Affinity Groups Must be Properly Managed to Benefit All
Affinity groups are popular in many large companies. These networking, advocacy and support groups allow employees to connect with those like themselves and share their common interests. There are groups for women, working parents, LBGTQ employees, new employees, those with disabilities, etc. Often affinity groups will form around a protected class. Here’s where things must be managed properly.
Anti-discrimination laws forbid bias based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Because some affinity groups tend to be organized around such protected classifications, there is a risk that company decisions regarding affinity groups could be perceived as having a discriminatory intent, especially if the groups are given financial support, such as a funded lunch, a place to meet, the use of other corporate resources, etc.
You may have a group of African-American employees who want to meet regularly. Who is allowed to join them? Can a white employee attend the meetings? How will company morale be affected if white men want to form their own group? Or what about an affinity group for senior vice presidents?
Likewise, religious affinity groups pose a danger. If a company sanctions a gathering of Christian employees, is it singling them out for favor? Should the company then work to create affinity groups for all religions represented in the workplace, so that none are excluded? And what about groups that may want to form around political issues? Will the company be seen as taking a stand in support of a specific cause?
Some employees who do not see themselves as part of any group may feel that the company is giving special treatment to certain groups of employees, and may feel ostracized or devalued.
The best solution is to have established policies about what kind of groups may form, what support they will be given, and how the groups are to conduct themselves. Discuss these with your employment attorney, and consult with her or him when groups want to form. There are ways to recruit, encourage and support a diverse workforce without forming “clubs” that could damage morale and put the company at legal risk.