponsors are critical to the success of ERGs/BRGS because they serve as advocates within the company to help advance understand about disabilities. They also serve as a coach to the employees who have volunteered to serve on the leadership committee of the ERG/BRG. As a coach, the executive sponsor, can help employees understand the company’s policies processes, business strategy and how to navigate the corporate culture to advocate for internal change or help connect with customers. On a personal level, the ERGs/BRGs provide an excellent opportunity to learn and connect with employees who are helping the company meet its business goals. Executive sponsors are often expected to participate in community activities as spokespeople and/or attend internal events in a leadership capacity.

It is okay to be uncomfortable & not know the answers

Just like a new job assignment or career opportunity, you are not expected to be an expert in the topic of disabilities management or issues. However, an ideal sponsor takes time to learn and understand the employee group they will be working with. Think of this as a stretch assignment that will enable you to learn about the employees in your company, their families, and some of your customers. It is also a good opportunity to learn more about yourself and leadership skills in working with a diverse group of people.
This is also a prime opportunity to reach out to the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Office to ask for resources and information to better understand the disability space. Here are some questions you may want to ask the D&I Office:

• How many employees does the company have that are part of the disability community? What percent of employees in management and in operations have a disability? What are the national statistics of our company as compared to our competitors or other companies?
• What does the membership of the ERG/BRG consist of? % or parents? % of people with disabilities?
• Do we collect the opinion of employees with disabilities on our annual/quarterly corporate employee engagement survey? What are the major challenges by business, race, gender and/or disability?
• What policies do we have in place to ensure the protection/safe guard of the employees, families with disabilities?
• What is the process for handling requests for workplace accommodations for employees with disabilities?
• What are the legal requirements our company must meet? How are we doing?
• What are some community organizations we partner with? What does that partnership look like?
• How do we compare with other companies with regards to hiring and retention practices? What is our rate of hire of people with disabilities?
• Are there mentoring or internship programs in place for people with disabilities?
• What are our goals and what are the D&I Office’s expectations of executive/corporate sponsor?
• What are some materials I can read to get familiar with the issues facing the group

How can ERGs/BRGs Benefit the Company?

The ERGs/BRGs are the backbone of D&I Office initiatives because they provide opportunities for employees at every level to get involved in supporting diversity awareness and helping to advance discussions on policies, processes and systems that may impede the advancement or development of people with disabilities.
ERGs/BRGs in many companies have been attributed with increasing business operations and productivity performance, supporting recruiting efforts and even uncovering new business market niches that have generated new business revenue for the company.
The critical focus areas that ERGs/BRGs are often asked to develop business goals on by the D&I Office include:

  • Awareness building during Disability Heritage Month
  • Partnering with Recruiting/Talent Acquisition to support hiring
  • Onboarding new employees with disabilities
  • Identifying ways to connect with customers or retain customers
  • Drive employee engagement
  • Serve as a community ambassador and support community relations activities
  • Help to develop leadership skills of employees
  • Advocate and /or serve as a sounding board to drive internal policy changes

How Can You Support the ERG/BRG?

As an executive sponsor, you will be serving as a coach and mentor to the ERG/BRG and to employees who have volunteered for a leadership role on the committee. Many of the volunteers for these leadership roles are individual contributors and some maybe frontline managers who have never served in a leadership role themselves but who are looking to grow and make a difference. For many this will also be the first time that they are working with a corporate executive. Unlike being a VP of a department or business unit where you can direct activities, serving as the executive sponsor of an ERG is an opportunity to be a coach and advisor that helps guide others and not direct. As an executive/corporate sponsor this is your opportunity to help ERG/BRG volunteers better understand the company’s strategies and business processes as well as help develop their leadership skills. In your role, you will help serve as a sounding board for volunteers’ ideas, proposed goals and programs.

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