How Employee Affinity Groups Can Help You Recruit and Retain a Diverse Workforce

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When employee affinity groups are run well, they can help companies recruit and retain top diverse talent. But these groups can also backfire if managed ineffectively. In conjunction with Black History Month, Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of workplace diversity education firm New Demographic (http://www.newdemographic.com), shares 4 key strategies every company should know to maximize the diversity benefits of employee affinity groups.

Employee affinity groups are a popular diversity tactic. Easy to set up and inexpensive to run, they can help companies recruit and retain top diverse talent, says Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of workplace diversity education firm New Demographic (http://www.newdemographic.com). They are deemed so effective when well-run that over 90% of Fortune 500 companies have employee affinity groups.

Diversity-focused affinity groups can help increase employee retention by reducing the social isolation of being the only person of color within a department or division. A good employee affinity group can also boost the number of employees of color among a company's new hires 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.

Van Kerckhove explains, "The social networks created in employee affinity groups can serve as a counterbalance to the 'old boy's 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."

Although well-managed employee affinity groups yield great benefits, an affinity group that is ill-managed can become a forum where unhappy employees spread negativity around.

"Companies with disaffected affinity groups can actually lose employees and find it harder to recruit superior diverse talent," says Van Kerckhove.

To avoid the potential pitfalls of ineffective employee affinity groups, keep these four strategies in mind.

1. Have the groups tackle real-life business problems
Keep the members focused on business-related objectives. Consider assigning brainstorming tasks focused on finding a solution to a problem faced by people from the 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.

2. Cultivate a diversity of seniority levels within each group
Encourage senior executives to get involved. If all of the participants in an affinity group are entry-level or support-level employees, the meetings will provide fewer valuable networking connections for career advancement. And a senior level member's insights about how the organization works and how to most efficiently get things done can be invaluable for all involved.

3. Encourage different affinity groups to work together.
If different affinity groups fail to work together, each group may isolate, making it less effective and less welcome within the corporate culture. A company's affinity groups can get more done when they pool their resources. They can also demonstrate, through their cooperative efforts, the many benefits and synergies of workplace diversity.

4. Make sure the affinity group remains within the confines of federal and state antidiscrimination and labor laws.
Here are just a few potential problem areas to remember. It's illegal for employee affinity 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 you offer meeting space, company time and other company resources to one group, you must offer similar resources to all other groups. Also, by law, 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, too.

Disclaimer: The above is not an exhaustive list of precautions, and Van Kerckhove is not an attorney. Consult with a lawyer and educate yourself about all state and federal laws to ensure that your affinity group doesn't overstep any established legal boundaries.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of the workplace diversity education firm New Demographic (http://www.newdemographic.com), specializes in working with corporations to facilitate relaxed, authentic, and productive conversations about race. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and has visited as a guest lecturer at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and many other colleges and universities across the country. She reaches over a quarter million people each month through her award-winning blogs, podcast, and newsletters.

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