Why have an ERG?


For a little over 9 months, I have been working with a public sector agency proving periodic support to a number of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) leadership teams. The groups have been at various levels of development and the leads have had a range of experience in running their ERG and supporting its membership.

Things have changed since I led an ERG – even though it wasn’t that long go (2016 – 2022). Mostly the time available to devote to working on the demands of leading a network has reduced. This has led to a disconnect between the rationale for, and value of, an ERG. There is little time in a working day to do what should be done as part of core business, let alone the voluntary work of an ERG. 

I was a member of my disability ERG for over a decade, a deputy chair for just over a year, and the chair for 3.25 years. I also had the advantage of 2.5 years working my agency’s internal responses to disability inclusion. I was able to see how the disability ERG and the agency’s policies and practices intersected and could generate mutual (shared) benefit.

The past 9 months have given me the opportunity to reflect more deeply on the foundations of my success and how the ERGs I have been working with might find their own success in their own specific situations.

Here I want to focus on ERGs formed to address inclusion and equity concerns. Not all ERGs have a problem-solving mission. That noted, even those who are not may find some useful thoughts below.

The defining the relationship

Back in July 2010 when my disability ERG was formed there weren’t many policies or practices supportive of staff with disability. The ERG’s role was to identify the pain points and unmet needs of staff with disability and consult with the agency on what solutions we wanted.

By the time I became the ERG Chair in November 2016 there were policies in place. But knowledge of them and adherence to them wasn’t common among those who were expected to know. In any case some of the policies and resultant practices left a lot to be desired.

I progressively shifted the ERG from being a passive participant in consultation to a pro-active advocate for making the policies work. We were a kind of canary in the coal mine. When the intent articulated by a policy didn’t translate into an inclusive or accessible practice we spoke up. But we were not adversarial. Our approach was collaborative – how can we help you turn intent into practice?

Part of that approach was to increase awareness among key staff of the lived experience of having a disability at work and experiencing exclusion and inaccessibility. We fed back to peers and leaders how we experienced their policies and programs. There was abundant good intent, but it often didn’t translate into effective remedies.

That feedback established a central function of the ERG – asking how well-intended policies and programs played out in the ‘real world’ of the lived experience of staff with disability. This feedback function is half of the yin/yang balance of an ERG. The other half is creative – initiating innovative responses based on lived experience insights.

I was committed to ensuring the disability ERG wasn’t seen as a union. Other disability ERGs in the sector had unionist members and this led to a degree of confusion. That was understandable. There was a shared commitment to justice and equity. But I had a substantial background as a union rep and I could imagine nothing more catastrophic than an ERG replicating the tactics of unions. 

Unions have a role when a situation, for whatever reason, escalates into a dispute. An ERG must be a partner and a collaborator, and never an adversary. 

ERGs must have a clear sense of where they sit in the arena of employee-led activism. ERGs are committed to the ‘interests’ of staff rather than their ‘rights’. This is a nuanced distinction to be sure, but it conveys a fundamental difference in style – co-creative versus adversarial. The ERG style cannot be confrontational.

That function and distinction isn’t necessarily understood and agreed to by an agency’s executive leadership team. Hence the relationship between the ERG and the agency must be thought through, explored, negotiated, and agreed upon. It must be clear and unambiguous.

I also have a substantial background in compliance monitoring (licenses and contracts). I achieved far more by building relationships and collaborating on solutions than my more confrontational colleagues were able to do. I got better, sometimes radically improved, outcomes by getting to know the key people and understanding their business or service. I also shared insights into why regulatory functions are necessary – and where we could do better.

If I could succinctly define an ERG, I would say it is an organised and intentional part of a feedback loop characterised by respectful relationship building and positive collaboration on closing the gap between intent and actuality. 


ERGs have the potential to be recognised as a key source of invaluable feedback on how policies and programs are playing out in the experience of employees. This is a proactive and collaborative role which communicates how policies and programs are working out relative to what is intended and hoped for.

The ability to feedback effectively is critical. For staff an ERG can be seen as a trusted voice to articulate issues and deal with delicate personal matters in a diplomatic and effective way. For the agency the ERG can be recognised as professional source of vital insight into how policies and programs are being responded to.


An essential aspect of giving feedback is proposing solutions and remedies when well-intended actions by an agency fail to deliver. What can be done better or differently?

An ERG able to offer high quality insight into the lived experience of staff with access and inclusion needs can work with an agency to refine policies and programs and collaborate on problem solving. This is an opportunity to drive genuine innovation via authentic shared commitments to co-creation. But for this to happen the relationship between ERG and agency leadership must be negotiated and settled.

The unreasonable burden on managers

For the past 9 months I have been talking with a range of ERG representatives about their experiences. A huge level of expectation is placed on managers – in terms of what they should know and how they should act. This used to be a perfectly reasonable expectation, but times have changed. 

Several years ago, the NSW government kicked off the Age of Inclusion campaign. It had a manifesto which said, “Today leaders inspire with self-awareness and empathy.” Nice idea, except for a huge problem. Self-awareness and empathy are hardly attributes that would be assigned to managers and executives on the whole. How those highly desirable attributes would be developed or fostered was nowhere explored. They are not part of any recruitment process even now.

There is no doubt that the best leaders are self-aware and empathic. But they are scarce. There is no doubt that these qualities should a minimal requirement for leaders in conformity with our contemporary values and expectations. But who is going to make that happen, and how are they going to do it?

The point I want to stress here is that many policies and programs are developed with an entirely imaginary leader in mind. And when real leaders fail to exhibit their fantasised virtues and skills they are blamed – from above and below. 

Contemporary legal and social value realities place a burden of responsibility upon leaders that did not exist 25 years ago. But in that intervening time little has been done to prepare organisational leadership for the realities of implementing the new demands on/obligations of leaders in relation to how they relate to their teams.

ERGs have been developed in that time to meet a need within an organisation’s workforce culture. But that need is rarely frankly articulated. That need is a critical role – to act in partnership, from the perspective of a staff member with access and inclusion needs, with the agency to realise its policy objectives on staff wellbeing. 

Leaders, at manager level especially, play a critical role in realising those objectives. But they are often neither well-suited nor well-equipped to deliver. That’s not their fault. There is little opportunity for leaders to explore just how much expectations upon them have changed. For some, managing is a task focused and transactional role, and that is what they signed on for. Others see it as a facilitative and developmental role. They are in a minority.

As is so often the case operational realities lag behind aspirations and ideals, and that lag is rarely discussed as a solvable problem to be addressed with a realistic appreciation of just what is involved.

ERGs must shift any disposition toward passively expecting managers to deliver on the full range of expectations current policy making practices impose. This is unreasonable and unfair.

Instead of seeing managers as singularly responsible, ERGs must see them as key administrative players in a shared burden of responding to changing expectations and demands. It is true that some managers will be so out of synch with the evolving values that they will resist collaboration. That resistance can’t be tolerated, and more assertive action will be required.

I learned from my compliance monitoring days that taking the time to build respectful relationships with key people created mutually respectful insight into the complexities and difficulties that arise in owning and running a business, managing a service organisation, or performing in a compliance enforcement role.

We can have completely just expectations about what is needed, but utterly unrealistic expectations about how that need can be satisfied. Those charged with delivering an outcome may not be able to do so without cooperation and support. ERGs don’t represent passive recipients of policies and programs but engaged participants in a workplace environment.

The thing about the idea of inclusion is that you shouldn’t/can’t exclude managers or leaders because they aren’t doing what you think they should be doing. Inclusion is about building a respectful understanding of what impedes well-intended aspirations. 

The problem of the lack of accountability

Public sector agencies are plagued by a lack of accountability at leadership levels. It’s a problem in the private sector as well, but there, there is remedy. A clear bottom line accommodates drastic remedial action when that is threatened.

Accountability becomes a problem when there’s pressure to adapt and change, but the needed insight and resources are often not sufficient to deliver an effective response. The burden of change becomes a backlog on managers who often struggle to keep abreast of business-as-usual demands, let alone undergo a significant psychological change that will enable them to lead and inspire with self-awareness and empathy.

There’s a kind of magical thinking that permeates our traditional hierarchical organisations. A good idea is conceived with genuine good intent but the command, “So let it be!” is utter more as an incantation than a genuine strategic intent. The business of manifesting that expression of semi-divine will is enthusiastically delegated to those who may not have the knowledge, time, resources, or passion to do the job needed at the standard required. The result is often a pale shadow of the original noble vision, despite earnest good will being expended.

Inclusion is a far more complex affair than politicians and their policy wonks imagine. Good ideas are rarely resourced to the extent they should be in an ideal world. Nobody is to blame about this. This is normal. What is different in we are now ineptly trying to do good and important things rather than nothing at all.

Organisations don’t create ERGs unless they implicitly acknowledge that they need help to align organisational cultures to match expected/desired operational changes in conformity with legislative and policy requirements. What is missing is an explicit acknowledgement of this and the coalition building that indicates that there is a shared acknowledgement that the normal approach isn’t sufficient.

Accountability is an embedded problem in the public sector for a host of reasons not relevant to this discussion. But I want to quickly say it is also universal in our culture – and maybe our psychology. It is also reflected in an ERG’s passivity and willingness to blame the organisation’s leadership for failing to honour their obligations and meet their expectations.

It is in ERGs that inspiring “with self-awareness and empathy” should be found because ERGs can self-select for these qualities in a more adaptive way than organisations currently can. ERGs are anomalous in important respects. As noted earlier, they are not unions. They are a novel development filling a vital role that simply has not been clearly articulated. They are an expression of good intent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the creators know all the answers. Its all a work in progress – an experiment – and an important one at that.

In a sense accountability sits with an ERG to be up to the job it has taken on – and that should be its focus. This means it should be aware of the reasons it was created. An ERG sits outside the normal hierarchy, and this gives it potential for great, but unconventional, influence. It must establish a clear contract with the agency for this influence to be fruitful.

The shock of the new

Finally, it is essential to appreciate how new all this is to everyone involved. Our workplaces are evolving to meet emerging ideals and values. For example, in NSW the Disability Inclusion Act was introduced in 2014 – a scant decade ago. Its requirements are an add on that have required adjustment on the fly. 

The Disability Inclusion Act created a requirement for NSW public sector agencies to have Disability Inclusion Action Plans (DIAPs). They are great ideas but they have been often more about compliance with the act than a passion. The intents expressed in the DIAP requirements can be seen as a great potential to drive change or signs of failures of agencies to really give a damn. We can choose.

We routinely underestimate what is required to become aware of, committed to, and then conform to new expectations – even when we are strongly sympathetic to them. The myth that mere cognitive stimulus is all that is required to trigger a cascade of rational changes persists. Advances in psychology and neuroscience tell us otherwise. 

There’s a science and an art to working with individuals, teams, and workplace cultures to manifest the changes our emerging values want. But when two parties want a common outcome but lack a shared understanding of either needed art or science progress toward that outcome will necessarily be slower than it might otherwise be.

One lesson I quickly learned as an ERG Chair was that despite my good intent, I lacked key skills and critical knowledge. I was fortunate to attend the Australian Network on Disability’s 2018 Annual National Conference, where Kate Nash was the keynote speaker. Kate is the founder and CEO of PurpleSpace. The day after the conference I attended a Networkologyworkshop run by Kate.

That experience transformed how I ran the ERG. I routinely remind Kate how grateful I am for that experience. There is a science to running an effective network, which can be learned. There is also an art which can be developed.

The changes impacting our workplaces seem relentless and even though they are moving us in the right direction – toward being more inclusive, more compassionate, and empathic – it’s still hard work even when we are intentional and willing participants.

This is a vital point. ERG leaders uniquely sign on to drive that change in an intentional way. It’s their sole business. For everyone else it’s an add on. We need to remember that.


I have been obliged to revisit my time as an ERG lead and understand that times and people have changed. I can’t simply encourage ERG leads to do what I did as an act of mimicry. This has meant I have had to reimagine the circumstances I worked in. They were hugely helpful to me. But does this mean the present environment is inherently less favourable, or just unfavourable to replicating what I did the way it did it?

It’s a bit of both – but still not all of what can be. What is now is what has to be worked with, so we need to evolve how we see things. I shaped the disability ERG as a de facto business unit working with mainstream business units to achieve a considerable level of success. It took the lead in collaborating with formal business units to feedback how staff with disability were experiencing the agency’s intent to be more accessible and inclusive.

Change toward greater accessibility and inclusion demands attention and engagement. It competes for that cognitive and emotional energy required against other demands that are considered core business. Staff wellbeing has traditionally been either a low priority or entirely transactional. But changes in our social and cultural values have been driving a radically different approach. The welfare of staff members is seen as a high priority. How that expresses itself in organisational practice and culture will depend on how much attention can be attracted and effectively applied.

Eventually we will evolve a work culture in which staff wellbeing is understood to be core business. But that is a huge step, despite the flow in that direction. We have add-ons, but at least we have them.

ERGs are a novel response to a novel situation – the evolving values that govern how workplaces should function. We need to understand that. There are no cultural rules about how they function. Developing them is a challenge to be welcomed. But there are rules in organisational, social, and individual psychology that will determine success or failure. It is important to understand them, and work with them to create benefits for all. There is no ‘them vs us’. Rather there is a dynamic tension between required actions and desired actions and intended outcomes and actual outcomes. 

The interplay between ERGs and their agencies is a zone of potential for considerable and rapid positive change. But both ERG and agency must have a mutual understanding of, and commitment to, exploiting that potential.

Ultimately an ERG is an expression of a staffs’ desires to achieve the satisfaction of essential, even fundamental, needs through respectful relationships with the people charged with ensuring they are delivered. The intent of all parties is good, but the performance (delivery and feedback) is still evolving toward what is mutually desired. There are exceptions to this, but such situations need more than an ERG to trigger the needed changes.

ERG operate in a unique creative space and have extraordinary potential to be a partner in driving desired changes in inclusion and equity in unprecedented ways.

Let’s be clear about bias and prejudice


Let’s understand that the reason we are biased and prejudiced is because being so was once a really good thing. This is a topic I come back to often because it is so important that we don’t misunderstand it. If we get it wrong many of the remedies countering exclusion that we put in place won’t work. When that happens, we waste the precious and scarce resources of time, attention, and commitment.

At the time of drafting I had just finished reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It’s a sobering survey of our impulses to respond to cognitive dissonance in self-justifying ways.

Here’s what the Amazon blurb for the book says: Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right – a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

Things have changed since our brains were hard-wired for impulses that served tribes well, but let individuals be sacrificed in the interest of the tribe. A male who over-estimated his strength and speed may die miscalculating a mammoth’s reaction, but maybe only after a run of successes that kept the tribe in food and other mammoth generated resources – like hide and bones.

Young males today perpetuate that same habit, which is fine in sport and military service – once disciplined – but tragic on our roads and in pub fights.

The fact that we are hard-wired to imagine we are smarter and more capable than we really are isn’t an inherent problem. It just becomes a problem in the wrong context. 

Likewise, our reflex to be biased and prejudiced was a positive survival mechanism that favoured family or tribe for good reasons. These days bias and prejudice operate in ways that sustain bonds and relationships on a private level – and about which we usually give no thought. I have family members who now and then struggle financially, and I help them even though there are unrelated others who may have an even harder time and also need help.

I have noted elsewhere that we have shortened ‘inappropriate discrimination’ to just ‘discrimination’. We now have ‘anti-discrimination’ legislation because, apparently, ‘anti-inappropriate discrimination’ is too cognitively taxing for legislators and policy makers.

Being a ‘discriminating’ person was once a good thing to be. It meant that you chose carefully and wisely with an eye to quality. But no more.

So many of our impulses have gone the same way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being biased. Its just not appropriate in some situations. This is what we need to understand.

Dealing with human nature

My suspicion is that self-justification is also a default survival reflex. We do better if we over-estimate our ability than under-estimate it. In short, confidence is better than self-reflective honesty in many cases. This is especially so when you must act boldly and quickly. There are many instances when over-estimating our abilities can be beneficial, but it can also be catastrophic. But like so many hard-wired reflexes we must modify them to match our reality.

Our brains were hard-wired 10s of thousands of years ago and the culture we live in now is around 250 years old at the most.

If we look at reflexes and impulses that were developed at our origins and see that they now cause problems its only because our social environment has evolved rapidly and radically. Now we find ourselves in work and social situations where being unself-reflective, biased, and prejudiced aren’t desirable traits.

The interests of corporations, NGOs and government agencies in sophisticated western communities are not advanced by permitting biased and prejudiced behaviour to prevail. These organisations respond to our increasingly complex, diverse, and pluralistic communities which have an expectation of equity by making policies consistent with those expectations – but not with our habits or reflexes. We are living in an aspirational reality.

Whether this expectation is a good thing or not has been mostly decided in favour. We have collectively agreed we are aspirational. We now have laws and policies to back up that popular position. But not everyone agrees or is keen on complying.

Our cultural reality has evolved to a point where once useful and even necessary reflexes contradict the present social intention. Where exclusion was once a necessary survival reflex it can now be a cultural deficit. And the more specific the culture the more that deficit becomes problematic.

Our cultural and social evolution has outpaced our biological ability to adapt. We are playing catch up – all of us are.

There is intentional work to be done

The reason The Ten Commandments is a thing is that humans require constant reminders that they must modify instincts and impulses to conform to the aspirations of the community in which they live.

We have imposed a moral value upon conduct which is natural to us, but which is no longer appropriate to the community we live in. This can lead us to imagine that inappropriate conduct is inherently wrong rather than simply out of place.

How we respond to demands to change our values and behaviour in conformity with relatively new ideas varies widely. A minority will change rapidly to conform to the new ideas, ideals, and values. A minority will not comply and do so with strongly articulated determination. The majority will change with varying degrees of enthusiasm and capacity.

Altering reflexive behaviour requires effort. We may or may not have the cognitive and emotional resources to change our reflexive behaviour quickly, even when we want to. This is true of all of us.

Switching on and off doesn’t work

It isn’t easy to be highly inclusive at work and return to being very biased and prejudiced out of hours. For some this may, however, be a necessary balancing act to cater to work and personal realities.

Leaders of organisations understandably don’t feel an obligation to be overly concerned about an employee’s private life. But how they are able to comply with work-based inclusion policies will be powerfully influenced by their personal life circumstances. Sometimes those circumstances can cause a tension.

I grew up in a family steeped in Northern Irish Protestantism. We had migrated from Northern Ireland to Australia, but my father expected I would obey his injunction to despise Catholics. At the time I was in a small rural primary school and excluding kids who were Catholic wasn’t anything I was about to do. It would have meant excluding kids I really liked and getting into fights I had no desire to have. My father didn’t understand this. Neither did he understand that conflict with him was more in my interests than obedience. For some, however, conflict with inclusion policies can be more in their interests.

Working for an organisation with inclusion policies can place tensions on people whose private situation may be dominated by historic, cultural, and religious pressures to behave in exclusionary ways.

It’s hard enough to be consistently inclusive intentionally when you want to be and when the only real impediment is a lack of practice and an established habit. Its far far harder when there are strong influences that are anti-inclusion at play in your life.


Inclusion is everyone’s business. It always has been. There is evidence our ancient ancestors cared for their severely disabled family members. But between now and then we also responded to necessary us vs them imperatives.

In contemporary organisations we still find layers of power and privilege that trigger us vs them responses, but our goal – for our shared wellbeing – is to expand the embrace of our sense of us through acts of inclusion to encompass the whole workforce as a community – and beyond to include customers, service users and service providers.

This is a huge endeavour. It has been a work in progress of decades, and there is much work yet to be done. We will achieve our desired goals faster if we understand the challenge clearly.