At TVA, IGNITE employee resource group is open to entrepreneurial thinkers who make continuous improvement a part of their everyday lives.
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Amy Edge

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Employee Resource Groups at TVA

* ACTion - the Asian Collaboration Team focuses on helping TVA become an employer of choice in the Asian-American community, and to collaboratively build greater inclusion and diversity across the organization and within our communities.

* African American Voices - provides a forum for black employees and others at TVA to exchange ideas and to network within TVA and in the communities in the seven states served by TVA.

* IGNITE employee resource group is open to entrepreneurial thinkers who make continuous improvement a part of their everyday lives.

* New Employee Network engages new TVA employees with networking, learning and career development opportunities while enabling organizational leaders to better understand emerging employee trends and needs.

* SPECTRUM seeks to engage, empower and educate TVA’s workforce on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues relevant to our communities in the Tennessee Valley.

* TVA & Amigos facilitates the growth of the Hispanic/Latino employee population in numbers, professional development and engagement within the company and community.

* TVA Veterans Association supports a commitment to military veterans who have served — or continue to serve in the Armed Services.

Other professional associations at TVA

* Women in Nuclear (WIN), the premier network of more than 8,000 women and men who work in nuclear- and radiation-related fields around the country.

* American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE), a national group that works to involve ensure African Americans in governmental energy policy making.

* Veterans in Energy, a newly formed group created to promote veterans in the energy industry.

Joining America's biggest government utility may be a bit daunting, especially if you are not among the more than 70 percent of the workers at the Tennessee Valley Authority who are white males.

TVA played a vital role in its early history in the 1930s and 1940s in aiding minorities and disadvantaged persons in the historically economically depressed Appalachian region to gain jobs while harnessing the power of the Tennessee River.

But TVA's long dependence upon coal, nuclear power and other electrical engineering and maintenance jobs has tended to attract primarily white men. As TVA and the demographics of its 7-state region change, however, TVA is working to diversify its workforce, culture and business.

A key element of that strategy is evolving from the ground floor up at TVA through employee resource groups, or affinity associations that employees create and run to help advocate, connect and develop those in each group. TVA employees have created seven such employee resource groups, or ERGs, many of which are aligned around race, gender or sexual orientation, to allow employees to align with others of similar background and to advocate for their perspectives.

Employee resource groups are voluntary, employee-led groups that have long been touted as a way for businesses to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace. ERGs have not only focused on women and racial and ethnic minority groups but also veterans, young professionals, and lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community members.

In the past, ERGs have traditionally been focused on underrepresented groups.

ERGs began in 1964 when Joseph Wilson, the CEO of the Xerox Corporation, organized an employee group after race riots in Rochester, New York. Xerox launched the National Black Employees Caucus in 1970 and a decade later added the Black Women's Leadership Caucus. Today, more than 90 percent of America's Fortune 500 companies have some type of ERG or employee affinity group, mostly organized to help encourage and promote underrepresented demographic groups.

But at TVA and other employers, ERGs are expanding to "interest-based" groups gathered around particular activities.

Chris Carlson, director of talent acquisition and diversity at TVA, said such groups help connect TVA with nonprofits, historically black universities or local cultural programs like Latin Fest in Chattanooga in the community. Within TVA, they help foster more interaction and support for workers with different backgrounds and demographic makeups.

But TVA also has expanded such groups to include other dimensions of diversity, such as those formed to help and advocate for veterans, new employees or those with innovative approaches and ideas.

"We want to build stronger relationships across all communities and to help brand TVA in ways that can help encourage a more diverse population to want to work for us or do business with us," Carlson says. "We want to make sure that everyone at TVA can share their perspective and have a voice in the process so we can build stronger teams and understand their colleagues that much better. To be successful, we recognize that we really need to have 100 percent of our employees show up 100 percent of the time."

TVA has allowed employee groups to form across a variety of demographic and interest choices.

One of the most recent groups to form in late 2017 is known as IGNITE, which organizers say "is open to entrepreneurial thinkers who make continuous improvement a part of their everyday lives." Born of an employee-led grassroots effort to share innovative ideas and networking opportunities across TVA's business units, the essence of this ERG is captured in its tag line, "Fueling our future."

Amy Edge, director of organizational effectiveness at TVA and the employee "champion" for IGNITE, said the newest employee resource group was created last year a bit differently than previous ERGs. It was not based upon demographic similarities, but it was create by employees working on ways to promote continuous improvement at TVA. It has developed from those eager to bring a more entrepreneurial or innovative approach to their jobs at TVA.

"This ERG is not about race, gender, age or sexual orientation; it's really about exploring and appreciating diversity of thought, experience, approach and culture," Edge says.

At kickoff events for the new IGNITE program in both Knoxville and Chattanooga, more than 150 TVA employees showed up.

"I think that really shows the interest in finding ideas and suggestions from all employees about how we can drive a culture of innovation and creative thinking, and develop our staff for programs like Six Sigma process improvement or new ways to improve our customer services," Edge says.

Power utilities like TVA have traditionally focused upon building and operating power plants to serve an ever-increasing demand for electricity. But as the growth in power demand has stagnated — and could even possibly decline — TVA is looking for new ways to manage and adapt its business to the emergence of distributed energy generation, smart metering and new competition.

"We're having to look at everything we do and question whether and how we can do it better, and hopefully IGNITE will aid that process," Edge says.

Within each ERG, TVA tries to promote culture, community, commerce and community development. Carlson said ERGs can make diversity and inclusion celebrated and fun through the lens of food and festivities.

But such diversity resource groups are not always successful. Deloitte, the New York-based financial advisory firm, announced last summer it was phasing out its employee resource groups in favor of "inclusion councils."

By the end of 2018, Deloitte will have phased out the Women's Initiative (WIN) and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group Globe, as well as other groups, and replaced them with groups where all employees are welcome. The move is an attempt to bring the majority of employees who are white men into the conversation and avoid the potential of employees with similar backgrounds to gather and create a superficial safe space that isn't always embraced by the majority of workers.

Carlson, who is responsible for helping to develop and nurture a culture of diversity and inclusion at TVA, said ERGs at TVA include an executive staffer to help ensure their ideas are heard and get a chance to be acted upon by the organization. That is key to nurturing a more inclusive work environment, Carlson said.

"I think we're coming along and have made a lot of improvements at TVA by reaching out to more diverse populations," he says. "We still have a long way to go, but we've made some big strides."

Although TVA's overall workforce has shrunk, the share of women, minorities and other disadvantaged members has increased, Carlson said. Nonetheless, fewer than a third of TVA's employees are either women or people of color.

"If you head count goes down more than your new hiring goes up, mathematically it is harder to make a big shift (in diversity) compared to a growing staff," Carlson says. "For us, it's a challenge of trying to keep the talent that we have while branding ourselves externally to recruit a more diverse workforce when we are able to replace and fill positions."