8 Lessons Learned From Building an Employee Resource Group at a Startup

Building anything from scratch can be daunting. The uncertainty of square one is a massive perceived barrier to entry that is to blame for millions of “good ideas” that never were. I recently spearheaded the creation of our LGBTQ-focused employee resource group and this is what I learned.

When it comes to creating an employee resource group, the only essential I’ve found necessary is passion. Yes, there will be details to iron out, and a healthy dose of internal marketing needed, but it all boils down to the fire in your belly that desires to do good. So I say to you: don’t fret the details at first. Begin anyway.

1. Employees want to engage

The words “employee engagement” gets loosely thrown around on average ten times a day. The now-famous statistic by Gallup states that “seven out of ten workers [are] either disengaged or actively undermining the efforts of their organization.” I was pleasantly surprised that when I initially messaged our Chicago office about the proposed LGBT-focused employee resource group, it was met with resounding interest. We set a date for our first meeting, created a Slack channel, and the brainstorming began.

At ShipBob, our business model lends itself to be extremely task-focused. This creates a common challenge for managers and individual contributors alike: losing sight of the relational dynamics that ultimately fuel team performance.

2. Gives employees new growth opportunities

While startup roles tend to be more freeform than traditional corporate positions, there are still boundaries that inform your experience. Those involved in employee resource groups take on projects they otherwise wouldn’t have in their roles.

Stewart Anderson of HP puts it this way: “I started out with the company as an individual contributor,” he says. “My ability to think systematically and globally is largely because of my involvement in the resource group. There was reciprocal mentoring. I was able to interact with other senior leaders in a non-threatening way.”

This invaluable leadership experience can help give employees the edge they need to develop skills that will take them to the next level, whether that means securing that next promotion or becoming a respected voice internally.

With new challenges comes new growth opportunities.

3. Provides a much-needed psychologically safe space

“There’s no team without trust,” says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. He knows the results of the tech giant’s massive two-year study on team performance, which revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.

Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.

When the Daily Show’s team of around 100 writers come together and begin crafting the content for the evening, there are no ideas too small, no riffs deemed insignificant, and oftentimes they take part in what’s called “burstiness”. Having a mutual respect for each other and being unafraid to add your opinion to the group is a sign of a strong team. But building psychological safety takes time.

When we riff together, creatively problem solving, we can begin to take credit (or fault) collectively as a team rather than individually. When we share the delight or the disappointment, we begin to move in the same direction — together. People are more creative in groups where criticism is welcomed. At the Daily Show, you create safety by helping people get comfortable laughing at themselves, or perhaps at the shortcomings of their ideas. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.

4. Younger employees are fueled by the “why”

Simon Sinek teaches us that “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” If we want our employees to display discretionary effort we have to build the “why” behind what it is that we do. At ShipBob, we have a clearly defined purpose: to help ecommerce businesses be more successful online. It’s our north star when we’re partnering with new clients and is at the center of our decision making internally.

Building an employee resource group was no different. We clearly outlined why it was we were all interested in investing our time, resources, and effort towards a common goal. Define your why clearly and provide the space for others to share theirs.

During my time at a previous employer, I was on the LGBT committee of our employee resource group. From planning our Chicago Pride Parade float design to the creation of our first annual Transgender Awareness Week, we were able to take on additional responsibility we otherwise wouldn’t have had in our roles.

When ShipBob’s group met, we wanted to touch on four components: education, philanthropy, celebration, and community connection. The end result was a month full of events including a lunch and learn and fundraiser with The Night Ministry, a local organization that assists LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness; a screening of “Kumu Hina,” a touching film on the transgender experience; and a happy hour in the West Loop with our fellow tech neighbors Google and Uber with over 120 guests in attendance.

5. Create opportunities for cross-functional collaboration

With an employee base of over 300, it’s not too surprising how few of our fellow peers we actually work with. Stepping outside of our departments, leaving our pods, and collectively putting our heads together for the first time was refreshing. When we have interdepartmental trust, we establish a mutual respect for the work we do and how it contributes to the greater mission. This trust ensures we avoid any finger-pointing or placing blame on any one department or individual when an issue arises.

By reaching across the aisle more so than we would in our defined role, we access new perspectives and skill sets, effectively becoming more well rounded. The importance of a fresh perspective can’t be overstated. Imagine what context our teams gain from mixing up who we collaborate with.

6. Offer a fresh opportunity for recognition (and improved relationships with your direct reports)

“From a management standpoint, 54% of senior managers feel ‘it’s common for staff to quit due to lack of recognition,’” writes Forbes. “Though this is a reasonable number, there’s a still a sizable disconnect between management’s perceptions and the 76% of millennials who report they’d respond this way.”

A good manager will be in tune with the management style needed to lead a team member. Often underemphasized is the impact of recognition. Being underappreciated for the value you are perceived to be providing the team can be damaging. Giving employees another venue to do great work and receive recognition could improve your relationships between managers and direct reports.

7. Inclusion begets talent and retention

When it comes to engaging with and hiring top talent, employee resource groups are a no-brainer. It says a great deal about a company who encourages employee groups to form and grow internally. From a recruiting perspective, being able to share the impactful stories to potential talent has been a rewarding experience.

Outside of recruiting, having safe spaces that have a strong sense of mission give employees the confidence that their employer values them inside and outside of the office.

8. Sharing in a common goal is liquid motivation

What I found in volunteering my free time working on issues that were important to me was invaluable: The more I invested in our efforts, the higher level of sheer drive I had in my day-to-day role.

If you make the workplace a garden for passion projects, you allow employees the environment necessary to foster growth. Investing time collaborating and volunteering with coworkers towards a common goal gives you a renewed and deeper tie to the work you do day in and day out.

Humans are emotional beings. Vulnerability drives the connection that’s necessary to work effectively as a team. When we blur the lines between professional and personal, allowing the “normal” outside-of-work self come to the office each morning, we’re able to genuinely invest in the words we say and the actions we take.

What you’ll find along the way is a greater appreciation for the people you work with, and when profit and people go hand in hand, you’re on to something great.

Interested in working for ShipBob? Check out our open positions.