Making the Most of Employee Affinity Groups

Fostering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a business imperative in 2021, but those efforts can’t be confined to a program — they must be embedded in your organizational culture. Supporting employee affinity groups is one effective way to cascade your DEI efforts throughout the organization. These groups, designed to support employees who share characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, lifestyle or interests, can provide a powerful voice in your organization.

Employee affinity groups produce several important benefits for organizations, including a more inclusive culture and improved recruitment and retention. In fact, 90% of Fortune 500 companies recognize these benefits and support affinity groups in their workplace culture. But only affinity groups that are aligned with organizational objectives optimize their use of time and resources.

Here’s how to cultivate mutually beneficial results for both the organization as a whole and individual affinity group members.

Develop Leaders for Succession Planning

All too often, diversity is concentrated in an organization’s lowest ranks. Affinity groups help elevate diverse talent to leadership positions. Identifying diverse candidates for succession improves your DEI efforts by assembling leaders and decision-makers with a range of experiences and perspectives.

“Leadership development is probably the primary objective of affinity groups, since there’s usually a dearth of diversity in the upper echelons,” says Ayanna Cummings, SPHR, director of diversity and inclusion at Compass Group at Microsoft and founding director at Tapestry Consulting, LLC. “Affinity groups can be a part of the planning, development and institutionalization of those strategies.”

Put resources toward developing affinity group leaders and members. Send them to conferences or offer scholarships for professional certifications, suggests Cecil Hicks, Jr., SPHR, associate vice chancellor for diversity, equity, access and inclusion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Give affinity groups opportunities to lead in the organization as a whole by providing resources for them to host events or presentations.

Align Expectations From Affinity Groups

If you want affinity groups to benefit individual members and the organization as a whole, you need to set boundaries and expectations. By their nature, employee affinity groups do address issues within the organization, especially as they relate to the identity the group is based on. But don’t put the onus on affinity groups to write your DEI policies or fix problems within the organization. While you shouldn’t rely on affinity groups to own these efforts, they are an important piece of diversity and inclusion strategies and can function as think tanks for business decisions, too. Be sure to give credit for innovative business ideas that come from affinity groups.

Plan on compensating members by allowing them to meet on company time and giving them a budget, because they’re ultimately doing work for the organization, says HR and DEI consultant Mardia Shands, SPHR. HR is pivotal in helping group leaders develop policies and boundaries for their groups, including meeting within work hours if they’re discussing topics that the organization might seek insight into. “HR can serve almost as the conscious for the group,” Hicks says. “They can serve as a champion for the group to senior leaders.”

Give Diverse Voices a Platform

While you shouldn’t expect affinity groups to do your DEI work for you, affinity group leaders can offer valuable insights into how you can improve policies and work experiences for that group. Affinity groups give individuals a platform so that their voices are heard within organizations, especially when decisions are being made. You can ask leaders to bring that voice to DEI and other committees as representatives of their affinity groups.

“Utilize them as the voice of your employees,” Shands says. “You now have intelligence within your organization about what's important to people, and HR can use that information to better be engaged with employees and get in front of issues before they blow up.” Doing this brings diverse voices and perspectives to the table.

Employee affinity groups can help your organization leverage difference rather than encourage assimilation, Cummings says, which is vital to your inclusion strategy. A group for employees with disabilities, for instance, might suggest that your learning and development office offer classes on interacting with people who are neurodivergent without excluding them from the overall culture.