Workplace

The weaponization of employee resource groups

Tech companies use ERGs as tools to foster inclusion and support workers. Sometimes, however, ERGs have the opposite effect.

Gray upward first with yellow asterisk that says "real power not included"

Tech companies like to tout their number and variety of ERGs as an indicator of how much they care about diversity and inclusion.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

When Jared Jones started working at GitHub in 2016, he said it was "jarring" to be one of the only Black people in the office. That's partly why Jones and the handful of other Black folks at the company created GitHub's first employee resource group, Blacktocats. But Jones eventually found himself in a position where he had to choose between his career and his race, he told Protocol.

The impetus for the creation of Blacktocats was "feeling like we didn't have a voice at the highest levels of the company and that collectively, if we were organized, we would have an ability to make an impact on the business decisions" as well as within the broader tech industry.

The ERG's goals were to empower and inspire Black people in tech, as well as influence policies, procedures and culture at the highest levels of the company, he said. Looking back, Jones sees the ERG as being "wildly successful" in terms of its impact on hiring, retention, career development and pay practices at GitHub. But its impact on the industry at large, he said, "was never fully realized to the potential that it could have been."

Prior to Microsoft's acquisition of GitHub in 2018, Blacktocats had "tremendous sway and power over the organization," Jones said. Post-acquisition, however, "our influence diminished almost overnight." It felt like Blacktocats had been relegated to simply a cultural organization, he said.

Jones, then a senior manager of business development at GitHub, said there was a point in time when he was the closest to the executive circle of all the other members of Blacktocats. Oftentimes, he said, he acted as a liaison between the ERG and the leadership team.

"But there were plenty of times during the end where I was treated as a mole," he said. "The leadership team would ask me, 'Hey, what's going on with the Black folks? Give us the inside scoop. You need to tell us when they're disgruntled. You need to tell us when things are awry.' They were basically treating me — I'm not going to use any pejorative terms here — but that was a very frustrating component of the end of my time [at the ERG]."

Jones made a formal announcement that he was resigning from the ERG in the fall of 2019. He said he felt exploited and could no longer be effective. Resigning from the ERG, he said, was the only option.

"I focused on what I needed to do to separate myself from being put in a compromising position and having to choose between my career, and my race and my people," he said.

Jones left GitHub entirely in the spring of 2020.

GitHub did not specifically address Jones' experience, but a spokesperson said the company is "dedicated to building a community and team that reflects the world we live in and pushes the boundaries of software innovation."

The spokesperson went on to describe its ERGs as being "key to building a culture of inclusion."

GitHub is just one of many tech companies that like to tout the number and variety of ERGs as an indicator of how much they care about diversity and inclusion.

Conversations with 11 former and current ERG members, a union organizer and a labor lawyer paint a complex picture of ERGs — one that shows how these groups can sometimes function as a safe space for employees with similar backgrounds but can also do little to effect real change in the workplace. And, in some cases, workers say companies can use ERGs against them and ultimately undermine union efforts.

The history of ERGs: Sweetheart unions

The idea of an employee resource group, affinity group or employee communication committee has been around for nearly a century, Steven Wheeless, a labor and employment lawyer who advises Fortune 500 companies, told Protocol.

Around the time when the National Labor Relations Act went into effect in 1935, "there was a strong sense that some employers were using employee communication committees to create what they called a 'sweetheart union' — essentially employer-dominated groups that represented the employees," Wheeless said.

Since employers became so effective in discouraging unions, Wheeless said, a section in the NLRA determined it to be unlawful for employers to dominate a labor organization. Over the next several decades, according to Wheeless, the National Labor Relations Board and the courts went back and forth over the definitions of "dominating" and "labor organization."

Electromation v. NLRB, decided in 1992, became the seminal case labor lawyers point to when talking about the lawfulness of ERGs, Wheeless said. A number of cases emerged after that decision, which have collectively developed guidelines for companies to ensure "they will be on the right side of the law," Wheeless said.

Some of the basic guidelines, Wheeless said, are that management should not pick the participants of the ERG, should ensure employee leaders rotate every six months or a year, should not run meetings and should ensure the ERG functions as a "live suggestion box." It's also important that the communications between the ERG and the company are not bilateral, he said.

The first ERG, as we know them today, emerged as part of the civil rights movement when then-CEO of Xerox, Joseph Wilson, helped launch the National Black Employee Caucus.

Today, ERGs are relatively commonplace in tech workplaces. At Google, for example, the company says more than 35,000 of its employees participate in 16 ERGs across 52 countries. Google's parent company, Alphabet, employs almost 140,000 people in total.

"We want everyone to feel like they belong at Google," a Google spokesperson said in a statement. "One way we do this is through supporting Employee Resource Groups that provide additional connection and community for underrepresented employees and their allies."

Life inside an ERG: 'Reputation management'

When Matthew J. Yazzie joined Google full-time in 2004 as a project manager on the legal team, he said there was a small contingent of Black Google employees who were starting to connect, as well as some folks talking about disability and accessibility. But there wasn't anything for the Indigenous community, so he decided to do something about it.

The ERG, initially known as the Google American Indian Network, ended up landing Megan Smith, then the VP of new business development, as its executive sponsor. Yazzie told Protocol he felt fortunate to have Smith as the ERG's executive sponsor because "she taught me the ins and outs of the realities of working on these kinds of initiatives."

GAIN had a variety of goals at the time, Yazzie said. The group was focused on language preservation, donations to organizations, ways to help Native communities outside of Google and more.

Throughout his nearly seven years at Google, Yazzie came to realize that while ERG work was supposed to be part of the 20% time that Google gives its employees to explore work outside of their day-to-day roles, it more so functioned as extra work.

"In reality, everyone knew that 20% time was 120% time," he said. "You were doing 100% of your work already and then anything you would do would be in addition to what your 40 hours a week would really be. We weren't getting paid for the work, and they were definitely passion projects and treated as such. And my manager was very explicitly clear that my promotions and bonuses are not going to be based off of the ERG work."

Despite the fact that Yazzie's promotions or bonuses weren't tied to his ERG work, he said Google was quick to promote the work GAIN was doing.

"That was the most frustrating part," he said. "They were willing to tout these things and go to lobbyists and talk about policy and all these projects we were doing, but no one was getting paid to do that work."

But Yazzie said he and other members of the ERG kept those frustrations to themselves because "we didn't want [the ERG] to get taken away."

Laurence Berland, a former Google engineer who was fired and recently settled a labor dispute with the company, participated in the Gayglers ERG as well as the disability alliance while at Google.

The most useful group for him, he told Protocol, was the disability alliance "because it was a place to kind of compare experiences around mental health issues and how people had experienced the disability insurance and accommodations process and things like that."

Issues arose, however, within the Gayglers group, he said. In 2019, Berland sent an email to the Gayglers suggesting they organize a petition to ban the Google contingent from the Pride parade in light of YouTube's moderation decisions affecting the LGBTQ+ community. Google allegedly also told employees that anyone who protested the company's involvement in Pride, as part of Google's official contingent, would be punished.

In a statement to Protocol, a Google spokesperson said Google has marched in the San Francisco Pride parade for more than a decade. The spokesperson added that Google is "grateful" for SF Pride's partnership and leadership.

Berland said his core objection was the fact that Google was allowed to pretend to be supportive of the LGBTQ+ community "when they're not actually supportive," Berland alleged.

"It's reputation management," he said. "And I think a lot of ERGs have become deeply complicit in it."

Beyond the controversy surrounding Pride, some folks in the LGBTQ+ community felt that the Gayglers group didn't do a good job including transgender people. That's what prompted Irene Knapp, a former software engineer at the company, to help start an ERG for trans employees at Google.

"The net effect was we had a lot of practical needs, which were not getting acknowledged by [the Gayglers]," they told Protocol. "And when trans Googlers did try to do things, we very often found that there were people affiliated with Gayglers who came out with pretty well-rehearsed talking points as to why we shouldn't try to make meaningful change."

Some people would point to the fact that the burden of change shouldn't fall on minorities, Knapp said. While they agree with that sentiment, they didn't have much of a choice since no one else was willing to do the work, Knapp said. The work entailed advocating for trans issues in the workplace, fighting for gender-neutral bathrooms, pushing for better health services and more. The ERG, for example, worked with a concierge service to design medical services for trans people, Knapp said.

"Every trans person has to be an expert in the medical issues affecting us because we can rely on doctors to get it wrong, predictably, over and over," Knapp said. "And it would be nice to someday live in a world where that's not the case. So that's not going to happen if nobody is out there doing education from, you know, within the medical industry within that system."

Throughout the process of pushing for the trans ERG at Google, Knapp began to learn more about labor organizing. By the time they and their colleagues successfully formed the trans ERG, Knapp said they had realized "there's a playbook that companies use to bring things like this into the fold."

The playbook, according to Knapp, includes offering workers "small measures of personal power or fame, or whatever they want in exchange for being complicit in the system."

Do ERGs undermine unions?

Hazel Court, a senior software engineer at Mapbox, knew gender diversity was a problem in tech at her previous role at Uber. That's partly why she joined the Lady Eng and Women of Infra/Lady Eng Infra ERGs at Uber.

"I thought that by joining a group, I might be able to improve the situation at Uber," she told Protocol. "I also recognized that an ERG is probably a safer space to talk about issues than just with my manager or with other random co-workers."

Court's experiences with the ERGs were mixed, she said. She appreciated how the ERGs created a safe space to discuss issues with like-minded co-workers. But the ERG felt less safe when managers joined or when representatives from human resources would sit in, she said.

The women's infrastructure ERG, founded in the wake of former Uber engineer Susan Fowler's allegations of harassment and discrimination at the company, served as a safe place for folks to talk about workplace issues. The group, however, was less effective in terms of advocacy work, she said. In general, all of the ERGs she's been part of at both Uber and Mapbox have struggled in this area.

"They had this advocacy role to try to speak some truth to power to advocate for, like, 'Let's get diversity numbers public or internally,' or advocate for change at the company around hiring practices," she said. "And that often didn't amount to anything."

Court is also an organizer with the Mapbox Workers Union. In her experience, she's found that ERG work can be at odds with union organizing work.

"An ERG wants to make all these really concrete changes often at a workplace but has no power to do that," she said. "They might have some funding or the ear of an executive, which we did at Uber, but ultimately it kind of relies on the good faith of an executive to work on whatever changes you want. ERGs kind of passively work against the idea of a union in that they're a way for you to kind of spend your energy without it turning into anything, which I'm really sad about, but that's what I've found in my experience."

At Mapbox, Court said, the company has used ERGs as a union-busting talking point. ERGs fell by the wayside at Mapbox when the pandemic started, Court said. But as the union organizing picked up steam, the company began talking about how they would bring back the ERGs.

"As companies often do when they have a union drive going on, they will talk about these initiatives that they had been thinking about doing before the union drive was known in order to say they're working on things and things will get better if you vote no," Court said. "And that was talked about at Mapbox."

As of recently, Court said the company is indeed kicking off its DEI-related efforts again, which include ERGs and a DEI advisory committee with employee representatives. Mapbox did not reply to Protocol's request for comment. Currently, Mapbox is not unionized, but the fight isn't over, Court said.

"We witnessed what we think might be unfair labor practices," she said. "So we are considering whether we need to file any of those. We were considering filing election objections, but ended up not. Right now we want to hold our management accountable to the actions that happened over the past seven weeks of the anti-union campaign."

Mapbox would not be the first company to leverage ERGs against unions. Google, for example, has worked with IRI Consultants, a workplace firm that describes ERGs as a tool to prevent union organizing.

Emma Kinema, a labor organizer with CODE-CWA, told Protocol she's also seen companies put extra funding into ERGs with the talking point that, if workers form a union, they wouldn't get any financial support from the company. ERGs, however, do typically receive financial support from companies.

Some companies also pay their ERG leaders. LinkedIn, for example, announced earlier this year it would start paying its ERG leaders $10,000 for every year of service. At Slack, the company has "always tried to compensate folks" who have led ERGs, VP of people Dawn Sharifan told Protocol.

"We give each of our [ERG] captains basically like a sack of money that they can then pay and compensate different members of the ERG for different work," she said.

That sack of money comes out to thousands of dollars a year, Sharifan said.

"It's more than a Starbucks gift card, I'll tell you that," she joked.

In a recent organizing campaign at a tech company, Kinema said the company tried to prevent folks from an ERG joining the bargaining unit.

"The company claimed they had confidential information because they talked to management frequently in the workplace, which was absolutely nuts," she said.

Kinema said the organizing perspective pertaining to ERGs is that they function as company unions by virtue of them being reliant on a company for its existence.

"The company allows employee resource groups so they can let the workers vent out some amount of steam on certain issues or social justice issues without actually threatening the boss's power," she said. "I tend to describe it a bit like a sandbox. HR has this little sandbox we can play around in where we can talk about the issues, we can make recommendations, but at the end of the day, do we have the power to actually build the thing we want to build? No."

Marketing tools and diversity theater

The consensus among current and former ERG members, as well as labor organizers, seems to be that ERGs can be useful tools for building community among co-workers. But when it comes to affecting real change, forming a union may be more beneficial to workers.

Mayuri Raja, the equity committee chair at the Alphabet Workers Union and member of a couple of ERGs at Google, sees the value in both unions and ERGs.

"To me, ERGs and union organizing are just two different tactics," she told Protocol. "They attack different parts of the problem."

ERGs, for example, address the community-building and professional development elements, she said.

"To me, [ERGs are] more about mitigating the problem whereas, to me, union organizing is more about preventing the problem," she said. "I think the problem with ERGs and where they run into issues is ERGs are funded by the company, so anything you do kind of has to get the company's approval. You have to get the red stamp of approval."

For Jones, however, his experience at GitHub left him feeling like companies are not to be trusted when it comes to ERGs. He believes companies start them for nefarious purposes, he said.

"They're putting them in place to control people of color and minorities and oppressed groups," he said. "And it's in a fucked, like, branded as a fun and friendly way to build inclusion from the inside out. But truly, it actually is just there as a marketing tool, diversity theater and another level to control and in some ways segregate the organization into racial and gender camps so that they can keep a pulse on what's happening and do damage control and PR control on things that might arise from the way that these people have been mistreated."

Kinema recognizes there are limitations with ERGs but insisted that workers should not reject them altogether. That's because, according to Kinema, there is still value in spaces where employees can have discussions about social issues and connect with their co-workers.

"We should be in those spaces," she said. "We should be in that space as organizers getting to know people and participating, and not just lecturing at people that this approach to solving problems has inherent limitations and ultimately won't achieve what we want to achieve. We should work with them."

When, however, those inherent limitations of an ERG arise, she said, that's when organizers can perhaps encourage some folks to start thinking about unionizing and obtaining collective bargaining rights.

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