Why you should think twice about joining an ERG to boost your professional network...


If you are a woman or a person of color and you want to supercharge your professional network, think twice about joining an employee resource group!

More than two-thirds of Fortune 100 companies have one or more employee resource groups (ERGs), sometimes called affinity groups. Some companies, like Johnson & Johnson have a dozen or more ERGs, each targeting a different under-represented population such as women, veterans, or LGBTQ. ERGs typically focus on recruitment, retention, training, professional development, and career advancement for members.

But ERGs are a dead end when it comes to networking.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to love about ERGs. They provide a place where people who share similar concerns can find support and learn strategies for addressing challenges. At the organizational level, they can be a force for greater equality between the straight, white men from affluent backgrounds who almost always comprise senior leadership and, well, everyone else.

But in terms of creating a vibrant, resource-rich professional network for their members, they have some serious disadvantages:

  1. ERGs offer few opportunities to build real relationships. Meetings tend to be formal and events tend to be report-out style. Unless you are serving on a committee, other members may have no opportunity to observe your abilities in action. Yes, ERGs often sponsor networking events—dreaded by introverts everywhere!—but a cocktail party is a terrible place to build a professional relationship.
  2. ERGs won’t extend your network’s range. Given the targeted membership of most formal networks, they connect people who tend to have had similar experiences and similar ways of viewing the world. That’s great for getting support and making friendships but it’s not great for looking at the world differently, a key component of effective networks.
  3. ERGs contribute to collaborative overload for senior members. ERGs members are typically under-represented at senior levels so they often draw heavily upon the small number of members who have reached senior levels. This can lead those members to see the ERG as more take than give. That can feel draining - and self-defeating - since leaders need their relational energy to build critical relationships with their peers and managers.
  4. ERGs alone can’t reshape organizational networks. While ERGs have the potential to spur meaningful change in the entire organization, if senior leadership believes that ERGs are the change—which is frequently the case—diverse populations may still be marginalized when it comes to forming critical professional relationships. In other words, ERGs support diversity but not necessarily inclusion in organizational networks.

ERGs offer many benefits but joining one is not the same as building a professional network. Effective networks are always built upon informal interactions, the kind that develop when people work together toward shared goals. They include a range of individuals—to foster strategic thinking!—including people who are not like you and who are in positions of power.

To truly build a powerful network—one that will move you closer to achieving your professional goals and will help your company achieve its goals—you need to go beyond ERGs.