D,E&I continues to be at the forefront of HR priorities as businesses strive to ensure that their staff feel valued and involved at work and have equitable opportunities to progress and succeed.
A big part of making employees feel comfortable within a company culture is helping them to connect with others who come from a similar background, have shared interests or aligned lifestyle choices. Not only does this demonstrate a business's commitment to D,E&I, but it can also often provide valuable opportunities for like-minded individuals to find mentors and role models who can offer inspiration and support.
This can be especially important in large businesses where there may be many staff with similar backgrounds in some parts of the company whilst other employees may be in less diverse teams and need to be made aware that individuals who share their cultural similarities even exist within the organisation.
An increasingly popular way to connect these employees is through creating affinity groups, also often known as employee resource groups (ERG) or employee networks.
What are affinity groups?
Affinity groups are networks of employees brought together based on shared characteristics or interests, such as gender, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Groups such as 'women in the workplace' or 'Pride at work' are common affinity groups for female and LGBTQIA+ employees, respectively.
Depending on the size of the business, affinity groups vary in numbers and format, with larger companies usually having groups with more formalised leadership and events calendars. They can also have a range of goals, from simply supporting members' well-being and development to advocating and raising awareness of issues which affect the group's common characteristics.
Although the practice of forming affinity groups is actively encouraged by inclusion-conscious employers, in most cases, the groups are created voluntarily by employees, with individual membership and participation also being entirely voluntary. Furthermore, although the groups are aimed at connecting individuals with a shared interest or goal, the meetings, events and activities of any affinity group should be open to all employees, not just those who align themselves with the characteristic on which the group is formed, as this offers inclusion to all employees who may take an interest in and want to support with another group's actions or discussions.
Benefits for business
Affinity groups have several key benefits for employers and employees alike, which leading businesses have noticed, with 90% of Fortune 500 companies reportedly recognising the benefits and supporting affinity groups in their workplace culture.
Firstly, offering membership to affinity groups can improve recruitment and retention. Recent research shows that 86% of employees consider inclusion and diversity critical in the workplace, and 76% of candidates state that it is essential when evaluating companies and job offers. So, offering opportunities to network with affinity groups can be an excellent way for companies to attract and engage staff, which benefits both the company and its employees in terms of productivity, engagement, staff morale and well-being, as well as helping companies to achieve their D,E&I targets and meet their business goals. The groups can also make new starters feel welcome and involved, which can help with the onboarding and settling-in process to enhance retention and workplace happiness.
In addition to attracting and retaining a diverse workforce, initiatives such as affinity groups allow people from across an organisation to come together and share ideas, offering development opportunities for more junior employees to take on leadership positions and find mentors. Groups often become a hotbed of innovation, as individuals from different business areas communicate and collaborate in ways they would otherwise not have had the chance, leading to more creative outcomes.
Perhaps most importantly, affinity groups can provide employees with a safe space to be heard in an environment where they may be more comfortable speaking freely about any issues or experiences that relate specifically to their group's shared characteristics. The groups also provide a platform for raising organisational issues related to their particular social or lifestyle group. This can be helpful for business leaders who can use the information and feedback to improve inclusion policies and working environments, as well as give group members the opportunity to run events and initiatives to raise awareness and educate others about issues which affect them.
Is there ever a downside?
It is worth bearing in mind that while affinity groups can be an excellent resource for diversity and inclusion, there is an argument that affinity groups themselves stifle diversity rather than enhance it, as individuals may build strong relationships with those within their group but perhaps feel further divided from other groups.
In addition, business leaders may need to be mindful of which groups they support the creation of, as denying the creation of a group which they may deem not to be as crucial as others or that they don't view as a separate section of society could be discriminatory in itself.
As a final thought, the idea of affinity groups is to empower members, so it is vital that they are not viewed as a way to further pigeon-hole or discriminate against individuals but instead should give employees networking opportunities, a safe and enjoyable space to connect with like-minded individuals and a voice within the workplace. When companies get it right, these groups can be of great benefit, increasing employee engagement, productivity, retention and well-being.
If you are an HR professional looking to recruit for your team, or you are seeking a new opportunity for yourself, contact our expert recruiters at McGregor Boyall today and find out how we can help you.