Diversity in the workplace is often a point of positive discussion and for good reason. Diverse workplaces are more likely to be inclusive, progressive and equitable — but they do not eliminate the experience of difference.
If you are part of a marginalized or differently-abled group, it can be helpful to find community with people like you at work. To fill this need, people at many companies have started affinity groups — groups united by a common interest or a common goal — to foster this kind of community. There are several different types of affinity groups and many benefits to being a part of one. You can start one in your workplace today, as long as you have a group of interested people and an idea of what kind of group is right for you.
Technically, an affinity group is simply a group of people who share a common interest, quality or goal. Also known as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), they can take the form of anything from book clubs or groups united by a common hobby to caucuses for employees of a certain gender, race or sexual orientation. Often affinity groups in the workplace refer to these types of groups, coming together out of a common, marginalized experience or identity, convening to support each other and even promoting progressive change in or on behalf of the company.
There are affinity groups for women, the LGBTQ+ community, people of color and people with disabilities, to name a few. Groups like these showcase the importance and power of affinity groups, which centers around their ability to focus on a particular experience or goal, organize around it and push the company toward versatility and inclusivity. They also provide people with a support system. If you're part of a big, multi-national corporation, affinity groups can bring people together even across branches in different parts of the country or all around the world.
Employees who are part of an affinity group benefit from having a small, tight-knit community that can focus on issues that are important to them. In many situations, these groups are integrated into the management of a company and consulted on how to improve the corporation's functioning and address issues within the workplace.
As mentioned, affinity groups and ERGs can take multiple forms. There are several core types that are commonly seen, and while affinity groups differ in structure and leadership, they usually fall under one or more of these categories.
There are groups that are:
• Primarily oriented toward positive change. The main purpose of these groups is to instigate change on a broad scale, whether that means changing company policies or procedures to be more inclusive or advocating for specific workers' rights across the board, in their company and beyond.
• Focused on providing a safe and supportive place for shared experiences. Some affinity groups exist primarily to be a space where people with shared experiences can come together and talk about their lives in a supportive environment.
• There to solve a particular issue through strength in numbers. Affinity groups are great opportunities for organizing employees to lobby for change within their own company by gathering support from peers and tackling that issue with strength in numbers.
Affinity groups provide people with a group to belong to and a supported community of either like-minded people or people with similar experiences. Just as in higher education, where there are clubs and societies to which one can belong based on interests or identity, affinity groups enhance the culture and overall functioning of a company.
In a 2013 study by the Center for Effective Organizations, researchers found that employees who were part of ERGs had higher energy levels and a more fulfilled experience at their place of work. This might be due to the fact that affinity groups give people a more united and specific purpose and a community to belong to, which makes a lot of people thrive. Affinity groups can also be oriented toward entertainment and exist for the main purpose of relieving tension from work-related stress.
Differently-abled people in the workplace can face very specific experiences of adversity or discrimination, as well as the pressure to stay silent about ways in which the company may not be accommodating or accessible. The Employer Assistance and Resource found that affinity groups can be helpful in supporting people with disabilities, making them more comfortable with disclosing their disability, helping the company become more accessible and increasing employees' satisfaction with their work experience.
A study by the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University found that affinity groups are very attractive to millennial employees, with a majority reporting that they would be more likely to apply to and stay longer at a company that supports affinity groups.
Whether you are part of a marginalized group or not, you can benefit from being part of an affinity group. Everyone can understand the appeal of having a support system and peers with common interests to lean on. You can start an affinity group in your workplace, as long as you have an interested group of people, a clear goal and enthusiastic support.
Any successful organization is centered by a clear goal that unites its members. Maybe your goal is to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ employees in your workplace, in which people can talk freely about their experiences. Maybe you're a female investment banker trying to create a place for other women in the field and push your company to hire more women. Maybe you want to start a group for employees with children who can share experiences with hectic school schedules and the struggle with late hours, and even network to share babysitting contacts.
No matter your goal, make sure it is clear and defined since it will help you go forward in building the structure of your group, deciding who should join and determining your function within the workplace.
Who might be interested in joining your group? Are there people you already know that are on board with helping out and taking part? Maybe, aside from members, there is an executive or manager that would be willing to sponsor or advocate for your group to company officials and help you get approved to form it.
It's helpful to know who your allies are and to whom you can appeal when trying to get your group up and running. You also want to have a clear idea of who will help you keep the group running — who has shared experiences with you, who will help promote your meetings and who will be on board with your goal.
Maybe your team is totally on-board with your new group, and there's a consensus on the need to form it and who will be involved. That's great!
If not, though, you may have to go to extra lengths to pitch your group — both to your company's decision-makers and to other employees. Especially if your group centers a specific marginalized group, based on race or gender identity, there can be some push-back. When it comes to minorities, the majority may have a hard time seeing what "the point" of having a group that centers a certain identity is, due to privilege or the sheer lack of that shared experience.
If this is the case, it's up to you to make the case for why your group is necessary and how it will benefit its members and the company as a whole. You need the funding, support and membership that can only come from getting people on board with your idea to make sure your group is a success.
When you're getting a group established, you'll probably have to make the resources you have access to work to your advantage, until you get more members, more support and greater funding. This might mean getting creative about where and how your group convenes.
If your company doesn't allow you to rent or use their office space yet, meet somewhere outside the workplace. You might not have the funds to do something grand, rent out a space or buy dinner for everyone. Maybe make your first meetings coffee socials, picnics or potlucks at someone's house. This will also help the group feel more personal and community-driven, rather than a technical group that only belongs at work.
Keeping in mind the goal you set when you started this affinity group, figure out what your meetings will look like and how the organization of your group will work. Will it be more of a roundtable discussion or a more hierarchical structure of proceedings? Will you focus on sharing experiences and be shaped by members' needs or stay more focused on an eventual, tangible goal?
When you're starting out, organization is key. People like to rely on how a group works and know how things are run, so establishing the way this group works early-on is crucial.
There should be some kind of leadership structure in an organization, and assigning roles to people in your affinity group will keep your goals and functions clear — and not leave you all the work. Maybe you have a small leadership board in a more traditional sense, or every member plays a specific role in a more lateral leadership structure. Do you have internal committees and smaller groups of people focused on outreach, community service or instigating change by working with corporate executives? Figure out the structure, then gauge interest in leadership and appoint or elect people who are as driven and excited as you are about the group's goals and future.
If your company has other branches, across the country or in other parts of the world, branch out. You can make a larger impact on the company as a whole and help people in other branches if your group has chapters in other places.
You can use technology – chat rooms, video chat and group messages – to connect with people remotely and ensure that remote members of your group are included, considered and informed about all group proceedings. This will also help you be cohesive with remote members of the group across locations and organized and unified in pursuit of your mission. For example, Amazon has ten affinity groups that span the entire company, which has branches in many different parts of the world. Members of these groups from different locations likely have a regular way of staying in contact and on track with each other.
When you're fighting for progressive change within your organization, it's important to remember the limitations of doing that from within. Many progressive groups have the ultimate goal of fundamentally changing systems of power. When you're dealing with issues like racism or gendered oppression, the goals of these movements for equality extend beyond your company and can encompass the idea that radical, fundamental change is necessary for true progress. This might be the case, but when you're bringing that movement to a company, that kind of radical change might not be positive or well-received, no matter what should or should not be the case.
Understand how you can work within the system of your workplace to do whatever is possible to advance your cause without encountering major issues — this is, after all, your place of employment, which pays and accommodates you. You might find that gradual change within the system will start to make room for more radical change later, but doing it in a way that is conscious about how things work is imperative.
Affinity groups are often started to center around and benefit a targeted group of people, but the most successful groups eventually take their goals out to consider the benefit the group could have on the company as a whole. Affinity groups can simply be places to share experiences and vent out problems and obstacles people are having for whatever reason or experience. Instead of keeping that conversation contained, though, consider how solutions to issues can be made to benefit the company more broadly.
If your group centers the experience of women in the workplace with micro-aggressions or sexist experiences, how can these experiences not only be heard but be prevented going forward? How can you create an initiative that will benefit even women that may share these experiences but aren't comfortable speaking out about them? Think on a macro level when it comes to solving issues, and you can make a real difference.
When it comes to affecting change, things rarely happen quickly. Recognize that your goals are probably bold and ambitious — and that's a great thing! But it means that you will have to be patient in order to achieve them. Building community, organizational structure and impact takes time and concentrated effort, so don't get frustrated if things aren't happening as quickly as you like. Focus on finding allies, members and people who share your vision, and you'll get there.
Ultimately, joining an affinity group is a personal decision. If you're a member of a marginalized community and you're yearning for a connection to people who share your perspective, it can be really positive and enriching to be a part of a group that centers around that experience. If you feel isolated in your workplace or you're new to a company, joining an affinity group can be a great way to find your place and get involved.
You might find that you don't have an interest in joining an affinity group until the right one comes along. It all comes down to you, your interests and your goals. Joining can be a great way to be a part of something bigger and have an impact on progressive change in your company.
If you aren't sure if your company has affinity groups, do some research and find out, and if they don't, consider starting your own.
Haley Riemer is a multimedia writer and performer interested in telling stories that are important to women. She's a recent graduate of Tulane University, and her current hobbies include drinking too much iced coffee and talking about feminist political theory at parties.
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