A Roadmap for Successful Implementation in the Federal Sector
Under the advisement and facilitation of the New Mexico Business Leadership Network, with support from the National Employer Technical Assistance Center (NETAC) funded to Cornell University by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP), three New Mexico-based Federal agencies participated in piloting disability-focused Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) in their workplaces in the spring of 2011. The agencies' unique operational and organizational structures contributed significantly to the process by which these ERGs were established and formed the basis for this Roadmap.
While ERGs have been prevalent in the private sector for many years, this concept is relatively new in the federal sector. This Roadmap is designed as a guide to facilitate replication and provides steps from gaining support to measuring success. The interest of the participating agencies in this effort stemmed from their desired goal for increasing the employment of persons with disabilities and to respond to Executive Order 13548 which was issued by President Barack Obama on July 26, 2010 in celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Executive Order states that
“I think the ERG has impacted the (US Army Corps) workforce because it is giving employees the opportunity to educate themselves and others about what it means to have a disability and how it impacts that person every day.”
Karen M. Doran, EEO Manager, US Army Corps of Engineers - Albuquerque District
"…Executive departments and agencies…must improve their efforts to employ workers with disabilities through increased recruitment, hiring, and retention of these individuals." Thus, Executive Order 13548 provided further impetus to the establishment and implementation of disability-focused ERGs and their potential impact on outreach and hiring while showcasing the commitment to employing individuals with disabilities.
The three entities in New Mexico that started ERGs were: Kirtland Air Force Base (KAFB), the U.S. Forest Service's Region 3 Office in conjunction with its D.C.-based Albuquerque Service Center, and the Albuquerque District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
KAFB-Kirtland Air Force Base
Consistent with their Disability Employment Strategic Plan and Hiring Initiative of 2011, KAFB launched their ERG. The launch occurred despite significant barriers caused by competing leadership issues across and up the chain of command. KAFB is a complex, multi-departmental agency encompassing an active military base. As a result, the initiation of a new effort, such as the establishment of an ERG, required a structured, regimented approach, as outlined in this document, to ensure base command approval.
USFS-U.S. Forest Service, Region 3 & Albuquerque Service Center
As a leader in the implementation of disability-related initiatives and a mentor to KAFB and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the USFS decided to approach this pilot as a community effort and shared its best practices with the other two pilot sites through the New Mexico Federal Executive Board. While collaboration hurdles existed, key departmental leadership in Human Resources, supported by the Disability Employment Program Manager (DEPM) and the Civil Rights Office Director has proven effective in moving this initiative forward. The initiative has an emphasis on increasing the recruitment and retention of persons with disabilities.
USACE-U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
As the smallest district office of the cohort, the USACE launched its ERG quickly and with fewer difficulties than the other participating agencies. Staff at USACE have embraced and implemented a "grassroots/bottom-up" approach in creating their ERG. In February 2012 they also established a sub-set with a Diabetes Awareness Group. In keeping with the grass roots approach, the ERG determined that a monthly Chairperson rotation would be the best approach for distribution of responsibilities, including setting the agenda and facilitating meetings. This approach was instituted to ensure fresh perspectives, enhanced participation, and increased interest and commitment. ERG members were also consulted about potential meeting topics, and were encouraged to utilize their community connections to identify appropriate speakers and resources. In spite of these rotating responsibilities, structure and formality are still paramount for this agency and have proven to be essential for sustaining traction.
Across all three agencies consistent leadership support has been vital to maintaining momentum and ensuring sustainability.
ERGs are organization-sponsored entities comprised of employees who are sharing common interests. Over the years they have contributed significantly to diversity and inclusion efforts as well as improved business practices and outcomes. Employees who participate in ERGs are often more engaged and better aligned with organizational missions and strategies. Although these groups are typically initiated by employees, for sustained success it is critical to present a business case, gain top management support, and to identify a senior-level Champion.
At KAFB, the Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Employment Program Manager in coordination with the Director of Personnel presented the business case to the Commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center in support of the development of a Disability Employee Resource Group.
This presentation focused on the following:
- Establishing a purpose and focus of the group
- Identifying an executive sponsor (organization champion)
- Presenting an agency-specific business case for establishing a disability-focused Employee Resource Group (ERG)—Internal EO & HR statistics
- Identifying and establishing objectives tied to organizational/agency mission
- Clarifying that employee participation is voluntary
- Presenting budget requirements, if any
- Securing approval to recruit employees to form a Leadership Team
"Since August 2011 we have a core group of directors and employees participating in monthly ERG meetings to address structural and architectural issues and access to the (internal) website. We are completing work on a draft charter for the ERG and with leadership approval will be ready for the Equal Opportunity Office to withdraw and act in a consulting capacity, reach out to a wider circle of Kirtland employees and let the ERG function. The current committee will continue to serve as an advisory role."
Robert J. Liddy, DAF, Affirmative Employment Program Manager, AFNWC/EO, Kirtland AFB
In addition to participating agency's Equal Opportunity and/or Civil Rights team, the following members have been identified as critical to organizing an ERG Leadership Team for sustained stewardship and outreach across the workplace:
- EO/Civil Rights Director
- Affirmative Action Manager or designated DEPM (Disability Employment Program Manager)
- HR Director and/or Chief of Recruitment
- Senior Leadership or Representative of the Executive Committee
- Legal Department Representative
- Budget & Finance
- Facilities Manager
- IT Support Representative
- Training & Development Representative
- 2-3 appointed employees with targeted disabilities hired under Schedule A appointing authority
The Committee should identify:
- Time and frequency of meetings
- The typical meeting agendas
- The objectives of this group, based on areas of mutual concern
- Guide the Committee Charter and Letter of Appointment process
Obtaining a Letter of Appointment from agency leadership is critical to formalizing the ERG as a working committee and for establishing recognition, and official status by all levels of the workforce.
A Letter of Appointment also increases leadership buy-in and formalizes the legitimacy of the ERG. After Senior Leadership approves the ERG as a formal agency committee, every employee receives access to the ERG intranet site's information/resource platform, thus aiding in the outreach and dissemination of the group's mission and resources.
To drive employees to the internal ERG site, it is recommended that the ERG leaders plan and work with their team to develop outreach strategies and generate interest for joining the group.
The following steps are suggested to reach this objective:
- Develop materials to introduce the group
- Advertise the Employee Resource Group through:
- Agency newspaper or newsletter
- E-mail broadcasts from Department Supervisors directed by EO
- Intranet site or similar information/resource sharing platforms maintained by designated ERG members
- Flyers on organizations' bulletin boards
- Possible events, such as a welcoming breakfast or a brown bag lunch informational meeting
- Leadership Team networking with staff
For agency-wide collaboration and program development, the new ERG Leadership Team will network and partner with internal diversity groups, including the agency's Special Emphasis Program Managers (SEPMs) and Disability Employment Program Managers (DEPMs). Employees interested in participating should request permission to attend meetings from their immediate supervisor. The employees can share ideas, obtain feedback, and build relationships.
Once the Letter of Appointment has been granted and employee outreach is conducted for open participation, the name of the group can be chosen. It should be collaborative and reflect the group's mission, vision and values.
- Members of the Leadership Team meet to discuss ideas and alternate suggestions
- The group chooses a name that reflects the purpose, mission and values of the group
- The name should stimulate interest to make employees want to learn more and join
- The Leadership Team briefs the Organization's Champion
The mission and goals should be established in collaboration with all ERG members and be linked to specific goals that stem from the Leadership Team's Initial Objectives, submitted with the Letter of Appointment. This should communicate both the organization and the group's core values and common interest.
While the mission defines the overarching purpose for which the group was established, the goals should clearly articulate specific activities and timelines.
The following questions should be addressed when setting the mission and goals:
- What are the core values of the group?
- How is this group different from other groups in the agency?
- What steps need to be taken to achieve the group's mission?
- What are the short and long term goals?
- What resources are needed for each goal?
- Who will take the lead in the implementation of each goal?
- What are reasonable and achievable timelines?
The Leadership Team reviews various organization structure options and meeting schedules.
The group should consider the following:
- Determine the day, time, length and frequency of meetings (monthly, quarterly?)
- Create an alternate plan for individuals who are unable to attend in person (e.g., teleconferences, SharePoint archives & notices)
- Select an accessible location
- Consider specific roles for members
- List the roles and discuss with group
- Create a procedure for handling meeting accommodation requests such as material in alternative formats, sign language interpreter, audio loop etc.
- Designate member(s) to:
- Lead meetings (possibly on a rotating chair basis)
- Create meeting agendas
- Share agendas with members prior to meetings
- Send reminders to members (all employees) and staff regarding the meeting place and time (ensure locations are accessible for individuals with disabilities)
- Identify a member to receive responses and track attendance
- Identify a member to take notes and send minutes before the next meeting
Once the goals and the ERG meeting parameters are established and agreed upon, prepare a budget that includes support implementation and submit it to the Organization Champion. This individual represents senior management and may be in the best position to advocate for the group and secure funding necessary to implement stated mission and goals.
Identifying a special feature for the program is critical to generating interest, fostering participation, and enhancing attendance. Defining this feature as a business solution that is parallel to the agency's mission or current strategic objective creates added value and increases support and recognition for the group. In the case of the U.S. Forest Service, for example, there is a nationwide initiative as of March 2011 called "Cultural Transformation" Led by Secretary Vilsack. This department-wide effort incorporates an action plan which focuses on six areas: leadership, employee development, talent management, recruitment and retention, customer focus and community outreach, and process improvement. This initiative is fertile ground for the Civil Rights and Human Resource community of the USFS to harness and promote their Disability ERG objectives as part of the greater goal for creating an inclusive and positive workplace culture where all employees are valued and heard.
Finding ways to meaningfully implement Executive Order 13548, which aims to transform the disability employment landscape within the Federal government, is a top priority. Creating a Disability ERG is a valuable strategy in meeting this national objective and elevating the discussion and organizational commitment at all levels to consider disability as an important diversity dimension and foster a more inclusive workplace.
Other examples include: setting a goal to establish a cadre of mentors to guide newly hired persons with disabilities or for employees who are family caregivers managing newly diagnosed impairments. Community involvement is another goal because increased visibility enhances the agency's external image with diverse groups and organizations. Serving on Boards or participating in special events further promote recognition while establishing the agency, as an employer of choice. These activities, therefore, serve a dual purpose: contributing to increased recognition for the agency in the community and expanding talent acquisition potential. Brainstorming with group members will help generate ideas that will give a unique focus and purpose.
A few steps to help meet this goal:
- Send out an invitation for a brainstorming session
- State the purpose of the session so members are prepared with ideas
- Set up an alternative on the ERG intranet site for members who cannot attend the session
- Assure members that all ideas will be considered and respected
- Record all concepts/ideas
- Group like concepts together
- Eliminate, through consensus, ideas that do not fit
- Have all members vote
- Adopt the consensus idea and disseminate agency-wide
“ERGs have worked tremendously for the private sector for over the past ten years, and I see it as imperative for the Federal sector to adopt these best practices to not only increase the hiring and retention of qualified employees with disabilities to be a competitive employer in today’s diverse economy, but also in boosting employee morale as we strive to create a Culture of Transformation here in the Forest Service. Top level support of these programs is therefore critical in our success and in making the efforts of the Employee Resource Group concept effective and consistent.”
James Maes, Director, Civil Rights, USDA,
Forest Service, Southwestern Region
When faced with challenges during development, implementation, or maintenance, identify the root causes and then take steps to reduce or eliminate them.
As a group, members should take the following steps:
- Define the challenge
- Analyze the cause
- Explore solutions
- Decide whether the challenge is worth solving
- Take action to overcome the challenge
- Consider the necessary steps to avoid similar challenges
Some challenges may include:
- Obtaining senior level support
- Recruiting employees
- Maintaining member participation
- Managing work schedules
- Addressing meeting conflicts
- Securing funding, if, when and where needed
- Dealing with lack of resources
- Increasing membership
- Achieving the ERG's identified goals
"Building on a year of ERG development and a consistent rotation of monthly guest speakers, the Army Corps anticipates “ongoing growth to fulfill and satisfy the needs of employees, construction of an educational and localized network of resources for the workplace with sensitivity and a proactive commitment to the needs of others.”
Joseph "Paul" Rebarchik, ERG Chair (named “DIG” for Disability Interest Group), US Army Corps of Engineers - Albuquerque District
Ongoing organization and member support is vital to success. The ownership for maintaining the momentum resides with the entire group, including the Senior Leadership/Champion.
- Establish credibility by adhering to mission, objectives, and timelines
- Communicate the group's efforts utilizing all internal resources
- Continue building a network to increase enrollment
- Create visibility by conducting or participating in special events
- Respond to challenges and remove obstacles
Activities to maintain momentum and sustainability:
- In-house networking events
- Workshops on topics related to the program (e.g., Lunch and Learn seminars, National Disability Employment Awareness Month celebrations, etc.)
- Regular updates on program status
Suggested In-house resources:
- Organization Newspaper/newsletter
- Intranet/internal agency website
- Bulletin boards
Employee Resource Groups are internal networks that represent a community of team members who share a common interest relating to such characteristics as ethnicity, gender, nationality, culture, disability or sexual orientation. These groups may form relationships with one another in order to gain additional visibility and increase impact. In the case of Federal agencies, these may be specifically tied to the SEPM functions and/or the EO/Civil Rights Offices.
Ways to leverage relationships with other internal resource groups may include:
- Gain audience with the area Federal Executive Board and/or the FEB's EO community (via a Diversity Council, if one exists, as it does in New Mexico)
- Identify area agencies for similar groups or EO/SEPM activity to share best practices
- Maintain an ongoing partnership with the leadership of other groups
- Establish and maintain open communication with members from these groups
- Exchange or share information and resources
- Collaborate on community and professional events and activities
- Disseminate ERG announcements of news and upcoming events
- Share financial resources
- Report progress
To measure success, the group must first establish goals and outcome criteria. These benchmarks will ultimately define group accomplishments, deliverables and effectiveness. An external facilitator may be especially valuable in supporting forward momentum, gaining perspective, and measuring the success of the ERG, as the NMBLN has done for the New Mexico pilot cohorts.
The group's goals and success criteria should be easily understood, support the mission, and be measurable. Some success criteria for consideration may include:
- Impact of the ERG group on hiring, promotion and retention of employees with disabilities
- The number of new members recruited each year
- The number of members that remain active and attend meetings
- Events conducted (at least annually)
- Utilization of community resources and guest speakers (at least once a quarter)
- Increased participant attendance at meetings and events
With a clear mission, defined Committee Charter, and an approved Letter of Appointment, disability-focused Employee Resource Groups can be strategic partners that contribute significantly to a Federal agency's overall success and diversity efforts. As any effective business practice, an ERG needs to be carefully planned and managed, with clear and measurable outcomes. ERGs will be most effective when senior management comprises the Leadership Team, and a Champion is assigned to lend support and exposure to link the group's mission directly to the Agency's larger organizational goals and objectives.