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Imagine starting a new job at a large  company, but you’re unsure of the best way to meet people beyond your immediate work area, or maybe you’ve been with the company awhile but want to improve your leadership skills or learn new things. In both cases, joining an employee resource group would be a solution.

Ninety percent of all Fortune 500 companies offer ERGs, which are voluntary and employee-led and have a track record of fostering a sense of belonging and increased trust among employees. Those feelings can translate into higher levels of employee retention.

Miron Construction Co. Inc. in Neenah developed its ERGs to help workers feel more connected to one another and the wider community, says Jen Bauer, senior vice president of marketing and culture.

The construction firm’s groups — active professionals, women’s leadership and one for young project managers — all have the same purpose: reinforcing Miron’s connection to the community and strengthening the bonds between employees, she adds.

“Our groups cover the entire Miron footprint so people can get to know others from different locations,” Bauer says. “For project managers, they are sometimes the only one working on a job and the project manager group allows them to get together and talk about what they’re going through. It’s definitely a way to grow future leaders.”

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay offers five ERGs, and Susan Gallagher-Lepak, a co-founder of the Woman’s Leadership Network and dean of the College of Health, Education and Social Welfare, says they bring together people with similar interests, which builds bonds and increases retention rates. 

“Our group is fairly educational. We hold a number of events that look at different topics or bring in a speaker designed to inspire,” she says. “We also network since it allows you to connect with people and share common experiences.”

Common goals

Miron’s active professionals and women’s leadership groups are open to all employees. The active professionals group strives to drive inclusion within the company while planning activities to help connect the construction company to the community, Bauer says. In the Fox Cities, for example, the group holds a fundraiser to buy Christmas gifts and serve a dinner to children with either the Boys & Girls Club or Big Brothers Big Sisters. With COVID-19, this year was a drive-thru event. 

The women’s group, which has a few male members, focuses on networking and building leadership skills. Before COVID-19, it offered lunch and learns or other in-person programs where members could learn something new or refine a skill while also meeting with colleagues, Bauer says.

While in-person gatherings have been curtailed, the women’s group launched a virtual book club early in the pandemic. 

“The book club has been great since we are learning by reading the books we’ve picked and then we’re also able to gather via Zoom to talk about it,” Bauer says.

Workers learn about the ERGs when they are first hired and through internal communications, but hosting events also can help draw in new members. To attract new members, the active professionals group recently held a non-social ice cream social where they purchased ice cream novelty items. People could walk over to pick one up and get a short spiel about the group.

“That was definitely a creative way to draw in new members at a time when large groups can’t meet in person,” Bauer says.

Learning from others

Before launching the women’s leadership network, Gallagher-Lepak sought out best practices from other businesses in the area using ERGs to find out what worked for them and what didn’t. The vital information she gathered not only helped the group she was starting but also UW-Green Bay’s other ERGs, including those for other employee groups, including ethnically diverse, veterans, international and those who support the campus’s Pride Center. 

Women’s Leadership Network co-founder Sheryl Van Gruensven, UW-Green Bay’s chief business officer and senior vice chancellor for institutional strategy, says the groups are not limited to those employees who fall into the category associated with the organization. For example, men can join the Women’s Leadership Network. “Your membership just shows you’re supportive of the organization’s goals,” she says.

The key to a successful ERG is having members involved, Gallagher-Lepak says. She and Van Gruensven ask other members to make presentations, which not only provides them with a leadership and public speaking opportunity but also frees up space in the two women’s busy schedules.

“It’s important to strengthen women’s leadership,” says Van Gruensven, who served as UW-Green Bay’s interim chancellor last year. “We want to create a safe place for women to share and grow their skills.”

During the pandemic, the group is meeting virtually, but once it’s over, Van Gruensven is looking forward to bringing everyone together again to meet in person. “Last March, we had a fun evening planned when we were going to watch ‘On the Basis of Sex’ about Ruth Bader Ginsberg and discuss it, but it was canceled. I hope that is something we can still do,” she says.