Why is West Monroe investing in ERGs now, when other firms are pulling back?
Inclusion and diversity are embedded in our core values and are vital to our firm’s ability to understand client issues and deliver differentiated solutions. As we’ve grown to nearly 1,000 people in 10 offices across the United States, fostering an inclusive environment becomes more challenging—but all the more important.
As part of a journey to strengthen our culture of inclusion, we began writing quarterly articles designed to stimulate conversation about relevant and sometimes challenging topics. The idea is that healthy and open dialogue is an essential prerequisite to breaking down the barriers to inclusiveness. This year, we are using published articles to inspire discussion around challenging topics.
In this paper, we look at the topic of employee resource groups (ERGs). Last year, one of the big four consulting firms—long recognized as a leader in tackling inclusion and diversity within our profession—took the bold move of eliminating its ERGs. The thinking behind this was that the firm can make more of an impact by redirecting its investment to help executives build skills for fostering an inclusive workplace, and then holding them accountable for doing so.
At West Monroe, we are just now beginning to formalize our approach to establishing ERGs, and coverage of this other firm’s decision has prompted some questions about whether that should influence our own direction.
My response is that our two organizations are in very different places. ERGs have a lifecycle, and subsequently, a value that peaks at some point and then begins to diminish. Other companies’ ERGs have likely been in place for years—longer, possibly, than we have been in business—and their benefits have matured. It is not uncommon for this type of structure to eventually begin to feel as if they unintentionally separate rather than unite people.
West Monroe, on the other hand, is now reaching a size where we believe formal ERGs can provide tangible value for our organization. We are growing rapidly—our three-year compound annual growth is 30 percent, and we recently passed the 1,000-employee milestone. Joining a new consulting environment can be a bit overwhelming at any career level, and it often takes a while for people to feel they fit in professionally as well as personally. While there are many approaches an organization can take to ensure people settle in quickly, providing access to a resource group is one way to accelerate acculturation. I will be addressing this topic in a future article as it is something that we, and many other organizations, need to spend time thinking about and continually evolving our approach.
DiversityInc highlights typical business benefit of ERGs, which include recruitment, engagement, branding, talent development, and market outreach/commerce.
Some of these, such as recruitment, are more relevant to our firm than others. We see the presence of ERGs as extremely beneficial in attracting top talent, whereas we are too early in the development of our programs to target commercial benefits.
But that discussion risks neglecting retention. A key reason people leave organizations like ours is because they don’t feel well connected. To get the best out of our people, we must have an environment where they feel they can bring their best selves to work every day and have an outlet for working through challenges. ERGs at their best provide meaningful forums for those conversations. When people feel connected to others and have a sense of belonging within an organization, they do better work for clients and stay with the organization longer, benefitting both our culture and our business. Retention also provides a direct financial benefit, as it’s more expensive to hire new talent than it is to retain good people.
Our first ERGs formed a few years ago through the efforts of our people. These groups operated quite differently from each other and differently from office to office.
Last year, we received a request to create and support a LGBT+ ERG (WMPride). We realized that if we are going to have ERGs, we need to make sure they are inclusive and run in a way that creates value for our people and for our firm. The request to create WMPride offered a good opportunity for our Inclusion and Diversity Council to consider and define principles for organizing, running, and supporting ERGs, and for our Executive Team to reaffirm their support of ERGs and work with the ERG leaders to operationalize those ideas.
As a result, we have strengthened leadership support and involvement, including making sure that ERGs have an executive sponsor who is not only participating but also sharing specific guidance and expectations for running the group. This doesn’t mean that ERGs are now leadership led; rather, we still look to our consultants to step up and run them because they have a passion for doing so and because these roles do offer the chance to build valuable skills.
One difference in our approach to ERGs is that we have set the expectation that ERGs must start with inclusivity. This means that anyone who wants to participate has the opportunity to do so and any content or programs they develop must be inclusive. This is a shift in the traditional approach to ERGs. We believe it is critical for allies and supporters to work side-by-side with minority employees to create lasting change.
For example, in Seattle, our Women’s Leadership Network has opened events, such as a panel discussion on introverts and extroverts in the workplace, to both men and women. WMPride invites all employees to participate on its regular calls. Even so, group leaders have found this comes with something of a learning curve—for example, it takes quite a bit of research and planning to ensure the content is both supportive of the group’s mission and inclusive of all employees who wish to participate.
As we head to next year, we are putting the weight of West Monroe behind our ERGs, funding them in a way that helps them to deliver on their goals. We will continue to build on the program, although we don’t have specific goals for numbers of ERGs or membership. Our ultimate measure and determinant of their sustainability is that ERGs deliver value to firm and our people and promote our overall goal of strengthening West Monroe’s culture of inclusion.
Strengthening our culture of inclusion is a team effort, and we want to share additional perspectives from across our team and community. This quarter’s contribution comes from Will Hinde, managing director for our Healthcare & Life Sciences practice, member of West Monroe’s Executive Team, and WMPride executive sponsor; and Scott Booze, principal in our Customer Experience practice in Chicago and co-lead of WMPride.
SCOTT: The idea originally came up at dinner with some colleagues. We wanted LGBT+ employees to feel included and that they have a place to go when they needed resources. Then I participated in an internal Q&A series last year and mentioned my desire to start an ERG for LGBT+ employees. Josh Copeland (manager, Healthcare, Chicago) reached out and said he was interested in getting involved.
Together, we began doing internal and external research about setting up an effective ERG as preparation for asking West Monroe’s executive team for support.
We didn’t want the ERG to just to be a social club; we wanted it to do it the right way so that is has impact and helps everyone, including leadership, understand what it’s like to be an LGBT+ employee in the workplace. We worked with the I&D council to define what an effective ERG at West Monroe looks like and how it can add value for members and the firm as a whole.
WILL: It’s a personal passion of mine that we are diverse and inclusive as a firm, and when I was approached by Josh I felt this was a great opportunity to participate in a meaningful way and be a visible leadership advocate. I’ve also enjoyed seeing my peers, family, and friends participate in grassroots inclusion efforts in other companies, and was excited about the opportunity to contribute at West Monroe and support our values and people.
While we are defining the executive sponsor role as we go, the initial value I bring is in helping clear roadblocks and providing insight into securing money and other resources to help the ERG accomplish its goals. Additionally, since this is a forum for people to talk about workplace challenges that also often intersect with our personal lives, I think it’s important for members to see that leadership is listening, interested, and supportive as a visible ally.
SCOTT: The WMPride members look to me, Josh, and Will for a clear definition of what this ERG is and what it provides. But we also want to turn that back around to the members and say, “What do you want to get out of it?” My key piece of advice for others looking to set up an ERG is to flesh out your cause, but as you are preparing to launch the ERG, take a poll and figure out what your members want and expect from their participation. West Monroe is a policy-light organization, so it is up to us to define how we will make an impact.
WILL: Similar to how we operate as entrepreneurs in our consulting business, we have to be entrepreneurial with the ERG. There’s no formula for success—it’s a little like moving forward by feel. The struggle will be to keep the momentum and excitement going and deliver value to our stakeholders—both the LGBT+ community and the 1,000+ employees of West Monroe. Sometimes it’s a blessing and a curse to be policy-light, but that’s also part of the excitement.
SCOTT: We want to continue to host an all-employee town-hall conversation series once per quarter to get people engaged and excited. We’ve heard from many people that the stories told during this forum are very moving.
We also celebrated National Coming Out Day on October 11 with firm-wide communications and cupcakes in each of our offices. Next year, we want to identify some LGBT+ charities to work with as part of our company’s National Day of Change. And we plan to work with our Talent Acquisition team on recruiting activities.
At the last WMPride meeting, we brainstormed potential activities for the coming year in the areas of communications, marketing, recruiting, and events. We have some great ideas but need to pick a few things to focus on. We will establish some committees within the group to drive certain ideas forward and we want to establish success metrics for WMPride—right now we’re measuring engagement in our meetings but want to set goals around engaging outside organizations and recruiting as well.
More than anything, it’s important to emphasize this ERG is not just for our LGBT+ employees. Without allies’ support and involvement, we couldn’t be successful. We encourage every single West Monroe employee to attend our dialogue series in the hope it will provide insight and clarity into what it means to be LGBT+ in the workplace today.
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