Maximize Your Employee Resource Group

When former Army Sergeants James Binion and Michael Richardson left military service, they felt like outsiders at their first civilian jobs. Interactions with coworkers at their new jobs felt stilted, awkward, and strained. At times, it felt like they did not belong.

“I’m very proud [to have served in the military],” Richardson stated. He is now an outbound marketer for Power Home Remodeling in Tampa, FL. Early in his civilian career, before he started at Power Home Remodeling, he detected what he felt was “a different atmosphere” at his civilian workplace. “It’s not a stigma, but [it felt] uncomfortable,” Richardson said. Eventually, he left that job, hoping to find the right fit.

Richardson landed at Power Home Remodeling last year; Binion, six months ago. Today, they rely on an employee resource group (ERG) that the company has specifically designed for veterans, called Power Veterans Initiative (PVI). The PVI provides an instant connection to those with military backgrounds, including military family members. Through the PVI, members receive support for issues that affect only the military community, such as adjusting to post-military life.

ERGs are a collection of workers who join together based on shared characteristics or life experiences. Some companies also call them affinity groups or business resource groups (BRGs). ERGs have formed for women, African Americans, Hispanic/Latino, Asian Pacific Islanders, and others. But as more military members have exited the service, companies are increasingly adding veteran-specific ERGs.

The mission of ERGs varies among companies, but usually they are tasked with recruiting members of a certain group, setting up programs to foster their careers and education, establishing support networks for new employees in the group to assimilate into the corporate culture, and building relationships in the community with volunteer outreach. The intent is to strengthen the employees so that they can progress with confidence in their careers while also providing support and mentorship from those with similar backgrounds.

Kynnie Martin is the senior foundation representative at Xcel Energy, where she launched a veterans’ recruiting program in 2013. Now she oversees Xcel Energy’s national veterans’ BRG. As a former Army captain and intelligence officer, she understands the benefit of giving veterans a platform to connect and network. Her advice to job-seeking veterans? “Don’t be shy about asking recruiters if their company has [an ERG] for veterans. Get connected to [the ERG members] so you can ask them about their experience” she said.

When checking out an employer on LinkedIn or their web site, look for the presence of an ERG. It is often as simple as searching a company’s “diversity” page, or keying “resource group” on their web site.

“Any company can submit hiring numbers to say they’re ‘veteran-friendly,’” Martin said, “but if they have an ERG, it shows veterans are supported by veterans in the company.”

Managers at companies that implement ERGs said they have noticed that new employees, especially new employees that are veterans, gain a great deal of confidence after getting involved with the groups.

“We’re like the central nervous system. We bring along the tools and policies, then we empower veterans to be dynamic, independent, and unique. This gives them strength to integrate with the local communities,” said Michael Hansen, who organized the ERG effort at Power Home Remodeling.

Hansen added that veterans “lose a huge sense of purpose, community, and camaraderie” after they leave active duty service. The ERGs “give opportunities to vets and spouses to relive and redefine their sense of purpose. A lot of times, they’re working with groups like Habitat for Humanity in the community. So we find a way to cross the line from employee development to making them into people living happier lives. We have found they will perform at higher standards when they are able to focus on a sense of purpose and community. It is a way to define success – developing people first,” he said.

When joining an ERG, expect an open-ended reception. However, you are in control of how much you benefit from the group and how involved you become. Most have noticed that the more involved they are with their group, the more they feel supported.

For servicemembers and their families in the market for a civilian job, the presence of an ERG at a company signals an in-place support grid. The foundation is already there to help veterans grow and become acclimated. After an employee has assimilated into the company and the company culture, participation in an ERG can lead to valuable connections and career advancement. Of course, one of the most valuable elements about a veteran ERG is that if a servicemember misses the camaraderie from the military, the ERG puts them in touch with those who understand the military experience and can relate and reminisce.

Binion, who is now a remodeling consultant in Atlanta, said that Power Home Remodeling’s “strong ERG was a huge selling point” when he was job hunting. “Once I on-boarded and became integrated with the ERG, I had constant motivation and mentorship.”

Maximizing an ERG can boost your new career in untold ways. To Binion, being a member of the ERG brings back something he has missed from the military. “The power of this group helps us go to the next level, it brings back a sense of purpose,” he said.

**Tips For Job Hunters**

You can best leverage a company’s ERG during the hiring process with these steps:

**1) Work with a “military translator” during your interview.** You may not realize this, but civilian recruiters do not always recognize the acronyms and vernacular pertaining to your military occupations and experience. And while many companies are making great strides at training their recruiting and hiring team about military terms, some recruiters may too embarrassed or intimidated to ask you for a definition.

A company with a strong military ERG may ask a veteran employee to sit in on your interviews or discussions with hiring managers. Do not take this as a slight; rather, welcome the person gladly, and lean on him or her to help you explain what you did during your service in layman’s terms.

Military spouse Heather Hancock oversees the veterans’ BRG for employees for Xcel Energy in Texas and New Mexico. Hancock, designer II-engineering and construction, said her husband sometimes accompanies recruiters to interviews with veterans. There was one situation in which hiring managers were stumped by a veteran who answered an interview question with one word and then did not elaborate. Her husband had been sitting in on the hiring panel.

“He told the managers, ‘This guy is just off active duty. He’s trained to give a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ and that’s it,’” she laughed. “They ended up hiring him. He’s a great employee.”

**2) Ask ERG members about the workplace culture.** “Even if you don’t know anyone at the company, use LinkedIn to reach out to current employees,” said Nathan Sickels, a Navy veteran who manages affirmative action programs for Xcel Energy in Minnesota. “Start with the company’s military liaison on LinkedIn. Ask if you can connect with members of their veterans’ ERG. Explain that you would like to find out how they transitioned into the company, as well as any other advice. Veteran-friendly companies will have those contacts at the ready.”

According to Sickels, “One thing we’re good at in the military is networking. In your unit, you always ask yourself, ‘Who are the go-to people?’ It’s one of those things that’s a common denominator. Tap into that using LinkedIn. Reach out and say, ‘I just wanted to connect and ask a few questions.’ LinkedIn is a fantastic way to talk to recruiters and former military.”

There are some companies who maintain a workplace culture similar to that of the military. “That transition from military is really hard – you have no idea what’s out there,” said Martin. “I have heard from a lot of employees that one of the things they love about [Xcel Energy] is that we are a regulated utility – a company of engineers and technically minded people. It fits the culture of the military. We have processes in place that reflect a lot about the military.”

**3) Look for military-friendly clues.** “If a company is proud of the work veterans are doing, it will show when you walk into the place for your job interview,” said retired Army Major General Gary Patton. He is vice president of veteran outreach at CACI in Arlington, VA, where he heads up the defense contractor’s veteran ERG program.

ERGs will promote veteran appreciation events and host displays throughout the workplace to raise awareness about the military with their civilian employees. As a new hire at CACI, Patton saw the military-friendly atmosphere immediately.

“I chose CACI because of the shared military values and culture,” Patton said. “The instant I walked into the CACI lobby, I saw six tri-folded flags framed and on the wall, each representing fallen comrades, service members who were family members of CACI employees -- two of whom served near me on a battlefield in Iraq in 2004. I related to the culture and values the instant I walked into the door at CACI. I’ve been here a year now, and I love my job.”

Some companies use their proximity to military bases to further their relationship with servicemembers. In Colorado, Xcel has a branch near Fort Carson. Members of the local veterans’ resource group visit the installation to conduct information and testing sessions for active duty members. They also provide insight on what it is like to work for Xcel. “Within the past 10 years, those on-site visits have resulted in many new [recently-separated military] hires from Fort Carson,” Martin said.

**Tips For New Employees**

Sixty-five percent of veterans are likely to leave their first civilian job within the first two years of employment, according to a study released in 2015 by Syracuse University and VetAdvisor. An ERG can help you beat those odds.

As you gain your bearings in your new job and life, your ERG can become a center of gravity – a place where you can regroup and link up with fellow veterans, as well as receive the guidance for a successful career trajectory.

But to make the most of the opportunities, you must do your part and be involved. “Don’t be afraid to take a risk to get involved,” Binion said. When he first left the service and joined the civilian workplace, Binion felt somewhat vulnerable. “But it’s worth it to embrace that vulnerability so that you can connect with people who support you,” he said. “The only way to get better in your career is with your involvement.”

There are different ways you can engage with your ERG, but any or all of them will contribute to your vocation:

**1) Connect for support and career guidance.** Not only can ERGs provide the camaraderie you may be missing since leaving military service, they also help maintain connectivity among employees for personal support and career guidance.

Some ERGs will provide a specific messaging system or communication channel just for veterans. Power Home Remodeling, for example, has one. “Regardless of the time, if you need to reach out, someone is there,” Richardson said. “It cuts away the stigma – it’s having a group of [people] that already understand when I need help. You’re not only encouraged but supported.”

Certain ERGs will also make sure you are maintaining pace in your career advancement plans. This includes including your weekly goals and your plans for how to achieve them. “It keeps you motivated to be on task,” Richardson said.
Binion likes that veterans in his ERG help each other by discussing personal goals and mapping out where they want to be in a year and the steps needed to get there. “You can set goals all day, but if you’re not responsible for them, you won’t achieve them. The ERG makes sure you have accountability,” he said.

**2) Empower yourself with leadership roles.** "Taking on leadership responsibility roles in an ERG forces you to network and also work on projects with fellow members," said Sickels of Xcel Energy. “When you do a service project, the company may run an intranet news article. You’ll gain visibility, and people will seek you out for other things,” he said.

As the chair for Xcel’s veteran ERG in Minnesota, Sickels has also brought younger veterans on board for volunteering opportunities. “It gives you credibility,” he said.

And if you take on leadership roles, you also might be tapped to visit military installations to help recruiters decipher resumes and military jargon that they encounter among job applicants. As a representative of the company’s ERG, you can be on hand to answer any questions about the work environment and offer advice to those transitioning out of the military.

At CACI, nearly 200 veterans surveyed said they wanted to serve on committees ranging from media relations, to charity service, to contributing to business development concepts, Patton said, “It’s an engaged group. They’re hungry. They want to contribute,” he said.

**3) Mingle with top corporate executives.** ERGs often have corporate “sponsors,” or top-level executives who work hand-in-hand with the group to help them crystallize their goals and organize activities. After getting to know you through your participation, they may make introductions to managers whose job openings fit your skills. They will keep you in mind for career advancement opportunities and discuss these options with you. They also can offer advice about your career trajectory and listen to your suggestions about ways to improve the business and/or work environment.

For example, recently at CACI International, the company’s “chief inventor” invited veterans to participate in an “Invention Think Tank Model,” Patton said.
“Maybe you were an Air Force maintenance NCO for 20 years and just got out. You’ve thought about a better way to troubleshoot the performance of an engine. We might get 100 innovative ideas like this from our veterans, but if even one is executable by our company, it is worth it. A program like this promotes the integration of veterans into the company. We are better integrating our veterans, and at the same time contributing to company success,” Patton said.

You also may be paired with a mentor – someone who is not your direct supervisor but is high up in the company and can advise you about your career trajectory. At Power Home Remodeling, the ERG takes that one step further by providing mentors who “don’t focus on who you are as an employee, but who you are as a person,” Richardson said.

“They want to know, ‘What can we do to enrich that veteran and his family?’” he said. The slight change in focus – to a veteran’s overall wellbeing and support of his or her loved ones – shows employees that the company cares about them, Richardson added.

**4) Continue the mission with your local military community.** “When you join a civilian workforce, you may put away your military uniform, but you can still continue your mission,” Patton said. It could be something straight-forward, like working for a defense company, even if your role is in something like IT or logistics. With an ERG, that service ethic also extends to volunteer activities in the community.

At Xcel Energy, for example, BRG members are “passionate” about supporting Honor Flight, an organization that takes war veterans to their respective memorial in Washington, D.C. “[Honor Flight will] charter the entire flight, and veterans and their sponsors are on it. We help them raise money to go,” Hancock said.

In addition to helping raise funds for Honor Flight, Xcel Energy serves dinner for those leaving on the trip. When the veterans come home, members of the BRG attend an event to welcome the veterans home. “It’s rewarding for us,” Hancock said. “We’re now getting to a point where a lot of them are Vietnam veterans, and they didn’t get a homecoming. So it’s nice to give them that.”

At Power Home Remodeling, veterans have done everything from 5K runs to staying in touch with fellow employees called up for service overseas. According to Richardson, “If you get involved in your company’s ERG, keep an open mind. Do whatever makes you comfortable, whether it’s volunteering, requesting a professional mentor, or just reaching out to talk to someone.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to ask what’s available,” he said. “If you never state what you want – the position, career path - it won’t fall in your lap. Be vulnerable and be humble as well. You have the voice that you want to have.”

*Heidi Lynn Russell is a freelance writer based in Lexington, KY. She has been writing about employment issues affecting military veterans and spouses for the past 15 years.*