How employee resource groups foster belonging at work

Individuals who exist as an “only” – the only woman, parent, person of color, person with a disability – on their team, in a Zoom room, or in an entire company, often carry an invisible and exhausting burden. Explain who you are, where you come from, and what you care about, over and over again – or decide not to share it at all.

For employees from underrepresented backgrounds, that additional labor is often draining and demoralizing, and creates a barrier to psychological safety. A lack of belonging prevents people not just from doing their best work, but from being their most authentic selves.

That’s why diversity, equity, and inclusion in hiring are now the bare minimum. It’s not enough to recruit talent from underrepresented groups and give them equal access to opportunities; once they’re in the door, these employees need to feel that they belong – that who they are is valued and celebrated at work. 

One powerful way to do that is through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These are professional communities, within organizations, that create space for employees with shared identities and backgrounds to connect. 

As a DEI Inclusion Specialist at Atlassian, I helped build Atlassian’s ERG program from the ground up over the last two years. My role in that process was guided by my academic research on workplace belonging, as well as my professional experience in the tech sector.”

Through academic and hands-on experience, I’ve learned that the foundation for a strong ERG program, while not easy, is relatively simple: to foster that all-important sense of belonging, organizations need to consciously listen to their employees – and be genuinely willing to act on what they learn. 

The significance of belonging

Build belonging at work (even if you’re not the boss)

Inclusion and equity are well-understood, at least in an abstract sense. Equitable policies ensure people are treated fairly; inclusion involves proactively making space for everyone’s contributions. 

It’s not enough to recruit talent from underrepresented groups and give them equal access to opportunities; once they’re in the door, these employees need to feel that they belong.

And these are really important ideas. But belonging – a newer-on-the-scene buzzword – has become a big part of the DEI conversation, too. Belonging happens when you create a culture where people feel safe and supported, as their entire selves. That may sound like common sense, but unfortunately, it’s not the norm. For example, a 2022 report found that half of Black and Asian professionals with advanced degrees didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work. Many companies, Atlassian included, are looking for ways to foster belonging. 

At Atlassian, we want our people to feel authentically seen and heard when they show up or log in every day. That’s what belonging means to us – and research has shown that community-building efforts, including ERGs, are a powerful way to create it. 

What is an Employee Resource Group?

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are professional and social networks within an organization, built around a shared identity, background, or life experience. Groups for women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ employees, or people with disabilities are a few common types of ERGs, but they’re not just for underrepresented or minority groups. For example, some companies offer ERGs around faith and sustainability

ERGs are established and endorsed by leadership through official channels, distinct from the informal connections that form within organizations among people with shared experiences. But in practical, experiential terms, ERGs are about community-building. They’re about making sure folks have safe spaces to engage authentically – to share the good and the bad of their workplace experience without fear of repercussions. 

“I think the most positive outcome of our existence is the creation of a supportive space for members to check in and discuss, debrief, or process current events,” says Ali Baird, a leader of our Atlassian Pride ERG. “That could be for lighter things, like TV series and album drops, or legislative changes that impact the lives of our members and their families. It’s just nice to know that we have other Atlassians to lean on as we navigate similar challenges and joys together.”

The exact form an ERG takes, its focuses and priorities, will vary with the culture and priorities of its organization. Some may be more connected to the business’s bottom-line goals, such as recruitment; others may focus on career advancement for members, strengthening social bonds, or work and activism in the external community. 

Through research of over 25,000 employees, McKinsey has identified five broad dimensions for ERGs to focus on. They found that employees are more likely to feel included at work if their ERG is effective in at least one of these:

  • External engagement: Volunteering, community involvement, and activism opportunities outside the organization
  • Allyship: Providing ways for allies outside the ERG to get involved and help further its mission 
  • Leadership connection: Creating opportunities for ERG members to connect and build relationships with company leadership 
  • Employee community building: Strengthening employees’ social network and relationships within their organization
  • Career advancement: Helping ERG members move forward and reach their career goals with advice, support, and career development resources

ERGs at Atlassian

How to make values-based leadership your North Star

In Spring 2022, Atlassian launched 9 ERGs, created from months of in-depth listening sessions with our people. Our goal is to support concerted efforts toward a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace, centered on historically marginalized groups and protected classes. This philosophy holds true to two of our company values: “be the change you seek”, and “open company, no bullsh!t.”

These are voluntary, opt-in communities, designed for Atlassian employees to engage with in whatever way feels best. 

As of today, we’re home to the following ERGs: 

  • Atlassian Asian Alliance (A3)
  • Atlassian Faith in Action
  • Atlassian Pride
  • Black Atlassian Group
  • Disability at Atlassian
  • Juntos
  • South Asian Atlassians
  • Vetlassians
  • Women+ Atlassian

Program structure

Every ERG at Atlassian is connected with a senior leadership-level executive sponsor. These sponsors join quarterly strategy meetings and participate in events, as well as connecting with members in an informal way, such as over Slack. This opens the lines of communication, setting the stage for relationships between different levels of our organization. 

Internally, each group is led by Atlassian employees who are voted in by membership. These leaders are financially incentivized for their efforts, from a resource pool that’s separate from the ERG’s main budget. 

Program activities 

Atlassian’s ERGs are heavily focused on education and resource-sharing. We prioritize on-ramps to allyship and facilitating connection with Atlassian’s senior leaders. 

Our members have written internal articles about holidays or occasions they wanted to acknowledge and compiled book lists that evolved into a sponsored book-buying program, and multiple groups have arranged sponsored museum trips.

This June, Atlassian Pride is organizing an internal LGBTQIA+ Career Panel, featuring LGBTQIA+ identifying leaders across Atlassian. They’re also planning a 30 Days of Pride history campaign, and several educational blogs for Atlassians spanning the history of the LGBTQIA+ movement, and key LGBTQIA+ contributions to tech. 

Women+ Atlassian has hosted panels around caregiving, talks from women speakers, and an ask-me-anything session with Atlassian’s president. Vetlassians has also internally published a compilation of members’ personal stories on their time in the military. 

Our ERG groups also often collaborate with each other. Women+ Atlassian worked with Juntos and Black Atlassian Group to host “The Only One in the Room,” an open dialogue on diversity, and with Asian Atlassian Alliance (A3) on “Journey to Management,” an AMA with Mai Doan, Atlassian’s Head of Global Partner Programs strategy and A3’s Executive Sponsor. 

The power of community – ERG benefits

The people have spoken, and they want to work for businesses that care

Typically, the big question from leaders about ERGs will be: how does this contribute to our bottom line?

Taking care of its employees should be a top priority for any business. No matter what, inclusion and belonging should be the most important outcomes any ERG is working towards. But ERGs can support many other business outcomes, both by empowering individuals and by creating structural change at their organizations. 

Research shows clear benefits to ERG members, such as improving career optimism, stronger social ties for Black members, and positive career outcomes for women. There’s also some evidence suggesting that facilitating learning and development among ERG members can improve employee performance, thus leveling-up business performance overall. 

Another common business goal for ERGs is related to recruitment, and building a more diverse workforce. An active ERG program shows potential candidates that at that particular company, DEI isn’t just an abstract concept – it’s part of who they are and how they work. ERG members can attend and speak at recruiting events, and details on the ERG program are shared with candidates during the hiring process. 

Benefits at Atlassian

At Atlassian, we’ve seen ERG members sharing about their workplace experiences directly translate into measurable improvements in how leaders and managers run their teams. Because of the heavy executive involvement in our ERGs, we see leaders taking what they’ve learned in their ERG interactions, and incorporating it into how they work day-to-day. 

“We’ve opened up the conversation around how to be a better ally, colleague, and friend for people in different situations,” shares Kate Anthonisz, Asia-Pacific team lead for Women+ Atlassian. “I’ve seen some real lightbulb moments around better understanding how to work with minority groups, and learning about some of the struggles our fellow colleagues go through.”

Non-negotiables for a strong ERG program

Every organization will have different values, culture, and goals for its program. But no matter what, there are clear, non-negotiable components to an ERG that tangibly improves peoples’ working lives:

  • Start with listening: Successful ERGs are based on real conversations with the employees they’ll represent.
  • Leadership buy-in: Support from leadership makes it easier to secure resources, support members, and plan initiatives that actually have an impact.
  • Consistent internal structure: Every ERG should have a similar leadership structure and budget.
  • Adequate resourcing: ERGs should have the resources they need to plan activities and initiatives, and their leaders should not work for free.
  • On-ramps to allyship: Establish clear ways for allies to get involved, without relying on ERG members to make it happen.
  • Alignment with mission, vision, and values: ERG’s goals should never be at odds with those of the larger organization.

A successful ERG program takes thoughtfulness, dedication, and an open mind. Leaders must be willing to take a back seat, and listen more than talk as they let their people guide and shape the process. 

But the effort is worth it – not only are ERGs a powerful way to foster belonging and take care of your people, but they can elevate your business in sometimes-surprising ways. 

Special thanks to Genevieve Michaels for her contributions to this article.

How Employee Resource Groups help build a culture of belonging