The printer’s jammed. Zoom fatigue’s getting you down. Your mom can’t afford healthcare without going into debt. Which of these situations would you feel most hesitant to bring up at work? 

Even when it’s not directly workplace-related, systemic inequality shapes the career experiences of employees from underrepresented groups. And employers who are serious about equity and inclusion cannot ignore these realities. They need to give their people safe spaces to talk about challenges in the workplace, like wage equity and microaggressions, but also struggles and oppression outside work.

That’s why employee resource groups (ERGs) are one of the most powerful ways for companies to translate their DEI intentions into meaningful action. Done right, these professional networks show members that they’re heard and supported – not just by each other, but by their employer. 

As a DEI Inclusion Specialist at Atlassian, I helped plan and execute our own internal ERG program. Read more to learn why we need ERGs in the tech sector, the critical elements to a successful ERG program, and how we’ve put them into practice at Atlassian.

The time has come for ERGs in tech

How Employee Resource Groups help build a culture of belonging

Offered by 90% of the Fortune 500, ERGs have become a pretty typical part of the enterprise employee experience. But tech is a relatively young sector, populated by startups and ruled by a growth-focused, “move fast and break things” model.

So despite broad aspirations to work towards diversity, equity, and inclusion, the tech industry is still catching up. Many companies have focused on rapid innovation, hypergrowth, and securing capital over deep investment in DEI.

This is by no means a tech issue only – research from McKinsey has found that many companies lack the practical infrastructure to back up their DEI aspirations. But a proactive, community-based approach to belonging feels especially appropriate in this sector. The tech industry is known for bold thinking and utopian dreams – but in the real world, its diversity has yet to live up to that vision. 

Furthermore, tech firms have been some of the most enthusiastic adopters of work-from-anywhere models. That has positive implications for accessibility and well-being, but it can make it harder for employees to feel a sense of belonging at work and to connect with their colleagues.

Now is the time for tech companies to intentionally build community without borders, especially through ERGs, to make sure the people behind their products feel valued, supported, and connected to one another.

Best practices for effective ERGs

When ERGs fall short of their potential, they amount to an empty, performative corporate promise, often eroding employees’ trust in their organization. But the positive potential is just as dramatic. Beyond supporting individual members, research has shown ERGs can help employers attract and retain workers, and that high-performing organizations use them as a strategic pipeline to source and develop future leaders

Successful ERGs start with listening to the people they’ll represent and centering their needs. Then, organization need the infrastructure and resources to build ERG programs around them. 

Listening, first and foremost

How to advocate for yourself at work

Start by directly asking your employees what they want, then design your ERG program around their answers. This is a binary, all-or-nothing situation – your ERG program simply will not be successful without centering your people.

Atlassian’s ERG program grew out of virtual listening sessions with our employees, all over the world. We asked them questions like:

  • Who are we, demographically? What do we care about?
  • What do you know about ERGs? 
  • Do you want ERGs at Atlassian, and if so, what do you want them to look like?
  • What type of programs, events, and activities would you like to participate in?

Then, we built out our groups based on that community feedback. We learned that while we did need ERGs around racial identity, people were also interested in communities for veterans, employees with disabilities, and faith-centered groups.

Listening results in programs that better meet peoples’ needs. But it’s also much more rewarding for employees to engage once the ERGs are established, because they felt included in the process. 

At Atlassian, engagement was much more immediate than we expected – signups for group leadership and activities ramped up quickly. Roughly a year later, over 1600 Atlassian employees, about 12% of our company, are engaged with at least one ERG.

Leadership support and buy-in 

To support their members effectively, ERGs need buy-in from the upper levels of the organization. When ERGs are well-connected with senior leaders and executives, it’s easier to secure operating budgets, support members’ career advancement, and plan initiatives that actually have an impact.  

Start by directly asking your employees what they want, then design your ERG program around their answers. This is a binary, all-or-nothing situation – your ERG program simply will not be successful without centering your people.

At Atlassian, our listening sessions became a source of qualitative evidence we used to get senior leaders on board. These conversations with our community yielded valuable data to show that the program was being carefully designed to meet peoples’ needs. That made it easier to get leadership engaged and excited. 

Consistent internal structure 

Every ERG must share a clearly defined and consistent internal structure. That means setting up leadership models the same way in every group and giving each ERG access to similar resources. However, operating budgets might be proportional to the size of each group.

All Atlassian ERGs have the same leadership structure: an executive sponsor personally chosen by the Head of Belonging, plus internal leaders voted in by members. We carefully selected executive sponsors whose top priority was advocating for members, rather than gaining experience with DEI. 

Adequate resources 

It’s critical that ERGs have adequate resources, and do not become a source of unpaid additional labor for organizers. ERG leaders are already part of underrepresented groups – when they put hard work into building safe spaces without being recognized, it can compound the challenges they already face instead of addressing them. 

How each program decides to resource its ERGs, and incentivize leaders, will vary. But finding a structure that does make sense is essential. 

At Atlassian, every ERG draws from two banks of money – one operating budget for programming, and a separate pool that’s exclusively for leaders and chairs. It was important to us that internal leaders not work for free, but also that those funds not draw away from the group’s main budget.

On-ramps to allyship 

Most people want to be part of creating more inclusive, equitable workplaces, but many don’t know how to go about it. That’s why being intentional about allyship is so crucial to a successful program. Before launching their ERGs, organizations need to define how they’ll approach allyship. What does “being an ally” look like in practice?

As a rich source of cultural education and historical context, the reading lists shared by Atlassian’s ERGs have become a very effective on-ramp for allies. They’re a great resource to welcome allies – without asking the community for direct assistance or extra labor. Once allies have “done their homework,” they’re ready to participate in more active ways. 

Align with your company’s mission and values

A strong ERG program will feel authentic and relevant to the organization it’s part of. While all ERGs are meant to foster belonging and support members, their areas of practical focus can vary. 

Atlassian’s ERGs are highly focused on education and resource-sharing. We prioritize on-ramps to allyship, and facilitating connection with Atlassian’s senior leaders. Our goal is to support concerted efforts toward a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace, centered on historically marginalized groups and protected classes.

Some programs might emphasize bottom-line goals, like recruitment. For others, social connections or professional advancement might come first. But no matter what, those goals should be in alignment with the mission of the larger organization. 

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

It all starts with listening: Best practices for a successful ERG program