The future of networks: next-level ERGs and Champions


When Employee Resource Groups and/or Champions Networks first arrived on the Wellbeing scene it was usually because there were some employees who had a special interest in the topic, and so got behind making these initiatives a reality. 

In the case of ERGs, they’d typically create a safe space for people to share their experiences, and in the case of ‘Champions’ these people would raise awareness of a topic through the organisation. (Generally speaking, Champions are not to be confused with first responders like Mental Health First Aiders, though they often work in tandem).

Originally set up by passionate employees

Individuals who were enthusiastic about Wellbeing is exactly how recruitment firm Hays’ Wellbeing Network started out, says Head of Wellbeing Hannah Pearsall. Talking about its Wellbeing network, she says:

“When we first started it was led by anybody who was passionate about Workplace Wellbeing. They didn’t have to have expertise or knowledge.”

However, as Champion networks and ERGs have become commonplace, Hays, like many employers, has discovered the powerful role they can play in helping to embed culture of care. With that, they’ve also realised the need to be more strategic in the recruitment of people who take on these roles in order for them to be most effective and inclusive. 

The importance of representation

“What we quickly realised was that it was important that the group was representative of our entire organisation,” says Pearsall. “We wanted to make sure we had a mix of leaders, managers but also people with no line management experience because sometimes people would rather speak to a peer than a leader or manager.”

Dan Robertson, Director of Fairer Consulting, has seen this evolution across industry sectors and describes the development of ERGs as:

“We used to call them Employee Network Groups and the purpose of those was to basically provide a safe space for different groups like women, people of colour, the LGBT community, etc. Then they started to merge into ERGs which still operated as a place for support and community bonding but also started to pivot towards having some kind of strategic input, like advice and guidance on how certain communities were impacted by the business.”

ERGs now becoming ‘BRG’s

Now, says Robertson, ERGs are currently further evolving into ‘BRGs’: Business Resource Groups. In BRGs, there’s still a strong support function but the strategic role is even more elevated, with the group feeding formally into policy and processes.

“BRGs offer advice and guidance to organisations now on a wealth of topics from DNI to health and wellbeing. They have much more power, authority and responsibility, and direct communication flow to the key decision makers in the business,” he says. 

A challenge that has arisen along with this is the fact that they now attract a wider demographic than just the original ‘target’ group. So, for instance, a women’s network/ERG may initially just have been populated by women but as it moves towards BRG status will likely attract more men, as well as more senior employees. 

Mindful of psychological safety

This means organisations need to be mindful of the fact that it started out as a psychologically safe space for women to share personal experiences and that may then feel compromised by members. Robertson suggests, as a way around this, that networks ensure there are still events, clearly signposted, just for the target employee base to have this ‘safe’ experience, as well as ones open to a wider range of people.

As Pearsall has already mentioned, as networks have evolved more care has naturally been taken in who is chosen to lead them, or take on the role of Champions. But how can you ensure you have a representative group of people leading your network?

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Sam Roberts, Senior Manager, everymind at work, which works with Unipart, suggests first “auditing your organisation’s demographics, including age, gender, ethnicity, job roles, departments and locations”. Then “compare this data to your current ERG/wellbeing champions/ambassadors to identify under-represented groups”.

Plug the gaps

Once you know where these gaps are, you can seek to plug them through targeted communications from email to town halls to team meetings.

“Highlight benefits such as skill development, leadership opportunities, and contributing to a supportive workplace culture,” says Roberts. “Ensuring networks represent diverse groups helps all employees feel a sense of belonging and comfort when seeking support.”

Sarah Restall, Head of Strategy and Operations at Smart About Health, goes as far as to say that empowering ERGs in this way is the “shortest line to cultivating a sense of belonging in an organisation if you support them well”.

The right support

But, as she touches on, to get the best out of your networks and Champions, they must be properly supported and given the right training.

The lack of adequate support in terms of allowing time in the working day to devote to networks, or getting compensated/recognised in some way is still a major bone of contention, as it was two years ago when we wrote about it here. Robertson says it’s one of the most common problems he sees with ERGS:

“Most organisations don’t invest effectively in training for ERG or BRG colleagues. Especially for the latter, if it’s going to be a strategic player you need to think about what are the skills you need? They’re different from just participating in a network. Also, if your colleagues are giving up two or three hours a week of their day, is that getting recognised in their performance review? Or are they still trying to do it from the side of their desk? Organisations need to allocate time, recognition and resources to enable people to do the roles effectively.”

Clearly define roles

As a first step, Roberts advises initial training to clearly define roles and responsibilities before employees even commit:

“Then create a ‘principles document’ (see this example Everymind at Work uses with MHFA networks). Provide relevant training, such as Mental Health First Aid, to help champions offer immediate support and know when to refer employees to professional help.”

Training, however, is not a “one and done” scenario.These key employees require ongoing support in the form of continuous learning opportunities and top-up training on topical issues. “Hold regular network meetings to share experiences, challenges, and best practices, fostering a sense of belonging and engagement too,” says Roberts.

Evolution of Champions

While ERGs are morphing into more business-focused BRGs, Champions networks are also starting to evolve and become more specialised.For instance, rather than just having a ‘Wellbeing Champion’ some companies are now starting to branch out into Champions which have a specialist focus, for example, financial wellbeing or neurodiversity.

As a reflection of this trend, FinWELL has recently launched a CPD certified Champions Training aimed at senior leaders, managers, HR, wellbeing leads and mental health first aiders, arguing that “financial wellbeing and poor relationships with money are now the biggest driver of stress and anxiety in the workplace”.

Financial specialists needed

Pearsall, who has done this training herself, says of it: “For us Financial Wellbeing remains a hot topic so anything we can do that will further our knowledge is really welcome. This really adds value in terms of understanding and, all in all, it only took a couple of hours which even the busiest diaries can fit it.”

According to Roberts, with finances being such a sensitive topic given the cost of living crisis, it’s even more important that organisations recruit the “right” employees and that they undergo robust, thorough training so they have the knowledge necessary to support colleagues effectively. 

“Employees may feel uneasy discussing their salary or financial situation with colleagues, so it’s important to ensure these groups are diverse and inclusive,” he says. “With the right support, these groups can be crucial for employees and help break down barriers and stigma around these topics.”



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