Question: How can employee affinity groups help us recruit and retain a diverse workforce?
Answer: Over 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have employee affinity groups. These organizations (sometimes referred to as employee networking or resource groups) are made up of employee volunteers and usually focus on groups of people who have been historically under-represented in the workplace such as people of color, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and the like.
It isn’t surprising that employee affinity groups are a popular diversity tool. They are easy to set up and inexpensive to run. And when they work well, they can help companies recruit and retain top diverse talent.
Affinity groups can help increase employee retention by reducing the social isolation an employee might feel if they are the only person of color within a department or division. Such groups can boost the number of new hires of color because under-represented employees are more likely to refer friends to their employer when they know that an infrastructure exists to support and utilize them effectively.
Finally, the social networks created in employee affinity groups can serve as a counterbalance to the “old boys network” and help increase diversity among managerial ranks. When a company makes it easier for employees to meet people in other departments and levels of hierarchy, it creates a greater likelihood of career advancement.
Affinity Group Risks
Although employee affinity groups can yield many business benefits, they can backfire. If managed ineffectively, group meetings can become gossip or gripe sessions, with an end result of lost employees and even greater challenges recruiting superior diverse talent.
To avoid the potential pitfalls of ineffective employee affinity groups, organizations should keep these four strategies in mind:
Have the groups tackle real-life business problems. To avoid having employee affinity groups become glorified book clubs or gossip fests, allow the groups to form only if their purpose is associated with business objectives, and make sure participants stay focused on that mission. Consider assigning brainstorming tasks focused on finding a solution to a problem faced by people from an under-represented group. At Best Buy, for instance, the women’s networking groups focus on a specific challenge, such as finding ways to attract more women customers or working with designers to make stores more female-friendly.
Cultivate a diversity of seniority levels within each group. If all the participants in affinity groups are entry-level employees or those in support roles, meetings will yield few valuable networking connections for career advancement. That’s why it’s important to encourage senior executives to get involved. Their insights into how the organization works and how to get things done most efficiently can be invaluable for all involved, resulting in associations that might lead upward in the ranks as time goes on.
Encourage different affinity groups to work together. If different affinity groups fail to work together, each group might become isolated, making them less effective and less welcome within the corporate culture. A company’s affinity groups can get more done when they pool their resources and they can demonstrate, through their cooperative efforts, the many benefits of diversity.
Make sure that the affinity group operates within the confines of federal and state anti-discrimination and labor laws. There are a number of legal issues that can arise from employee affinity groups. For example, it’s improper for such groups to discuss any issues that a union would tackle, including work hours, assignments, pay or promotion. And a company cannot show favoritism by allowing one affinity group to form but not another. If meeting space, company time and other company resources are provided to one group, similar resources must be offered to all other groups. Similarly, an affinity group cannot exclude anyone from joining, as long as they share the same goals for the group. For example, if an Asian-American group is formed, it must allow non-Asian-American employees to join. Consultation with legal counsel is recommended to be sure that affinity groups don’t overstep legal boundaries.
Carmen Van Kerckhove is president of the diversity education firm New Demographic.