(Photo by Andrea Migliarini/iStock by Getty Images)

“Our programs have been able to create a guiding light for culture,” said Christine Salerno, the global head of social impact at professional-services firm Marsh McLennan.

How do we give back? Why do we give back? and What are the ways we give back? are questions the company has asked itself, and Marsh McLennan has involved employees in finding answers. “We want them to work on the things they’re passionate about,” Salerno said.

For Salerno’s company, that work begins when new employees join. “We’re doing quarterly new-hire volunteer activities in certain regions of the world, so that across the businesses, you’re creating those connections early on in their journey at the company. All of this creates a stronger outcome for our business,” she said.

Salerno was one of five panelists in a conversation during From Day One’s Aug. 10 virtual conference on offering workers dignity, purpose and fulfillment. During the discussion, which I moderated, Salerno and her fellow panelists talked about ways employers can encourage, facilite, and sponsor employees’ contributions to their communities and to social causes. Such involvement strengthens relationships among distributed workers, creates a sense of belonging, develops the in-demand skills your workforce needs, and leads to employee advancement.

David Bator, who is managing director at the Achievers Workforce Institute, which uses data to improve employee experience, said he believes employees being able to pursue their passions and affinities in the workplaces cultivates personal connection.

“Employees do have this desire to belong,” said Bator. “Most of us go to work every single day, and we are asked to perform a very specific function. But in our personal lives, our opinions or our talents are sought because we’re caregivers, we’re coaches, we’re parents, we’re partners. The truth is, we’re unique, and we’re far more than our work.”

Shared interests and passions outside the office bring together people who work in the same office, of course, but they can also connect people across the company who would otherwise never meet.

Salerno has seen this too, as well as the appetite. “There’s this desire for a lot more volunteering opportunities happening across the businesses. Not just within the business, but across the businesses, and that really drives the bottom line eventually,” she said.

Speaking on worker passions, identities and interests, top row from left: moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, Vidya Ayyr of Parkland Health, and David Bator of the Achievers Workforce Institute. Bottom row: Elizabeth Koplan of Monster, Christine Salerno of Marsh McLennan, and Ben Delk of Amazon Web Services (Image by From Day One)

When that involvement comes in the form of employee resources groups (ERGs), the effects can be far-reaching. “[ERGs] bring people together based on shared interests, passions, and a sense of belonging, and are actually able to influence policy internally,” said Elizabeth Koplan, VP of brand and marketing communications at Monster, which connects people and jobs.

“We recently changed our maternity policy as a result of our Parent and Caregiver ERG in conjunction with Pride, working together to make sure that we had coverage for adoptive assistance and same-sex marriages,” Koplan said. “We completely overhauled it.”

At Parkland Health, a major health care system in Dallas, a speaker series aimed at understanding community public health evolved into a community-advocacy program led by employees. During the pandemic, the Young Professionals ERG became concerned about food insecurity, especially for those who were self-isolating, so Parkland added a food insecurity question to its Covid contact-tracing surveys.

“If a patient screened positive for both Covid as well as food insecurity, we had a group of volunteers making food boxes and delivering it to them during that two-week quarantine period, enough food for themselves and for their families,” said Parkland’s director of social impact, Vidya Ayyr.

Community service has also connected Parkland to its community and made it easier to recruit like-minded employees that contribute to culture. “We also identified young professionals who are very engaged in the community who are very passionate about certain things, and we were able to recruit them back into the organization so that they could take a leadership role, not just within the ERG or the affinity group, but also within the organization,” Ayyr said.

“Hybrid and remote employees present an opportunity to amplify the reach of our activism by extending to the very communities that they live in, not just where their headquarters are located,” Bator added.

Employers should remember that the work employees do through ERGs, community service projects, affinity groups and the like, are almost always unpaid, said Ben Delk, the principal diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) business partner for the worldwide specialist organization at Amazon Web Services. Delk, who as a long track record of working with ERGs in other companies, advised against creating a burnout situation in these groups.

“These are volunteers,” Delk said. “They’re often hired for something entirely different, so they have to figure out how to manage their career development within the journey of pursuing their passions, because it makes them more satisfied and engaged.”

Giving structure to ERGs and employee-advocacy groups equips them to be effective while preventing employee burnout, he said. “One of the ways that I’ve addressed [burnout] in my work with ERGs is developing real structure and governance around how the ERGs operate and how they access resources within the company,” said Delk. “Helping them build a governance structure to mobilize, sometimes hundreds of people in a consistent direction, this really helps set those boundaries.” 

Well-organized ERGs can develop skills and support employee growth within the company, he said. This has worked in previous roles he’s had: Delk said that in a single year, he saw 75% of global ERG leaders promoted within their role. “That’s because we gave them real boundaries, we gave their manager coaching on how to assess these skills, and then that was applied in their performance-review cycles.”

Monster specifically uses its ERGs to, among other things, to train employees on skills they wouldn’t otherwise get in their normal role.

Koplan added: “For example, if you need more leadership experience, any work that you do as part of the ERG, or as part of any of these initiatives, is a skill that you were then gaining that helps you get to the next level.”

The ability of workers to serve their communities, celebrate their affinities, and make changes to business operations goes a long way toward workplace morale, the panelists said. It creates a sense of ownership among staff, and gives them another reason to remain engaged.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.