How to setup and run a successful ERG
Setting up a successful Employee Resource Group (ERG) might take while, and that is ok.
One of the main things to consider is that an ERG is usually set up by passionate volunteers within an organisation. These volunteers need support from within the business and senior leadership to help enable their success and share the responsibilities.
Cognassist spoke to Praveen Kolluguri at BT Group about his experiences and what other employers can learn from BT’s success.
But first, some introductions…
Praveen’s personal Bio:
Praveen Kolluguri is a Co-chair of Able2 Network at BT, and his day job is that of a Mobile Propositions Manager at EE. Based in London, originally from India and moved to the UK in 2008 for completing his MBA and has been working with EE/BT since 2012. His disabilities are ASD, ADHD, IBS and partial colour blindness. Other interests are human rights and DEI. He also writes a newsletter ‘Did you know’ about these topics that you can subscribe on LinkedIn.
The Able2 Network:
BT’s network for disability representing over 7000 colleagues, we operate with a motto ‘Nothing without us’. For us a disability can be anything from physical, life impacting and neurodiverse conditions, temporary or permanent. Our ambition is to reflect the same level of disability representation across BT, as in the UK. Our focus across BT Group, is promoting inclusive education, processes, workplaces and digital access. We have two co-chairs and a committee made up of colleagues and allies across the business.
Tell us more about the Able2 Network disability ERG and your role in it?
I’ve been at BT for 12 years now, starting in a frontline role in a call centre and progressing through various commercial and marketing positions.
I’m originally from India, I moved to the UK in 2008 and I’ve always been interested in diversity and inclusion.
During my time at BT, I was actively involved with the ethnic diversity network.
However, it was later in my career that I realised that I am neurodivergent and I wanted to step into the field of disability because I realised that is a major part of my identity that makes me different.
The Able2 Network is also known as the People’s Network / Employee Resource Group for disability at BT.
We have over 1,300 registered members on our workplace page, which is our internal social media site.
As the disability network, we represent the voice of disabled colleagues, including individuals with long-term health conditions, neurodiversity or any condition that may impact their day-to-day working.
We have 7,000 people who declared that they are disabled, which is about 7%. However, there are likely more people who are not declaring.
At Able2 Network, our focus is on making BT a place where all individuals can be confident to be themselves, including being open about their disability if they wish to do so.
How does the reasonable adjustment process work at BT and what does it involve?
The process begins with the individual themselves.
When someone declares their disability, they have the opportunity to initiate the reasonable adjustment process. It doesn’t automatically send an alert to the manager.
They fill in a document called the Passport, which is a comprehensive account of their condition, the ways it impacts their work and the adjustments they might need.
This Passport is a communication tool that helps the individual and their manager to understand and agree on the best ways of working together. No two people who have a disability are the same, so it’s quite important to have that.
Following the Passport, there might be soft adjustments put in place, such as flexible working hours or more breaks in the day. These adjustments are managed between the individual and their manager, but there’s also a process for hard adjustments too.
The manager can refer the individual to our Occupational Health Services, who will assess the person and recommend appropriate solutions to accommodate their requirements.
There are no strict guidelines on the frequency of updating the Passport. Individuals can do so as often as they need, allowing them to continually adapt the adjustments to suit their changing needs and circumstances.‘
You mentioned “soft adjustments” and “hard adjustments”, can you briefly define these inclusion terms and how BT differentiates between them?
While these terms are used at BT, I have also seen them being used beyond our organisation.
“Hard adjustments” refer to tangible changes that might be required, such as physical modifications to the workspace or providing specific tools or software. It could be physical things that they may need, such as noise-cancelling headphones if they’re neurodiverse. It could be physical adjustments that are needed for the office or working space as well.
On the other hand, “soft adjustments” encompass more flexible solutions, like adjustments to working hours or additional breaks, which can be managed through understanding and empathy with the individual. For the soft adjustments, it’s a bit of ‘learn as you do it’ because the individual’s needs might change or the thing they think would work might not work.
All of these are kicked off through the workplace adjustments process, and they can revisit their Passport to regularly update anything.
Looking at the impact of Able2 Network, can you share more about the effects it has had quantitatively, qualitatively or anecdotally?
There are three main things.
Firstly, Able2 Network has created a safe space for colleagues to share their experiences with others, either with individuals who have disabilities or allies. That’s our main purpose on why we exist.
We do have people coming on our workplace channel quite often, talking about things that they are facing and if anyone has come across it and how they tackled it. This organic sharing of stories and best practices fosters a supportive and understanding environment within the network.
The second thing is that the network has had an impact on BT’s policies, as we successfully campaigned to add diversity targets, one of them includes disability targets for senior managers.
We have signed up to targets that aim to have 17% of our workforce comprising people with disabilities by 2030.
These targets have been agreed upon, and our focus is on achieving them through positive action and promoting a more inclusive workplace.
These targets are now part of the senior management team’s diversity objectives, which can affect their bonuses, encouraging greater accountability and attention to disability inclusion.
Thirdly, we also did some insight into what things are impacting our colleagues, and we got feedback saying that the main thing that impacts their wellbeing is the workplace adjustments process can be quite drawn out and long.
So we fed that back, and now we have a new supplier, who we believe is going to work a lot less slower and the process is now getting rolled out.
We are trying to focus our attention on confident conversations, so individuals can talk about their disability if it’s a safe space to do so.
We want to empower disabled colleagues to have the confidence to request these workplace adjustments with their managers and talk about their disability confidently.
Managers are also getting trained on what are the things they should be doing to take care of the people they manage with disabilities.
Making sure people are aware of their legal rights.
Making sure they’re aware of company policy and showing them examples of colleagues who have requested adjustments and how it has made a positive difference to their work environment and how they work.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the Able2 Network?
The biggest challenge we face is that it can sometimes be a line manager lottery.
The experience of a disabled colleague is heavily impacted by how well-researched and supportive their manager is towards disability.
At our company’s size, we have wide range of experiences, mostly positive. However, some colleagues have less than ideal experiences when their line managers do not understand their responsibilities or are unaware of the support processes and tools available to them.
Our main goal is to change that attitude and influence the line managers positively to change stereotypes. Most people don’t mean to be discriminatory. It’s often a lack of knowledge and not knowing how things work. For managers, it’s not knowing your responsibilities and not understanding what flexibility you can give to your colleagues.
We have a line manager training programme through our Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) team, but it’s not mandatory at the moment.
We want to encourage more people to sign up for it, but the concern is that making it compulsory might cause a backlash. So, we are having positive conversations and senior managers are showing interest, which is encouraging.
What advice and tips would you give to someone looking to start an ERG in their organisation?
Three key tips would be:
- Create a safe space: Ensure your ERG provides a safe and supportive environment for people with disabilities to share their experiences. Sharing similar experience can be therapeutic for people, who go through that experience and then find allies within the company.
- Find your champions: Seek support from senior leaders and vocal allies who can champion the cause and provide guidance to navigate within the company.
- Know your policies: Familiarise yourself with the Equality Act and your company’s policies to offer effective advice and support to colleagues seeking assistance.‘
Any final insights to add?
‘Yes, the power of an ERG extends beyond the organisation.
You also need to understand where your disabled colleagues are within the business to understand whether the changes that you are making are reaching the people who need the help.
At BT, the majority of our disabled colleagues are in frontline roles. So we need to explore ways to reach our disabled colleagues in frontline roles, who may not have the luxury of attending online sessions.
In our case, we are trying to engage with other ERGs, like Tesco, to understand how they address similar challenges.
It’s important to utilise your platform to raise awareness externally and network outside your organisation.
It’s great to see how Cognassist client, BT, is handling their inclusion and ERG support network.
ERGs can and should be implemented in organisations of any size.
It’s easy to think there might not be enough employees to justify setting one up in smaller businesses, but having this support network available will encourage, as Praveen says, more positive and confident conversations.
You may be surprised to find that more people will open up about their experiences, but it takes concerted effort for an organisation to build that trust and support employees to self-disclose their needs.
One thing to add to Praveen’s excellent insights is that it is a collective effort to run an ERG. Volunteers, like Praveen, who run these groups are doing it on top of their daily roles and an organisation’s leadership has a responsibility to collaborate and support.
An ERG may want to run monthly drop ins session for any staff to attend and ask questions. It might also be useful to set up a regular catch up with senior management to discuss the conversations and themes that are happening in the ERG.
As well as a joined-up approach, we need the right tools in place to offer evidence-based support and awareness.
Cognassist’s neuro-inclusion training and Cognitive Diversity assessment has already seen positive outcomes for BT Openreach employees:
But everyone is on their own journey.
Some people will have robust adjustments in place, who understand their triggers and requirements in the workplace. Others may still be discovering how they work and knowing what support they can ask for to support their daily tasks.
When it comes to neuro-inclusion, Cognassist works with organisations across education and workplace settings to encourage positive, informed conversation about how we work and our natural diversity of thought.
Those of us who experience neurodifferences bring a valuable perspective to the workforce.
And inclusion has a powerful impact and retaining and engaging staff.
Setting up successful ERGs gives people the space to be who they are and find ways to support each other.
It builds community.
It builds a culture of belonging.
And it helps make sure that everyone can thrive.
Help build a thriving workplace
Download our free HR neurodiversity handbook and learn more about:
The Equality Act 2010 legislation and responsibilities
Tips for HR professionals
Using cognitive insights to help uncover hidden needs and drive meaningful change