IT turns to employee resource groups to attract, retain tech talent

Affinity groups can bolster productivity and community among tech teams -- but only if they’re done right. Autodesk, Booz Allen Hamilton, Humana, and others share advice

After eight years pursuing undergrad and graduate work, Babatunde Agboola landed his dream job last year as a research engineer in Autodesk’s digital manufacturing group.

One sticking point for the Nigerian immigrant: The position wasn’t at the software firm’s global headquarters in San Rafael, Calif., but rather at a small remote office in upstate New York. Agboola loved the work there and enjoyed his small group of colleagues, but he increasingly felt isolated and different from his peers.

“I work from the East Coast for a West Coast company, and I’m the only black within my work place,” says Agboola, based in Ithaca. “I love the job, but once I started, it didn’t take long to see there was a different social culture, which made me start to ask basic questions about my career path and how to navigate this company. I felt the need to find a connection.”

That connection came in the form of an email, which invited Agboola to join the Autodesk Black Network, one of several employee resource groups (ERG) at the software provider. Agboola accepted, and in the months since he’s been an active member, he’s been able to bond with other black Autodesk employees via Slack, the internal messaging platform, and strike up long-distance mentor relationships with two African American colleagues.

An added bonus: Agboola was invited to participate in a student recruitment initiative at Howard University, which in turn won him an “applause”—a shout-out in Autodesk’s employee recognition program.

“Being able to interact with people of [similar] cultures and ethnicity gave me a better sense of community and made me feel people understand me more,” Agboola says. “I’m more productive as a result because I feel more relaxed and that I belong.”

At medical equipment manufacturer Medtronic, IT director Sengdara Grue appreciates the opportunity to work through cultural-specific issues with like-minded peers as part of the firm’s Asian Impact ERG, which she joined a couple of years back. Many in the Asian community live in multigenerational homes, she says, and thus care for aging parents along with their own families while juggling career.

“It’s not uncommon for an Asian parent to live with you, and that has an effect on your work dynamic and own family dynamic,” she explains. “These have been common discussions in the forum.”

Stronger together

Agboola and Grue join a growing number of tech employees flirting with affinity groups (sometimes called ERGs) as way to seek out and cultivate relationships with other like-minded peers in the underrepresented ranks of black, Asian, Latino, female, LGBTQ, military veterans, and other employees within IT. Most have an interest beyond social connections, seeing the potential for career enrichment, including mentorships, networking opportunities, professional training, and even as a conduit to their next post.

For IT management, ERGs are a way to develop and engage IT staffers, aid in retention and recruitment, and encourage a diverse point of view they believe is necessary for building and deploying technology on a global scale.

That’s the spirit of Autodesk’s ERG effort, according to Danny Guillory, the company’s head of global diversity and inclusion. The program now numbers five groups, including Autodesk Women in Leadership, which is by far the most well-populated ERG with 300 to 400 members worldwide, says Guillory, himself a member of two ERGs: Autodesk Black Network and Autodesk Pride.

“ERGs are more focused on personal goals and professional development—they are not just a venue to get together socially,” he says. Guillory says Autodesk ERGs prioritize professional development and personal development, external community work, recruitment, mentorship, and business development. The groups are self-organized, but Autodesk provides a number of strategic planning tools, along with some funding, to help employees get a group started, he says.

Engaging IT employees

Larger companies are often able to support affinity groups that have an additional technology focus—for example, Women in Technology, Blacks in Technology or Latinos in Technology. But even when ERGs don’t have a specific tech focus, IT employees say participation still delivers networking opportunities and personal development benefits.

Along those same lines, employees who don’t have a direct affiliation with a specific group maintain there are advantages to joining as an ally—for example, a male manager participating in a Women in IT group can better do his part to promote diversity and career advancement within the department.

“In my experience, if you get women together to talk about their concerns at work and don’t include men, you miss out on broadening empathy and on the back and forth that can occur,” says Amy Bunszel, Autodesk’s vice president of digital engineering products.

At HCA, a Nashville healthcare organization, there has long been an emphasis on nurturing women leaders, and the Women in Leadership affinity group, formed nearly two decades ago, was born out of that corporate mandate, according to Kim Lewis, CIO of HCA’s Tri-Star Division and part of the healthcare facility provider’s IT&S corporate office.

Lewis, one of the first string of female IT leaders at the firm (seven of HCA’s 15 divisions now have female CIOs) and a longtime participant and supporter of Women in Leadership, says that group and the more recently formed Women in IT group provide a forum for discussing women’s issues in the workplace that is more intimate and personalized than a larger classroom or seminar setting.

“Within IT, it provides a place where women are safe to talk about issues like work/life balance or sexual harassment in the workplace,” says Lewis. “In a smaller situation, there is a little more trust. As you get to know the people in the group, you feel comfortable asking those tough questions.”

The women-focused ERGs also give rising stars exposure to continuing education, networking, coaching and mentorship opportunities, not to mention valuable life lessons on how to succeed in a male-dominated workplace, Lewis says.

Early on, Lewis got coaching on how to navigate corporate events (where to sit during a boardroom meeting, for example) and how to cultivate and promote her personal brand—advice that eventually led her to tone down her choice of wild-colored dresses and high-style shoes. “I learned to be acutely aware of my personal brand and how people are going to think of me,” she recalls. “It was stuff I hadn’t thought of before, and those things, brought up in a smaller setting, were very valuable.”

After 14 years in various developer and IT/program management roles, Latisha Schmitt, program manager and now Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) manager for IT at Humana, last year started a Women in Technology subchapter of the company’s Women’s ERG. Schmitt says she felt women in technology roles often grappled with different issues and challenges from those faced by women in other areas of Humana, a Louisville, Ky., provider of health insurance.

Schmitt was introduced to the concept of conformance after attending a women’s leadership conference, and that got her thinking about the specific pressures on female technologists to bend to the norms of a male-dominated culture, she says. Specifically, female IT employees and managers often work nose-to-the-grindstone on projects and end up losing their passion for technology, she says.

“Women work so hard for promotions and then they end up becoming part of the system and let go of who they are, especially in tech,” she explains.

Related video: Intuit’s Raji Arasu on how to support women in IT.

Akshata Revankar, an applications architect in Humana’s Information Management & Analytics group, is one of the 300 members of Women in Tech. She says one of the key charters of the group, to encourage young girls to embrace technology, inspired her to join and pursue projects that remind her of why she was attracted to technology in the first place—its power to transform.

In one such example, Revankar created a video to tell the stories of Humana’s women tech employees, including how they got started and what they do in various roles. While she wasn’t an avid videographer and had to commit time outside of work hours, Revankar said the effort was well worth it, from both a personal and professional standpoint.

“I always wanted to make a difference. The thought of professional benefits through this opportunity never crossed my mind,” Revankar says. “However, as we worked through the video project, I got to know so many new people in my organization, whom I never would have met otherwise. That, in turn, helped grow my professional network.”

Sasha Pickett, manager of Imaging Solutions at HCA IT&S, was likewise inspired by an ERG to take on a pet project—in her case, founding IT Girls, a mentoring program between her HCA division and a local high school—and gaining leadership skills and executive exposure she otherwise might have missed out on.

Pickett has met with the IT&S CIO, senior HR executives, and even been the point-person for press interviews—all because of the IT Girls program. “For networking purposes, this has been very valuable,” she says. “I’ve honed a very different set of skills, including building a program from inception and going through all of the logistics.”

Recruiting and retaining tech talent

Employees aren’t the only ones to benefit from ERG participation—managers say the groups provide a venue for employee development while keeping teams more engaged. That’s been the experience for Autodesk’s Bunszel, who has employees participating in Autodesk Pride, the Black Network and Women in Leadership (AWiL).

Bunszel says the ERGs help create a sense of community in a big and diverse company while opening doors to passion projects that tend to drive up employee engagement. “As a manager trying to create opportunity for people, these kinds of grassroots things end up being a great leadership experience,” says Bunszel, adding that she sees minimal negative impact on employee productivity, despite the additional time commitment.

Her own participation in AWiL has also made Bunszel a better manager, she says, because it makes her more empathetic to issues she lost touch with as she climbed higher up the executive ladder. “It enables me to think about what impacts more junior people and enables me to manage better,” she says. “The conversations in mentoring sessions are a good reminder that I should be doing this with my own managers and holding them accountable for doing the same with their team.”

Brian Keller, chief technologist in Booz Allen Hamilton’s strategic innovation group, says the company’s dozen or more affinity groups (what it calls forums) are definitely a benefit for both employee retention and recruitment. Employees participating in groups like GLOBE (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender), MENA (Middle Eastern and North African), Asian America Pacific Islander or the Women’s Forum, for example, can identify with others like them in the organization and see a clear pathway to career success.

In addition, the teams have incorporated some of the feedback from the forums into their own hiring practices to reflect diversity requirements—for example, revamping interview panels to be more representative of the overall workforce, he explains.

Olivia Turner, a senior consultant who joined BAH after attending the highly respected Thurgood Marshall College Fund Leadership Institute, says the African American Forum was part of her initial attraction to the company and one of the main reasons she came on board. “It shows me that BAH is diverse and places a value on being bold and different,” she says. “It also shows me I can leave an impact on the firm in an environment that makes me feel comfortable.”

This story, "IT turns to employee resource groups to attract, retain tech talent" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.