There is a policy at my company that says all individuals are welcome to join or attend any ERG (Employee Resource Group), even if they don't belong to that race/gender.

Even though I am not Black, I decided to attend one of the Black Professionals meetings. Like most Americans, I am sickened by the recent violence and treatment of African Americans, so I wanted to attend to show my support for the group.

When I joined the Zoom call (we're still all working remotely), I was surprised that there was not a single Black individual. All 25 individuals on the call were white. (Except for me; I'm half Latino).

After asking around, I finally have pieced things together. It turns out that this ERG was running smoothly. But after the Black Lives Matter moved gained national attention, the group became flooded with awkward white individuals who wanted to prove to everyone how they weren't racist. They would spend the meetings asking strange questions that would make others feel uncomfortable. Somebody told me that it was eerily similar to the movie Get Out.

One by one, the Black individuals of the group left. (There is now nobody officially in charge of the group now, but a white woman has taken over as an unofficial president of the group). Some of the former members have since decided to join the Latino Professionals group. There is apparently some rumblings in that group that Latino's aren't happy with these changes.

This whole thing is a mess. Since I am an executive (lower level, but executive nonetheless) as well as a Latino, I have the ability to exert influence make some changes. But now the question is, what can I do? How can I help to defuse these tensions and restore these ERGs to their original intention?

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    What is an ERG? And what was the original intent? – Matthew Gaiser Jul 17 '20 at 4:35
  • ERG is employee resource group. – Shawn Balestracci Jul 17 '20 at 4:35
  • What's been happening in these meetings now that all of the Black employees have left? Do the remaining white members agree that this is a problem? – BSMP Jul 17 '20 at 5:40
  • Which are the tensions, explicitly? How are things a mess? People behaved and made decisions according to their personal preferences. No violence, no loud voices, no real complaints. What do you want to actually achieve? You ave to understand that most of the times, one cannot make everybody happy at the same time. – virolino Jul 17 '20 at 6:09
  • @virolino I'm guessing the tensions are that all the people originally attending and having a productive group are gone and there's a new group. This leaves the other group without a place to get together and do their productive things, and they are now breaking into other groups and disrupting those as well. – Erik Jul 17 '20 at 7:54

...the group became flooded with awkward white individuals who wanted to prove to everyone how they weren't racist. They would spend the meetings asking strange questions that would make others feel uncomfortable.

The best way to get your Black professionals back into the Black Professionals meetings is to reset the expectations of what will be happening there. I don't know how seriously the woman who's unofficially the president takes being in charge but I'm assuming you'll need her cooperation with this. If you can convince the person who used to be unofficially in charge to come back to help, even better.

  • Announce a return to business as usual: The president should state at the beginning of the next meeting that they understand people wanting to discuss current events but that it doesn't serve the purpose of the ERG and they need to get back to regular topics.

  • Set an explicit agenda for the next few meetings: I recommend getting some outside speakers to give presentations to the group. The presence of a 3rd party will hopefully make it less likely for the white members to turn the meeting back into awkward Q&A time. If there were specific projects the group was working on before this all blew up, you'll want to wait for some of the old members to return before resuming that work.

  • Consider some sort of training or workshop that happens outside of this group: If the questions the white employees were asking were mostly, "Would [X] be OK at work or is that racist?", then give them a different venue to ask those questions.

I didn't number these because you might not want or be able to do them in this order. This answer also assumes you won't have strong resistance to getting the group back to doing it's normal thing.

  • 1
    I would also add that what is happening here is the centering of white feelings. In these groups, white people should be doing 99% listening and 1% speaking. The host (non-white) should be running the zoom calls on force mute for everyone, and then unmuting certain people when it's their turn to speak. If they want a more free flowing conversation, just mute white (and honestly, this includes white passing) people. It'll be uncomfortable because white people are used to being able to speak at their leisure, with exceptions coming in from a class-based perspective. You'll have to manage that. – Malisbad Aug 25 '20 at 1:44

Try to go with the flow. There are apparently two sets of needs within your company. Have groups for each.

What was once labeled the "Black Professionals" group is apparently now the "Trying to support Black Professionals as a White Professional" group. (Although I'd recommend picking a better name. Perhaps even just something related to the current BLM movement)

Work with the current members (who apparently keep showing up, so must have some kind of reason / desire / thing they get from it) to rename it, set an explicit agenda, and guide them to be productive in helping to improve the lives of these folks.

Then start another "Black Professionals" group, and set an explicit agenda for that one as well that rules out the kinds of topics that broke the first one. Stick to it and kick anyone who tries to deviate from the agenda into the other group's territory.

With both groups having their own purpose and agenda, you should be able to separate both types of attendants and can try to guide each to do something good for your company. I'm pretty sure all the people from the combined groups just want to make their own and other people's lives a bit better, so if it doesn't work as a single group, just form two.

You might want to see how you'll frame this though; some people might take offense if you suggest that "these people took over our group", so you can also phrase it as "I'd like the old members to come back, and the new members will be split off to a new group". Then again, that might also cause resentment or people who don't trust that the old group is safe anymore. It's all down to group dynamics, which I can't judge from here, but you probably can, with a bit of help from the members of each group.

  • “Stick to it and kick anyone who tries to deviate from the agenda into the other group's territory.” - This seems like horrible advice. Kicking an employee from a resource group which is presumably suppose to be inclusive to all employees seems like a bad idea – Donald Jul 20 '20 at 1:05
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    @Donald I'm pretty sure none of these groups are supposed to be inclusive to people who are intentionally trying to disrupt the group. – Erik Jul 26 '20 at 18:42

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