250: Employee Resource Groups with Adrian Gillem

September 15th, 2021 · 49 mins 30 secs

About this Episode

01:19 - Adrian’s Superpower: Humor

  • Making People Feel Comfortable Through Humor
  • Self-Deprecating Humor & Authenticity

04:57 - Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): What are they?

  • Employees Share Effective, Measurable, Impactful Insights
  • Connecting New Hires with People Who Look Like Them
  • Making Employee Experiences Better

09:20 - How ERGs Operate

  • “Build with not for”
  • Making Fellow Colleagues Heard

18:03 - Successfully Policy Implementations: Examples

  • Transgender Healthcare

23:18 - ERGs and Management / Executive Sponsor Partnerships

30:41 - ERGs vs Unions

  • Equity

34:19 - Inclusivity Training


Casey: “ERGs are only as strong as the management supporting them.”

Mandy: Live programming + fireside chats over slideshows for inclusivity training.

Adrian: Pushing ERGs and DEI initiatives to the next level is crucial and keeping these efforts authentic.

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MANDY: Hello and welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 250. My name is Mandy Moore and I’m here with my friend, Casey Watts.

CASEY: Hi, I’m Casey! And we’re both here with Adrian Gillem.

Adrian is a Technical Project Manager with Booz Allen Hamilton focused on deploying next generation digital transformation capabilities to public sector clients in Washington D.C., Honolulu, Tokyo, and Seoul.

Beyond his technical client-responsibilities, Adrian’s true passion is grounded in diversity, equity, and inclusion program management and partnership building. Over the years, Adrian helped lead Booz Allen’s LGBTQIA+ and African American Employee Resource Groups to new heights; instituting new internal and external partnerships and programs under a DEI strategy committed to representing and empowering our BIPOC, Black, Indigenous and people of color, queer, and ally employees across the firm.

Welcome, Adrian!

ADRIAN: Thanks, everybody! Good to be with you guys.

CASEY: All right, we’re going to ask you our first question, we always ask. What, Adrian, is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

ADRIAN: [laughs] I've had to think about this. My superpower is humor and I only acquired it because I was able to tell the same bad jokes over and over to my friends and loved ones, and I've just stuck with the ones that people laughed at.

CASEY: Testing. You tested them live.

ADRIAN: That's right. That's right. They had no choice.


CASEY: How many of them did you get full on laughter versus nervous laughter versus glares, which were also a sign they liked your pun?

ADRIAN: Yeah. I would say that my sarcastic humor definitely got 70% eye rolls, 10% hm and has and then the other 20% were slight laughs, maybe a smirk, or two. But over the years, I hope that it's gotten better more in my favor. People tend to smile a little more when I make a joke, but can't say it's a 100% success rate so far. But we'll see. Maybe I will start my life career as a comedian in the next 10 years since and just retire from technology, or I'll just do both. Who knows, who knows?

CASEY: Yeah. There's space for that.

ADRIAN: There is.

CASEY: Multi-passionate. You can be multi-passionate; you're allowed.

ADRIAN: Absolutely. I can make live jokes and do live coding on a set. I'll probably do really bad coding, which will be enough for people to laugh at anyway, so I'll already have material ready to go.

MANDY: That's awesome.

CASEY: You've got me smiling and laughing.


Even just the levity you're describing is funny.

MANDY: Yeah.

ADRIAN: Thanks. I appreciate you both for already bearing with me. [laughs]

CASEY: So I have a feeling you incorporate humor like this into your work with employee resource groups. It's hard to imagine you wouldn't. Tell us something like that—some of the joke that you've told, some scenario that you've managed to reframe.

ADRIAN: Oh boy, that's a really tough question. I think the way I try to incorporate my humor, especially in my work with our employee resource groups within the firm and especially with our partners outside of our company, is just to make everyone feel comfortable through humor. You start to meet with different folks of different backgrounds for the first time, maybe even for the second, or third time, whether it be at your water cooler, or in the kitchen, or at an actual meeting where you're talking about a diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda.

Some folks might walk in and not necessarily know everyone in a room, not feel comfortable to speak in the way that they would like, or act as authentic as they should. So luckily for me, humor seems to break that ice very quickly. It's always very – in my case, I choose to do self-deprecating humor first and then that just gets the ball rolling in making sure that everybody feels open and welcome to be themselves in the space that I'm in.

But absolutely, in the ERG, the last place you want to have this stoic, maybe stale environment is an ERG whether it be an ERG meeting, or an ERG get together, or anything like that. You want to make sure that everyone feels very comfortable being in that space and you don't want to have as any hesitancy to that authenticity. So I try to do my best with making many people laugh, even if it is at my own expense and that's perfectly okay, I signed up for it.

CASEY: So for listeners who may, or may not have been part of an employee resource group before, an ERG, can you tell us a little bit about what it's like being part of one?

ADRIAN: Sure. So being in an ERG, it's an interesting mix. You either are in an organization that has had ERGs for a very long time and there are predetermined ways that it operates. There's a leadership structure. There are formal rules and procedures in place. There's a lot of hype behind it. Folks feel that it actually represents their interest and they can use that to communicate up. By up, I do mean up to management, senior leadership on ways they are not feeling included, or feeling equitably represented in a particular company.

And then there are other organizations where unfortunately, a formal ERG structure might not exist and so, you'll have situations where employees informally get together based on shared experiences, based on shared connections, based on shared racial identities, or gender identities, or sexual orientation identities. But they don't have a formal way, or a formal mechanism to do that.

So in our case, in organizations that do have formal ERGs, really what it is used for is to make sure that staff have an effective, measurable, an impactful organized mechanism to really share insights on things that are affecting them as an individual employee and share it across colleagues that also might be feeling similar impacts, or might have similar experiences.

To provide a specific example in this case, I lead, or I'm on the board, rather of our African American Network. That's what we call it. Really, it's focused on engaging our African American and more generally, our brown and Black persons of color employees across the firm to make sure that their voice is not just heard, but felt, that their impact is not just seen, but felt in the way our company operates and the things that we focus on and try to improve on.

In that, most of what I'll do is typically liaise with our employees that are, let's say, onboarding for the first time to the company and they want to feel connected to that wider corporate group. We are a company of 26,000 employees, so it's very hard to feel like I can connect with a bunch of people pretty easily.

So connecting with new hires via this mechanism of an ERG provides an easy way for folks to get together with a smaller subsect of our staff. But get connected with a subsect that actually looks like them, talks like them, has had shared experiences and memories and livelihoods and lives just like them and so, that's just part of it.

The other part of it is representing our respective employees and our members within the ERG and their interest to upper management, to our human resources division, and folks with just a stake in understanding what is impacting our employees that are particularly aligned to this group and how can we make their experiences better. But better in the sense that they're able to be more effective in their job, feel more authentic in their day-to-day, and feel more appreciated for the unique contributions that they're bringing each and every day that they support the work that we do.

So I think that's a lot and I'm happy to break it down even further because I think that this is such a really, really important element that companies that have it formally structured sometimes take for granted because they might not be effectively funding it, or giving it the oomph, I'll say. The energy and relevance to do that kind of impact that I'm describing that I feel is unique to Booz Allen. But in a way, it's also a call-to-action for maybe smaller or mid-size companies that, like you mentioned, might not have a formalized structure like this and yet have employees who want to band together and make it so, so they have a way to drive that type of impact I was talking about earlier.

MANDY: So you create these groups—people who look like me, act like me, are like me identify in the same way that I do and we see things, where do we go from there? We identify the things that we want, or need. Do we go management? Do we go to HR? What's the kind of, how is it structured?

ADRIAN: So that's a very good question. I think ERGs and really, business resource groups, depending on the company, have varied reporting structures.

In the case of Booz Allen, we as an ERG work very closely and almost hand-in-hand with our formal diversity, equity, and inclusion departments, our human resources specialists, our recruiters, all those within that part of the company, to make sure that what we're hearing at what we like to consider at the grassroots level is actually delivering change that can be felt by our employees.

Now, what that does not mean is that employees would somehow come to us as an ERG with let's say, a formal employee level, or human resource level complaint, and we pass it on their behalf. No, no, no. That's not really the focus. The focus really is to make sure that everyone, broadly speaking, has a chance to voice things that are really important to them and their situation—basically connected to their identity and however they choose to identify in a particular space so that we collectively can share those insights to departments and components of a business that drive that policy discussion and policy change in response to situations arising.

So in our case, in the wake of the increased exposure of Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, in the wake of the murder of our brother, George Floyd, in the wake of so many impactful events that have happened over the last 2 years, not to mention a pandemic that we're all kind of living through in our own way, ERGs have become the focal point to articulating what really is, or are the needs of our workers, our colleagues, our friends in this company—whichever company that you might work for—and how can we represent what they are actually dealing with on a day-to-day basis?

Because I think one of the things that we forget is not all employees feel comfortable to go to human resources with an issue. Not all employees feel comfortable going to management with an issue—and I speak as a project manager myself. Especially when it comes to particular situations that are specific to issues that might be affected by their race, by their sexual orientation, by their gender identity, and so on and so forth.

So an ERG provides that formal, but not management connected mechanism to gather all of those insights, gather all of those feelings, and tell a narrative that's structured, but impactful to the human resources and management leadership elements of a particular company to drive that change.

Now, all of what I’ve described is the ideal. That's the ideal way that ERGs ought to operate in a particular environment. But I am very well aware that some, if not a lot, of companies don't do it that way. They're playbook for employee resource groups is I one of two things.

Either you will have a loose band of employees that may have won, what we call, executive sponsor that doesn't have a lot of weight to throw on it and by extension, financial support, leadership recognition to then drive that kind of impact. And then another is where there is no ERG presence whatsoever. But in this context, I'm also still talking about big companies, larger companies, even companies at my scale where all of the discussions, all of these things that I've talked about are really just management led.

So to provide an even more specific example that I think we've all heard about time and time again, especially in the wake of all of what we've experienced over the last 2 years, a lot of companies just hire a chief diversity and inclusion officer and call it a day. That's their impact, or they put out a press release that says, “We are going to revamp our recruiting strategies and we're going to “do better” to represent our minority employees, our employees of minority, gender identities, or sexual orientations.” But at the end of the day, that doesn't really translate to a grassroots level initiative of that delivers that kind of change.

So taking it all back to your question of is an ERG seen as that formal mechanism to interface between staff and human resources? It is, but only in the context of with it, we can get a lot more critical insight that feels more authentic, that is more authentic, because it's driven by our employees, vice waiting for one or two employees to feel comfortable going to HR directly with an issue, or concern and not really driving that kind of impact the way we would like to.

CASEY: It reminds me of the phrase “build with, not for.” So the second scenario where you just hire a DEI officer and they just do it on their own without including the people who are affected is like a build for. But if you get people involved who are affected without forcing them to either, which is the other end of the spectrum. [chuckles] Like you’ve got to invite them and they have to accept it and be content happy working with it. Maybe you have time.

I'm wondering, do you feel like you have working hours, time dedicated you can spend on the ERG work, or do you squeeze it in between everything you do?

ADRIAN: That's a good question, actually and a good point to bring up. I, myself, am very passionate about this stuff and I love doing it. So even if I feel like I'm adding on to my day-to-day work, it's not really a big deal for me because I know that what I'm doing is driving an impact that I am very, very excited to do each and every day. But more importantly, I get to go to sleep at night because I know that I'm just not doing a day-to-day job, that is doing day-to-day monotonous work, that there is a value add to it that I'm able to do liver to my colleagues, my friends in my company, and send a clear message of what I stand for and what I want to represent, what I want to share.

But for others, and especially in some corporate environments, you might see two structures. One structure is companies might devote to each employee a set number of hours that they can use to do what we'll call volunteer work and sometimes, this volunteer work may include ERG support, or ERG leadership, or program management, or event management. Others do not. So other companies expect that you focus on your day-to-day and anything you do outside of that is volunteer work that can be tracked, but there is no formal mechanism to track it.

At Booz Allen, and I can at least speak for our company specifically, we actually have a requirement almost and if not a push, that's been significantly increased the last year to leverage what our employees are doing in ERGs across the firm to help advance their case for promotion, for role change, really, it's to make sure that our employees are feeling like even if they are doing this as a volunteer role and it feels it is on top of their day-to-day, that there is a value to it. It might not just be value that they feel internally, but rather it's also value that is shown up at the end of the day, when they're up for promotion, or they're looking for an expanded role, or they're looking for a reward for the comprehensive effort that they're putting into the company.

But I think, by and large, most people don't focus on that because for a lot of ERG work, it's just because you want to do it. You want to make your fellow colleagues heard, and you want to use the leadership and the voice that you have and the willingness you have to articulate their message on their behalf, and you want to do it well so much so that if it takes a couple extra hours, a week, or a month, it's worth it.

CASEY: Cool. I love having the whole overview. I've got a clear image now.

ADRIAN: Yeah. [laughs]

MANDY: So tell me a story. I like stories, okay. So I was wondering like, if you could give a specific example of something, a policy that an ERG advocated for that you're a part of and that it got changed, or improved, or something? Like, is there a specific, “I want this,” and then what happened?

ADRIAN: Sure. Actually, [laughs] I could give you like 15.

MANDY: Go for it.

ADRIAN: But I'm going to boil it down to the one that I remember most and that really was a policy change that was implemented in, I think it was late 2017 perhaps, or maybe early 2018 where we were pushing for expanded, I would say, healthcare policies—I should say we say—better healthcare coverage for our transgender employees, one and on a side to that, trying to figure out how do we better represent our transgender employees who want to transition while working for the company and make sure that their benefits are covered. But also, articulate to the company, what are those benefits? What do they need? What are their healthcare needs? What is, or should be the needs that happen in the workplace outside of just healthcare? Things of that nature. What is a set list of guidance that Booz Allen can use to better represent and better support transgender employees?

So GLOBE, which is the LGBTQIA employee resource group at the firm, was at the forefront of that. We were taking the lead role in coordinating with our employee retention staff, human resources staff to articulate what exactly those needs will be and make sure that it is implemented in a timely fashion. What I mean by timely fashion is a lot of these initiatives that maybe ERG led could take months, if not years. But in this case, we were able to expedite it because we had built partnership with our HR departments, with our entities that could actually implement the kinds of policy changes we wanted for our transgender employees.

So based on our guidance, we were actually the ERG task with developing those initial guidelines and guidance on what should be medical coverage options for our transgender employees. In addition to that, we also set out guidance on what are the things that transgender employees want out of their management? What are the expectations on how they would like to be treated, how they would like to be addressed, how they would like to operate in our environment, in our corporate environment? So we set all of that up as one package that we were able to successfully route up to our leadership.

Again, I might be providing a cavalier-sounding story, but one thing I want to make sure everyone understands, and especially your viewers, is that we are a company of 26,000 people so making any change quickly is very hard. It takes an enormous effort.

So the fact that we were able to start from a piece of paper and one partnership and scale that up to an entire LGBTQIA board like ours, our leadership, and a set of sponsors at the human resource and management and leadership level at our company to also include our Chief People Officer, Betty Thompson, in span of just months was absolutely remarkable.

In fact, we were able to make that implementation, that change in time for our next pride summer session, which is really the hallmark and really, the focus that we had as our target. So by 2018, we had formalized the process, we had formalized these new changes to the policy, but the focus point was it was an ERG that led it. We led the discussion, we led the change, and we made the coordinated effort and we carried it along the finish line, along with our helpful partners in human resources, and especially under the leadership of our Chief People Officer.

I don't want to sound like I'm drinking the Kool-Aid too much, but I was really glad that we were able to do that because it's stories like that that made me want to stay working for not just my company because I think all companies try to do good for their employees in one way, or another. But it made me specifically want to stay on the board of our ERG and continue supporting the work that we were doing just because I got to see what kind of impact we can actually do if we work together with them and actually empower them to do the type of work that we hopefully intend for them to do on a regular basis.

MANDY: That's awesome.

CASEY: Yeah, great story. I'm impressed.

ADRIAN: Yeah, don't be impressed about me. Be definitely impressed by the team that I was with. I was a member of the board, but it really was a collective effort, which is usually the story for all ERGs across most corporate environments.

CASEY: I'm impressed with the structure that's set up that incentivizes all of this to happen. The ways that it should to have the people involved who are affected and all that, that is so cool. It's a good structure.

ADRIAN: Yeah, no, it was. [chuckles] I would say that it was a hard-fought battle. I don't think anything like this is easy. One, because one thing for, I think for all viewers to keep in mind is that employer resource groups are only as strong as the management that's supporting them. So that's why there has to be this partnership, this very strong tightly knit partnership, not just amidst the grassroots level members of the ERG, but also, the executive sponsors that you have behind it.

What do I mean by executive sponsors? Because I brought that up a couple times when I was bringing up some of the stories. Typically, you hear the term sponsor and you might think like a brand sponsor, or for, I don't know, a sports event, or something like that. In our case, program, or executive sponsor is a dedicated leader within the company who provides strategic level direction, more important funding, to make sure that our activities and our ability to operate continue unabated.

So it took a lot of time, effort, and number of years for Booz Allen, and I can say that confidently, to recognize the importance of having a tightly knit, but influential set of executive sponsors aligned to each ERG. What I mean by that is some ERGs have two, or three vice presidents that have access to budgetary resources to fund events, programs, and partnerships that we'd like to do in a particular fiscal year. Others might just have one, but that one might be the Chief People Officer of the whole company.

So all of that is very, very critical because having a formal structure, meaning you have a board chair, or you have a board member set up and members is good. But at the end of the day, if you don't have a backing behind it, or help your organization, or your ERG be more influential, unfortunately, can almost appear like a club. People are going after hours, having a good time, but they're not really making change they want to see in their company.

So you always, always, always, if you're trying to stand up your own ERG within your small business, or in your mid-size business, or trying to even improve the effectiveness of your ERG in a large company, if not larger one, you want to make sure that you have executive sponsors behind you who have the backing of your C-suite leadership and can help you and your team really affect the change that you're trying to affect.

But in our case, we just got lucky and over the years, we've had pretty solid relationships with our executive sponsors. They're pretty cool people. I must say Betty, our Chief People Officer, she's pretty awesome. I remember talking to her for 20 minutes during a trip about Prada bags. If that doesn't tell you about my superficial love of Prada bags, I don't know what will.

But it is good and I think it is continuously great that we have that type of representation, have that type of backing, and I think that should be almost commonplace for most organizations.

CASEY: This reminds me of two things I want to share. I think you'll find them interesting.

One is this idea of executive sponsors reminds me of how in high school, when you have afterschool groups that students want to self-organize, they need a teacher to sponsor it, or they cannot do it. They cannot stay in the classroom. Even if the teacher doesn't do anything, they don't have to do anything necessarily. The students can maybe run their club, like practicing improv from things they found online, but they need a sponsor. But it's even better if the teacher is involved and they're actually teaching improv, or whatever the afterschool activity is. A friend of mine is a teacher and does that so, I'm thinking of her.

It's interesting; you need that support for things to get done and you don't need babysitting in ERGs, but you do need it for other reasons like influence. They can influence a whole lot.

That reminds me a little bit of my friend was telling me about a choose your own story adventure game that Harvard Business Review put out where you were trying to make change in an organization like Trans Healthcare, or something like that. And then how do you do it? You make all these choices. Two things that surprise me how impactful they were, like those scores were way above the others, were the leadership support that you're describing and external consultant support. Even if—we know the story—the consultant says what the employees say gets done.

So it's funny, either source of authority can have a huge impact. We like to ignore it, but it's really powerful and we shouldn't ignore it if we want to get of things done. However you got it to happen at Booz—I'm sure it varies by company how you can get the support, what it looks like—but that's really powerful.

Were you around for that part before you got Betty on your side?

ADRIAN: So, [laughs] no. Unfortunately, when I came in, we had already had a pretty strong relationship with Betty. It seems like Betty was ready to go and support everyone, which is always great. So no, I didn't get to see the lead up efforts to having to influence all of our leadership to provide that backing.

But I think that speaks to the enduring, I would say, commitment that that Booz Allen has to our employees via these employee resource groups. Because specifically, even as early as the 90s, Booz Allen had set out a policy to, in this case, specifically recognize support and empower all our LGBTQIA employees. Something that was completely unheard of in the time for a lot of companies that, again, were existing in the wake of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Defense Against Marriage Act, et cetera. Our company, for an enduring period of time, has made a very strong commitment to representing our LGBTQIA employees and making them feel not just welcome, but empowered and making them feel like they have someone on the CEO leadership level in their corner ready to defend them.

But I wouldn't want to just talk about my company only. I feel that, by and large, we have seen a significant uptick in major brands, over the last even 5 years, making stronger statements, making stronger efforts, making more substantial improvements in how they operate and engage with employees of diverse backgrounds. The respective ramp ups for them probably are very different than what was it was for Booz Allen, but I imagine, at least I would hope, that of those companies, ERGs played a role in making that lead up a little bit easier. I haven't worked in every company in the United States. I don't think everybody has.

CASEY: Oh, not yet.

ADRIAN: As much as I would love to.


Not yet, not yet, but I would hope that the story is probably the same across the board; that it wasn't just a decision made in a vacuum by some director CEO, that it was a coordinated effort partnered by an employee resource group operating at that grassroots level capacity.

CASEY: Yeah. I believe that it's got to come from the top and the bottom. If you just have one, or the other, it's not really going to go far.

ADRIAN: No, it's going to hit an impasse, it's going to stop on the train tracks like, if you're on Washington Metro.

CASEY: That single tracking red line, yeah. I’ve been there.

ADRIAN: That's right. That's right. [laughs]

CASEY: This all reminds me a little bit of unions, but it's not unions. ERGs are not unions. They're different. They don't do formal requests, like you mentioned, complaints. But there is some formal structure; there's funding coming from the company. That's even the opposite of unions, too. But I don’t know, something about it feels similar. It's like, people coming together to support their points of view.

ADRIAN: Yeah. In a union, obviously, there's a membership, there's a formal charter, there's your set union president—they negotiate on your behalf for the company to do things that you want. You're absolutely right. Outside of the legalese language, if you will, there are very much a lot of similarities and even historical connections between unionizing and employee resource groups.

Really, the only difference rests in what is the collective bargaining capability between the two. ERGs do not bargain in any official capacity, but unions do. But you still have absolute value in formally standing up and empowering and strengthening your ERGs in the same way that you would recognize the inherent legal power, legal capabilities, and legal recognition of any union that your business might be dealing with.

It's a very good point you bring up because a lot of times, folks just feel like ERGs are that thing that they might get an email about and hear an event about, but maybe not think twice about it because it's not impacting their day-to-day. As in, it's not impacting their salary, it's not impacting their livelihood, their employee experience at a particular company. But one thing people forget is that half the time, these ERGs are the reasons why companies have events and programming opportunities that talk about different ways to grow in a firm.

For example, the women's group of Booz Allen tends to be the leader in hosting a lot of events that talk about networking, career empowerment, career improvement specifically for women in the workforce. Now they might be targeted to women who work within Booz Allen, but the message is broad and the message far exceeds the walls and halls of our company in that they want our female colleagues, regardless of where they might see fit physical location wise, to succeed equally. But that also comes with the equity part and I think that equity part is what makes kind of union like efforts that ERGs play in our companies so important because equity is what makes sure that regardless of the situation, we are going to give you the resources that at respond to your situation and give you the tools to succeed in spite of whatever you might be dealing with.

Whereas, before diversity and inclusion departments would just have an equal way of responding to a thing, but the way that they wanted to solve a problem might not necessarily work for Black and brown employees, the way they want to solve a problem might not work with women, employees, or Black female employees.

So to bring it all together when we're talking about [chuckles] the union-like functions of an ERG, you're absolutely right. We have organized ways to deliver mechanical if not systematic change, but change that have an impact and that impact every single member that might be tied to a particular group. But we also do it in a way that's structured. We do it in a way that ensures that there is an impact that can be felt in and outside of the organization.

CASEY: This also makes me think about inclusivity training like a lot of HR departments give to their employees. I've heard mixed reviews, but the content's good. We want the content. People want to know how to treat their coworkers really well. They want the awareness of what to say and not to say to people. People like that, that I've worked with.

But a lot of the HR training often is like a PowerPoint presentation online that gets tracked, how many slides you look at—it's very cookie cutter and no one wants to talk about it afterwards, or share notes and that helps a lot, if you can talk about things. Anyway, it doesn't feel as impactful as it could be. Do you have experience with inclusivity training like that and does the ERG work in interact with that any?

ADRIAN: Yeah. So that's actually really interesting because a lot of companies are struggling with that. How do you bridge the gap between diversity equity inclusion and at a very large scale in making it as generalized as possible, but still target the employees that it matters to the most?

So a lot of trainings now, especially as we're in a remote environment, are just like you said, just a lot of PowerPoints, a lot of online trainings. You’ve got to click through slides on a video and hope to God that you can actually click and fast forward past the slides because if you don't – [overtalk]

CASEY: Oh, yeah.

ADRIAN: Then you’ve got to actually wait through the slide and nobody wants that, but – [overtalk]

CASEY: Just with a transcript. That's accessibility. [overtalk]

ADRIAN: That’s exactly right.

CASEY: When accessibility makes that happen, I am so happy. I can read so much faster than listening.

ADRIAN: Absolutely. I have read so many books and that has proven to me that I can read through a transcript faster than listening to a [chuckles] slideshow presentation.

But what our ERGs try to focus on is live programming and I think that's the big distinction here because a lot of mechanized training programs that companies try to offer in diversity and inclusion, sensitivity training, inclusivity training, they're bound to systems and applications—technology that delivers the widest variety and the widest accessibility possible.

Whereas for us, our focus is really just targeted to live events with speakers, fireside chats, having our members do round table discussions where we're bringing together our members to talk about the things that they want to hear. We're more flexible in that we actually can of course, solicit and obtain topics that our employees want to talk about and have experts connected to that, whether it be inside, or outside of the company, to share their insights and share their expertise.

The reason why I think that's so valid and so valuable is you ensure that the audience actually can connect to what you're talking about and they see a face behind it. They don't see a slideshow with a portrait of a guy, some weird just stable figure with a suit doing weird static things that's supposed to action an image. That doesn't do it anymore. Nobody wants that. People want live programming. Folks want to see someone that looks like them, talks like them, has lived experiences like them, share insights that can relate.

So for us, now more than ever, we have been doing a lot of fireside chats with Black and brown authors, queer authors in the space to articulate the creative side to anti-racism, anti-LGBTQIA hate, things that our employees want to hear as an ERG, but don't want to see via slideshows that management puts together or has an outside consultancy or vendor put together.

In fact, one of our more recent events that the African American forum, or African American Network, rather in partnership with GLOBE, the LGBTQIA resource group I mentioned earlier, we recently put together a live event focused on queers in the workplace. Specifically, queer people of color in the workspace and we targeted this specifically to focus on how are our brown and Black employees operating in a not just telework posture, but how are they feeling?

How are they feeling with their colleagues? How are they feeling working with their supervisors? How are they feeling working with their clients? Do they experience, or are they experiencing, or have they experienced issues where they didn't feel welcome in a particular client space? How are they dealing with responding to issues that management needs to hear about, but in a telework environment where the only thing you can do is set up a Zoom call?

Those types of conversations can't be had effectively in a slideshow presentation that you're doing on a webcast. These are things where you want and have to have a grassroots level organization that is formally structured articulating the message, and having people who live those experiences articulate it for you and with you, and have that live dialogue to where your staff can feel that they're learning about the inclusivity that your company is trying to enforce, but actually have it stick because they heard it from a colleague. They actually heard a story that connected with them.

I think that's one message I would want to harp on the most is that all of what we do and by we, I do mean the collective ERG enterprise, regardless of whatever company you work for, that's the focus is messaging. You want to make sure that your ERG is sending a message that when that employee joins it, or when that employee participates in an event, or when that employee sees the ERG's name, they know that it represents authenticity. It represents a connected feeling that they can take back and say, “Hey, if I don't feel comfortable going to HR, but I know that I can have a voice to hear my issue that looks like me, talks like me, sounds like me, but in my own company,” then that's exactly what we want to send. That's the type of manage we want to ring home.

MANDY: Absolutely!

CASEY: Yeah, that sounds great. That reminds me of a panel we did together before, Adrian. Years ago now.


Tech Talk, D.C. We did Queeries in Tech. Queeries like queer, but also like the tech pun, like the aQueries.


ADRIAN: See. You see, Casey, you're going to take my bad joke job away from me. I’m

CASEY: We work together here. We're collaborative.

MANDY: I love it.

ADRIAN: That's right.

CASEY: Build with, not for.

ADRIAN: Yeah. I feel like I've been saying the same message, though since our last talk. So I’m at least improving that I'm consistent if even if my consistency falls on deaf ears from time to time.

CASEY: That's okay. Repetition is key to influencing this kind of level.

ADRIAN: That's right, yeah. That's what my music teacher used to tell me, when I was singing really badly, “Just say the lyric and sing it louder and over and over, you'll get that.”

CASEY: Yeah.

ADRIAN: “Don't worry. Somebody will listen to you.”

MANDY: That's why you’ve heard 250 episodes of this show. We [laughs] say it all over and over and over again in hope that people will pay attention.


CASEY: Yeah. Slightly different perspective, but always similar themes. It's true.

ADRIAN: That's right. Well, I hope it's this lucky 350th episode that somebody finally listens to it and says, “Ah, I get the message. I get what they're talking about.”

MANDY: We're only at 250.

ADRIAN: 350 times, but here I am.

MANDY: We're only at 250.

ADRIAN: Oh, 250? [overtalk]

MANDY: But maybe a 100 more times. [laughs]

ADRIAN: [laughs] Okay.

CASEY: I think this episode, we will get some ERGs at companies that didn't have them from this episode. I'm sure. People listen to it not just when it comes out, but for a long time afterward, it still comes up. I don't know, but we'll find out. If anyone does, let us know. We'd love to hear a success story, or even a challenge story where you just sang the notes wrong a lot. I’d love to hear that, too.

MANDY: Please add us.

ADRIAN: Yeah. Or even then, I would love it if your users could even share their experiences with their own ERGs.

CASEY: Yeah!

ADRIAN: Because my experience is not the only experience. I am obviously well aware I'm talking from the perspective of a member of two boards. So I imagine others might have different experiences and those are valid. Those are absolutely valuable because whatever insights you share about your experiences with an ERG, those are the experiences we want to hear so we can improve on them collectively.

It's a valid resource to have, but it can only be grown better if we have that kind of grassroots contributions on a regular basis. So don't be afraid. I always tell people, “Don't feel bad to tell me I'm doing something wrong because if you don't tell me I'm doing something wrong, I'm going to continue doing it and I won't know.”

CASEY: Yeah, I'd love to hear more people's stories.

MANDY: Yeah, and if anybody's out there that has one of these stories and wants to come on the show to talk about it, please get a hold of us because we love telling these stories, like I said, over and over and over again because that's how change is made.

CASEY: We want your voice. You can reach out to us on Twitter, or we also have a Slack community you can join. Greater Than Code Slack; you can find the link to that on our website greaterthancode.com.

MANDY: Yes, and it is a Patreon donation, but if you DM one of us panelists on Twitter, we will let you in regardless if you decide to sponsor us on any kind of basis, or not. We let everybody in as long as you, too are greater than code.

CASEY: Ding! Love it. Adrian, you'll be in soon.

MANDY: Yeah.

CASEY: We’ll bring you in.

MANDY: Yeah, he'll be in.

It sounds like this is a good time to move over to reflections for the episode. We usually let our guests go last, Adrian. So Casey, do you want to give us a start?

CASEY: My takeaway is Adrian, you said the sentence, whether you remember it, or not, “ERGs are only a start wrong as the management supporting them.” That's so true.


CASEY: I've tried to do changes so many companies from the grassroots level without the opposite of support, whatever that would be. No one was shutting us down, but if no one was supporting us from above, it didn't go that far and that's a recipe for frustration.

MANDY: For me, I really took away how the live programming over slideshows is so important. Just having the fireside chats and the round table discussions, inviting people who are behind the scenes advocating for this stuff on the frontlines is just much more impactful than sitting there through a slideshow a first day of training like, “This is how we –” we already know all this, okay.

So having that audience connection and being able to be interactive, I think is really important way to handle and get things done and not just being sat at and talked to. Being like, “Okay, so, let's have a discussion.” Open it up to the audience and do a back and forth. I love panels for that reason is that you can just feed off each other and yes and others and I feel that that's really good way to go about things.

ADRIAN: Absolutely.

At least for me, I have been just awestruck, I would say, especially on all of the conversation points that we've had so far, but most specifically the fact that we can share in the article that Casey had mentioned from Harvard Business Review and honing in on that idea that some organizations experience that ramp up where they have external consultants, they have external influences, internal influences, all trying to come together and figure out what's the best way to push an ERG, or a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative, or effort to that next level. Get their employees a bit more engaged. They feel a bit more represented, feel a bit more committed to the mission that the company is trying to get after because it's so crucial.

The one thing I would add to that, as part of a final note for me, is for any company that is doing ERG work that has some formal structure, or even if you are a small business, or mid-size business and you have employees that are even talking about it, or hearing about it, make sure that that effort that either is already there, or you're seeing it grow into something, remains authentic. That it has authenticity tied to it and that authenticity can, will, and only can come from the employees who put it together.

So make sure that if the employees say want an ERG, make sure that they're absolutely committed to it, all facets of it because it's a lot of work, but it's good work. And if you have a preorganized and structured ERG that just wants to take it to the next level, make sure that you have management and executive sponsors who also believe in that vision for authenticity.

I think we, as queers and allies in tech, need and see authenticity. We recognize it all the time and every day and everything and everything we say and do that is also represented in the employee resource groups that do such good work, but can only do such good work if there's an authentic passion behind it.

MANDY: I love that. You're so right. A 100%.

CASEY: I have a feeling you've said some of this before because it's so polished and clear. You're articulate, Adrian. I love it.

ADRIAN: I honestly have thought about becoming just a dish jockey and just going on radio and then just quitting my day job. But then I realized that would only be successful for maybe one episode and then I would just get boring and then I would forget. [laughs] So I'm going to keep my day job. I'm going to leave you two as the experts on this stuff and I'll just keep saying the same message for the next few 100 years and hope somebody listens.

MANDY: Well, thank you so much for coming on this show. It's been wonderful.

CASEY: Thank you.

MANDY: You have been amazing in explaining all of this. I've honestly never heard of ERGs before. That's why I just sat here and was listening like, “Yes!” Thank you so much for talking about it.


MANDY: And you are welcome back on this show anytime!

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