What is an affinity group?
Understanding the affinity group definition helps you decide if it’s a good strategy for your business. An affinity group or employee resource group (ERG) is a collection of individuals who share a common identity characteristic, which can be a wide range of things. The unifying characteristic is usually something that’s traditionally underrepresented and can make the people in that group feel isolated. Some examples include:
- Sexual orientation
- Family structure
- Physical or mental ability
Affinity groups are led by the employee members. These groups can cause significant change within the workplace. Affinity groups are employer-recognized and promote inclusion, diversity and other efforts that benefit employees. They create safe spaces for networking, resources for mentorship and training for professional development.
Related:How to Start a Mentor Program
Who can participate in affinity groups?
Affinity groups are designed only for people who fit the identity. For example, an LGBTQ+ group would only be for people who fit into one of those categories of sexual orientation. A women’s leadership affinity group would only be for women. By limiting it to people who share that identifier, the affinity group remains a comfortable, safe space where members can connect with others who can relate.
You can have multiple affinity groups based on your employees. That gives more people the option to participate in a group to which they can relate.
Why are affinity groups important in the workplace?
Affinity groups are essential assets to any business’ workplace diversity and inclusion plan. They can create positive effects in many parts of the business. Some benefits of affinity groups include:
- Recruiting and retention: Organizations use the groups to attract new hires and retain current employees. They show that the company cares about diversity and inclusion and can help you recruit a more diverse workforce.
- Proving commitment: They add value to the business by proving its commitment to diversity and the value it holds for inclusivity.
- Innovation: The inclusion of diverse populations can lead to new ideas and innovation that further benefit the company as a whole. Affinity groups allow those diverse populations to collaborate and share their ideas with the workplace.
- Sense of belonging: Affinity groups make people in diverse populations feel a sense of belonging. Applicants might feel comfortable before they get a job offer if they know there’s a safe space for them at the company. It can also be comforting to make connections with other people who deal with similar experiences.
- Positive relationships: Members of an affinity group might not meet or get to know one another well without the group. That’s especially true in a larger organization with multiple departments where employees don’t interact often. Having those positive relationships can improve morale and employee satisfaction.
- Improved confidence: Feeling like a part of a community can build confidence in your employees. Sharing ideas and feelings with others who can relate feels safe and freeing. That confidence might carry over to other work interactions, and encourages all your employees to all share their ideas.
- Professional development: The affinity group can be a form of professional development when you include a mentoring aspect. The groups encourage open discussion and idea sharing, which can help members learn from one another.
Risks of affinity groups in the workplace
Along with the benefits, it’s important to look at the potential risks of starting an affinity group in the workplace. The goal of affinity groups is often to improve diversity and inclusion, but some people might see it as the opposite. They may feel that affinity groups cause division because they’re exclusive to a particular group. Some might even say they’re being discriminated against because they can’t participate.
Review discrimination laws to ensure the groups don’t violate them. Communicating the purpose of the group can help ease concerns or negative feelings. Ensure your affinity groups maintain a positive focus instead of becoming a negative space to complain. Training on discrimination can help all employees understand the need for changes, which may reduce objections.
You might also face pushback if some affinity groups are approved and others aren’t. Having criteria for affinity groups and applying requirements equally to all groups can cut down on these issues.
How to start an affinity group for your employees
The following steps outline how to create an affinity group within your organization:
1. Set a specific goal
Consider what your workplace needs most and identify it as a goal for the group. For example, your goal might be creating a safe space for employees of particular communities or backgrounds. With the help of an affinity group, affected individuals can join safe spaces at work and share their experiences. You may also want to promote more diversity within the workplace by pushing the company to hire more women. Whichever your goal, define clear parameters for the group to follow. Use S.M.A.R.T. goals for additional help.
2. Identify potential group members
If you know individuals at the company with similar interests, reach out and ask them about joining. Consider managers who may join or advocate for the group as well. Not only do they make influential members, but they also can sway upper management’s opinion on certain topics. Consider those who are organized and equally motivated to meet goals.
3. Pitch your idea
Once you have a team of people, pitch the idea to upper management. Set up a meeting with upper management and prepare a full presentation sharing your ideas, their importance in the workplace and how your goal positively impacts the company. Share statistics and valuable data on retention rates of similar companies that execute diversity initiatives. Highlight other benefits it provides as well, such as improved morale.
4. Decide the responsibilities of members
Assigning specific roles and responsibilities to members can help the group function well. For example, you might designate a leader or president who focuses on speeches and formal presentations. This individual becomes the face of the group and its initiatives. Another person might focus on meeting with executives and other team members to ensure they execute plans smoothly. Every goal is different and has unique needs that form what your responsibilities as a group might be. Plan accordingly for the goal you want to achieve.
5. Research your limitations
While you may have good intentions for your goals, consider the resource limitations of your company. In some cases, you need to edit your goal to better fit within the organization. Research the company’s goal and general resource pool before moving forward with an affinity group.
6. Start your first project
The only way to ensure your group can accomplish everything it sets out to do is by starting a project. Test your group by starting with a small, tangible goal. Focus on a project with a short time frame and few complications. Once completed, assess your group and identify how well it performed. Throughout the project, take note of particular problem areas and discuss options for improvement with your team.
Tips for implementing affinity groups
The way you implement affinity groups impacts how effective they are. Here are some tips to help:
- Make it remote-compatible: If your staff includes remote workers, ensure affinity groups are available to them as well. Video conferencing and group chats are good ways to keep everyone in the loop.
- Understand the limitations: Affinity groups can create change in the workplace, but they can’t fix everything overnight. Some people are resistant to change, so it can take time to make bigger changes. You might also be limited by the resources you have available.
- Give it time: Likewise, keep in mind that forming an affinity group takes time. The members may need time to open up fully. It might take time to settle into your roles and decide how to impact the organization. Give the group time to find itself and start making an impact on the company.
- Keep ownership with the members: The nature of an affinity group is based on the employees leading it. Don’t try to take over the group or make it company-run. While it’s supported by the company, the group should allow its members to decide what’s best. The members should have total control of the structure and activities as long as they don’t break company policies.
- Look beyond the group: You might start the group to serve as a safe place for members. But figuring out how you can serve the company as a whole can benefit everyone. Think about how you can educate others or do service projects that help the entire company.
- Treat all affinity groups the same: If you apply a requirement or restriction to one affinity group, it should apply to all groups. Forcing one group to meet special requirements or restricting its activities can be considered discrimination.
FAQs about affinity groups
Look through the list below for answers to common questions surrounding affinity groups:
Wouldn’t the group itself promote exclusivity and divisiveness?
Group members work as a cohesive team bringing about change within the workplace. Breaking the status quo takes time and precision that can’t be accomplished by all members of the staff. Creating a team of like-minded individuals who are motivated by the possibility of change increases the overall effectiveness of your company’s efforts.
What exactly happens within an affinity group?
The activities of individual groups vary by organization. In most cases, groups meet regularly to discuss current issues affecting the employees of the company. They might invite individuals from outside the group to share their stories and bring new ideas that improve the organization. Once the group determines new initiatives, they plan a pitch meeting and assign members to different tasks. On an average day, they stand as advocates of the group and answer questions from interested employees.
Can affinity groups work with the marketing and public relations teams?
Affinity groups pitch a multitude of ideas to better the workplace. In some cases, those ideas include the help of the marketing and public relations departments. Some businesses prefer to show the world what happens within their walls and why working with them is best. In these cases, affinity teams work closely with marketing to ensure the message is accurate and positive. Public relations teams may also help if the company experiences any social damage due to previous issues.