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Employee Resource Groups are one of the most important features of a truly inclusive workplace. But how do you set one up and run it?

When you hear about digital transformation (and you hear about it a lot), most people focus on the technology. But, ultimately, it’s about people and culture. The technology is how we – to quote our mission statement – empower every person on the planet to achieve more. Digital transformation is more focused on preparing for the future workplace and how to transform your workforce to get you all there.

This focus on people is what my role as a Digital Inclusion Lead is all about. I try to make sure that our employees are engaged and have a voice. And a key way of doing that is through our Employee Resource Group for employees with disabilities. After all, if you want everyone to achieve more, you need to listen to their diverse needs and ideas.

But what exactly is an Employee Resource Group? Why do you need one? And how do you get one up and running?

Well, you’re in luck. Because I had to find the answers to these same questions when I started…

What’s an Employee Resource Group?

You could think of Employee Resource Groups as a community that’s dedicated to furthering the cause of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. At Microsoft, we have a number of different Employee Resource Groups and among them is our disAbility group. There, people with disabilities and everyone who supports their cause are given a voice to help remove barriers that they face in their everyday lives. It’s also a way you can capture insight and ideas. And feed them into your own business and products…

Why do you need one and how do they help create an inclusive workplace?

It’s all about making sure your business is representative of society so you can speak to all consumers. When you consider that approximately 20 percent of our society have a disability of some kind, that’s both a moral and commercial imperative.

One of the most important benefits of Employee Resource Groups is that they question how things can be changed for the better. That growth mindset means they’re often at the forefront of thinking or innovation. Worldwide, for instance, more than one billion people have disabilities and need assistive technology – but only about one in ten actually has access to it. Our disAbility group often questions how to make software and devices smarter, and keep them affordable, so that more people can have the independence to perform daily tasks. The group has become a centre for excellence in making Office 365 more accessible. And we’re now sharing this expertise beyond the business. They’re dedicated to creating both an inclusive workplace and an inclusive world.

There are many other examples of the work we do to create accessible technology that can have a positive effect on people’s daily lives. I see the Microsoft Hackathon and Ability Hacks, for instance, as a really exciting example of how innovation can improve accessibility. Employees take time away from their regular jobs to hack solutions for people with disabilities. The resulting projects have turned into products used by millions of people, including Seeing AI, Windows Eye Control, Xbox Adaptive Controller and Microsoft Learning Tools.

Illustration showing a diverse group of people united through an employee resource group to create an inclusive workplace and society

How do you set one up and run one?

1. Establish what you need and build a strategy

What’s the purpose for your Employee Resource Groups? Do you want to address all areas of diversity? Or would your business and its people benefit from having discrete groups? At Microsoft, our disAbility group represents employees with hearing loss, visual impairments, ADD, dyslexia, mobility loss and much much more. Plus let us not forget allies who want to learn, are passionate about what we do or want to connect for personal reasons. I believe that this is a great chance to build out a strategy that’s useful for both the employees within the group and the organisation. Not only will employees see that your business cares about them as individuals and is worth working for, but as a business you’ll also be more productive and innovative.

2. Make sure they’re inclusive, not exclusionary

Your Employee Resource Groups should be open to all, with no restrictions. Someone who’s part of one group can still get involved in another, for example.

3. Promote your Employee Resource Groups and their objectives throughout the wider business

In fact, why not go further and help members network with resource groups from other companies? (It will also give you a chance to see if the other folks are doing things you hadn’t thought of so you can share learnings and best practices.)

4. Set a budget and objectives for your activities

This will show the members of your Resource Groups – and the rest of your organisation – that you’re serious. I run the disAbility group as a business, with budgets, plus discussions on what we are going to do in the financial year, how we’ll make progress, and how we can support our mission? And I make sure we measure those things.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of having a forum to give your employees a voice in this day and age. At Microsoft, our disAbility group is a force to be reckoned with. So do everything you can to set up your own force too.

Find out more

Re-imagine Accessibility

Building a D&I foundation in your workforce: steps, challenges and tips from our own journey: 

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About the author

Michael’s humble beginnings, at Atari Computers, brought him to Microsoft in 2001. There, working in Consultancy Services, he gained a technology innovation award less than a year later. Demonstrating the business benefit of Accessibility, his role at Microsoft also evolved. He has continued to gain awards and recognition across all industry sectors. Now as Digital Inclusion Lead at Microsoft UK Enterprise Services, Michael observed that Digital Transformation faced barriers, customers needed to overcome to reach promised business value. Accessibility is one of these barriers. Using his creative neuro-diverse thinking and passion for inclusion, Michael created the Accessibility Navigator, helping organisations gain greater business advantage, embedding digital inclusion in their transformational journeys.

Michael also chairs Microsoft’s UK Disability Employee Resource Group and was recently invited to 10 Downing Street to present his views on bringing disabled talent into the workplace.Michael is often invited to speak at Diversity & Inclusion events.