By Elizabeth Bales Frank

Recently, a friend of mine, Alison, was approached by several women who asked if their company had an affinity group for working mothers. Alison is a human resources manager for a media company of nearly 1,000 employees. Together, we looked into the best practices of creating an affinity group, more often called an employee resource group, or ERG.

The oldest existing ERGs were created by forward-thinking corporations in the 1980s. The percentage of corporate employees in ERGs has risen from 5% in 2001 to 23% in 2011, according to; with groups focusing on women leading the pack, followed by those based on race, LGBT status, disabilities, generational, and multicultural. Newer ERGs focus on shared passions such as green initiatives, community service, and wellness.

So what should Alison’s working mothers do?

1. Form a committed group. Secure a list of dedicated names. Don’t settle for “Sure, that would be cool,” but press for a commitment of creative capital. Then conduct some lunchtime brainstorming sessions.

2. Take a look around. In a company with existing ERGs? Her work is half-done. Identify the head of a group and determine how her proposed group will interact with the existing groups. Working parents? Liaise with the women’s group. Further, since most companies have an “open to all” policy regarding affinity groups, she should expand her brand to “working parents.”

If the company has no ERGs, establishing the first one may prove unexpectedly easy.

“The leader has taken a lot of pressure off of the company to determine needs and wants for the networking group,” advises Emily Przybylinsk, an associate with Jennifer Brown Consulting, the consulting firm behind the report Employee Resource Groups That Drive Business, an overview of case studies and best practices. The report asserts that employers welcome ERGs because they “by design, are focused on loyalty and affinity, can help build ties and inspire commitment.”

3. Define your goal. “What is your mission, what do you want to accomplish, what are you going to bring to the table?” asks Carolyn D’Anna, a human resources partner at the financial accounting firm J.H. Cohn. “And how does this affect the client?” It is essential, she adds, that the mission of the group fits in with the mission of the firm. When J.H. Cohn identified issues with turnover within its organization a decade ago, it implemented a program of focus groups and studies to determine what its employees, particularly its women employees, needed in order to “recruit, retain and advance.” The firm’s current affinity groups have achieved success in reaching their diverse counterparts among both longtime prospective clients.

The working parents of this media company might want to establish a nursing room, negotiate with an after-care establishment and/or nanny service for a corporate rate, or implement a flex-time policy. These moves would increase productivity, cut down on absenteeism and turnover, and enable working parents to focus on client service and career development.

4. Identify Who Else Will Benefit. Beyond helping segments of the workforce with specific issues, an optimal ERG contributes to its company’s success, through marketing or product development, through talent acquisition and development, and through workforce diversity and inclusion. Examples cited in ERGs Come of Age, a white paper created by Mercer, include:

  • Recommendations from a women’s leadership group at McDonald’s resulted in salads and smoothies being added to its menu.
  • A disability ERG at Visa sponsors disability etiquette training sessions.
  • The Asian American ERG at Air Products created a program to ease the culture shock of Asian expats transferred to the United States.

A working parent group might spearhead the company’s Take Our Children to Work Day initiative, a holiday toy drive, or a fundraising activity for a relevant charity. Since they work for a media company, they might host a website/chat room sharing advice and anecdotes with the working parents of its clientele.

5. Calculate The Cost. What will the group require? A conference room? Dedicated email list? Dedicated intranet site? Office services? Company time?

6. Secure a Champion. With the mission statement in hand, the working parent should next proceed to a Human Resources representative and enlist the rep’s help in identifying an in-house angel most likely to shepherd the group into life. “Buy-in from senior management is crucial,” states D’Anna.

7. Spread the News. Once the go-ahead has been given, the leader should notify the heads of all the other ERGs, announce the launch of the group to the company with a fun activity, such as a children’s art contest, and, crucially, notify recruiting. She has, after all, just created a valuable perk for the company to attract top talent.