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Racial Inclusivity: The Role of Affinity Groups

Welcome to lesson 4 of How to Build Racial Inclusivity in Your Workplace. In this lesson, we'll explore the role of affinity groups.

Affinity groups – also known as employee networks or employee resource groups – are led by employees from a particular identity group to address relevant workplace issues. Affinity groups typically provide pastoral support to members, host networking events, and engage with management on making working culture and practices more inclusive. They may also connect with other affinity groups in their wider industry or region to share best practices and provide additional networking opportunities.

The concept of affinity groups was pioneered by Xerox in 1970 with their National Black Employee Caucus – backed by then CEO Joseph Wilson – in response to racial tension in the US in the 1960s. Since then, the popularity of affinity groups has grown significantly. According to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, 90% of Fortune 500 companies currently have affinity groups. Such groups can be found in industries as varied as banking, energy, and e-commerce.

An affinity group provides various benefits to its members. They provide a safe space to discuss sensitive issues without fear of judgement. Some issues are difficult to discuss with people of a different identity. Being able to discuss issues with people with similar identity can be more emotionally beneficial for minority employees.

An affinity group can provide networking opportunities to its members. People from minority backgrounds may find networking more difficult in the typical day-to-day context. For example, if an organisation has a strong drinking culture, then minorities who aren't permitted to drink alcohol may feel unable to network as effectively as their peers. Affinity group networking events that, for example, don't involve alcohol may feel more comfortable to participate in. This helps minorities form relationships that benefit both their wellbeing and their career progression.

An affinity group helps its members learn about relevant issues and concepts. For example, affinity groups can educate allies, members, and the wider business on concepts such as structural racism and unconscious bias (like we discussed in lesson 2) or how to be a good ally (like we discussed in lesson 3). Equally, an affinity group can educate people on different cultural needs or how to access personal development opportunities.

As well as supporting members, affinity groups can provide various benefits to an organisation. Firstly they provide a clear line of communication with minority groups. Affinity groups provide the organisation with an authentic view of minority experience, and hence clear sight of which initiatives require the most attention. Equally, affinity groups can support the organisation in developing policies and practices that increase inclusivity – fostering a collaborative and trusting relationship between leaders and minorities. This helps the organisation pursue inclusivity in a way that's credible and effective.

Secondly, affinity groups allow an organisation to address minority issues in a structured way. The affinity group acts as a central focal point for all areas of the business to engage with – preventing duplication of effort or inconsistent solutions across different organisational areas. This helps deliver systemic, rather than piecemeal, change towards inclusivity.

Thirdly affinity groups can help attract new employees – particularly those from minority groups but equally those who hold inclusivity as a core personal value, which is increasingly the case among young people. In a 2014 survey in the US by Software Advice, almost 70% of 18 to 24-year-olds, and more than half of 25 to 34-year-olds, said that the presence of affinity groups in an organisation would positively impact their decision to apply for a role at that organisation. Demonstrating enthusiastic support for minorities through official affinity groups helps showcase an organisation as values-based rather than simply profit or service-based. This is important particularly as people are becoming increasingly aware that businesses and institutions have a role to play in delivering racial equity.

If you're considering setting up an affinity group, then there are things you can do to help maximise its success. Firstly be clear on who you represent and what your aims and objectives are. Will you represent black employees or black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees? Will you include allies in your group? What do you want to achieve in your first year? What will you do to achieve those objectives? Producing a business plan – as I did when I launched globeAll – can help you structure your value proposition to co-workers and senior leaders.

Secondly, build an organising team for your affinity group. This will give the group more resources to get things done, such as producing newsletters, organising events, or providing member support. It also creates resilience for the group – it's success won't depend entirely on you – and a natural pipeline of future group leaders. Furthermore, it'll give the group more gravitas in the eyes of the wider organisation – people are more likely to support a group that's visibly robust. Make sure to give any team members clear roles, responsibilities, and time commitments upfront. This will help ensure team effectiveness and avoid misunderstandings later on.

Thirdly seek to gain popular support for your group at as many different levels as possible. Ideally, you'll want support from junior, mid-level, and senior employees. Don't be afraid to contact senior leaders directly – many modern leaders are aware of the need for diversity and inclusion and hence are likely to be very willing to speak with you and support your group. If you're struggling to engage senior leaders, then you can start by getting support from junior employees and middle managers and work your way up from there as your group becomes more established. You may find that senior leaders begin to take an interest once they see that your group is popular and respected.

Fourthly make sure that your affinity group is backed by the organisation – with an executive sponsor or champion if possible. This can help you access additional resources that may be available – for example, funding, IT resources, communication channels – as well as give your group more credibility and hence make it easier to pursue change within the organisation as well as recruit new members.

Finally – be in it for the long haul. There's nothing worse than an affinity group having a great launch and then falling apart within a matter of months. A slow, steady, and consistent approach is far better than trying to do too many things at once and burning out. Spreading your objectives out over a number of years can help. Having an organising team can help. Putting clear boundaries on yours and your team's time can help. It can take time to deliver significant organisational change, so plan your group in a way that'll ensure it stays the course.

To recap – affinity groups are led by employees from a particular identity group with the purpose of addressing relevant workplace issues. The benefits to members include safe space, networking, and learning opportunities. The benefits to the organisation include a clear line of communication, a structured vehicle to address issues, and attractiveness to potential new recruits. To maximise the chance of success, affinity groups can establish a clear plan, set up an organising team, seek popular support, get official backing, and prioritise longevity.

In the next lesson, we'll explore the role of managers and leaders in delivering racial inclusivity in the workplace. Thank you for listening, and I'll speak to you again in lesson 5.

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Written by

Andrew Sivanesan