Deloitte employees who are currently participating in any of its workplace affinity groups will need to make other plans. The company plans to phase out the groups – also known as employee resource groups – many in the next 18 months. Instead, employees will be able to join inclusion councils. In these “white men hold important seats at the table.”
I know, I know. Cue the big, fat eye roll. Great! The last safe space for minorities in the workplace is being eliminated in order to make things easier for white men. But it’s not like that. And frankly, in their current iteration – ERGs have been around since the 1960s – have you heard many stories where companies are happily touting the wondrous diversity results they’ve enjoyed from them? Me either.
Author Jeff Green’s Bloomberg article states that Deloitte is moving away from traditional diversity management strategies toward ideas that will promote broader acceptance and buy-in – especially from white males. That’s smart. That’s true inclusion.
Note, I’ve never been in an ERG. I’ve attended a few meetings at different companies, but I never worked for a company that offered them. Further, I’ve never believed that affinity groups were particularly helpful to an overall mission to increase organizational diversity and inclusion. How could they be? By nature, most of them are exclusionary -they’re created for individual groups.
Of course, ERGs can offer participants an opportunity to get things off their chest, to commune with like-minded individuals, get valuable tips and tricks to promote success on the job from people who may personally and professionally share your work experience. It’s great to have people on hand to combat the feelings of isolation that are common for many minorities in the workplace.
Then, you hear those fabulous stories from companies like Frito Lay that get wildly successful product ideas from minority ERG’s that boost the bottom line in crazy ways. But other things I’ve read, people I’ve talked to who have participated in them, suggest that too often, ERG meetups degenerate into good old-fashioned bitch sessions.
I am not saying that’s always the case. But think of it like this. One common reason to get together in such a group is to find a sponsor, a mentor, someone who has the capacity to aid your career in some way. But there’s only so many who can do that in any one group. Then, long-term, what’s better? To isolate yourself from people who can influence your career for the sake of comfort, or to find ways to work alongside those who are different and have influence in an effort to change your situation for the better?
Great mentors and sponsors come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Some of the stickiest, most useful lessons I’ve had in my career came from older white men and women. When different types of people are paired up – like a white man and a black woman, for example – the learning can go both ways. This kind of diverse pairing can elevate the opportunity to gain different, skill and perspective expanding experiences – on both sides – and initiate more and different opportunities for career growth than two people who share the same ethnicity and/or gender.
Further, that learning spreads. A white man who successfully mentors a black woman is more likely to do so again, to promote people who look like her, and to develop and aid others who look or act different.
Deloitte seems to agree with me. Green’s article said the company’s inclusion councils are supposed to “bring together a variety of viewpoints to work on diversity issues.” He wrote:
“We are turning it on its head for our people,” says Deepa Purushothaman, who’s led the WIN (the company’s women’s group) since 2015 and is also the company’s managing principal for inclusion. Deloitte will still focus on gender parity and underrepresented groups, she says, but not in the same way it has for the past quarter-century, in part because millennial employees—who make up 57 percent of Deloitte’s workforce—don’t like demographic pigeonholes.”
Purushothaman said that by including older white men who still make up a good chunk of the leadership ranks, Deloitte can generate more diversity advocates, sponsors and allies. Why? Because when white men are in the room with women and minorities, hearing their stories first hand, they may understand better what’s going on. They can connect in a more personal way to people sharing their stories and experiences.
This connection could increase their desire to help, to initiate, participate and help to sustain change. Remember what I said about the learning spreading? Effective change has to start with those at the top of the house. And whether it’s right, wrong or whatever, white men still hold most of those slots. We – women and minorities – need them on our team.
Green referenced a 2014 report by the Society for Human Resource Management, and only 15 percent of large companies have ERGs for women or minorities. But they’re common at many well-known companies, like Apple, General Motors and Citigroup.
He wrote that Deloitte, however, has been more vocal than many in its desire “to turn the page, surprising some diversity advocates. “I have to say that is really unusual,” says Jennifer Brown, a consultant who helps companies create employee programs focused on racial or gender identity. “I have not heard of a single company doing that.”
“PwC LLP, a competitor of Deloitte, doesn’t plan to change its system of ERGs focused on women and minorities. “Our affinity groups at PwC are focused on business outcomes and come together to sponsor events that provide cultural awareness, mentoring, and opportunities to network,” Lisa Ong, diversity director at PwC, said in a statement. “We believe there is tremendous value in also having individual ERGs to provide more leadership opportunities to their members.”
That makes good sense, but I support Deloitte’s new strategy to be more inclusive. I can see far more valuable connections to be made, lessons to be learned, ideas to be generated and shared with the right people, happening in a mixed group. If participants are committed and prepared to deal with some discomfort – a little pain as metaphoric curtains are lifted and the underbelly of the beast is revealed – the new mixed dynamic offers clear and more timely benefits associated with engagement, development, retention and internal and external recruiting.
A proactive strategy that holds inclusion as its primary goal is a good idea. I’d be very interested to see data in 12-24 months post-affinity group dismantling. See how far the new strategy has managed to move the company’s cultural and talent management needles. I doubt things will be worse. Change is good.