Creating a sense of community is vital for employee happiness and productivity in the workplace. Sometimes, though, the best way to build that cohesion is by encouraging employees who share common traits or interests to form internal groups, says Jonathan Segal, a partner at the Duane Morris law firm and a contributing editor to HR Magazine. But encouraging so-called affinity groups raises some potentially thorny legal issues. Here, Segal discusses the benefits of supporting affinity groups and the business and legal risks of not getting them right.
What are some common affinity groups and why are they useful?
We see affinity groups based on gender, race, and sexual orientation — which are legally protected characteristics. Other affinity groups aren't geared toward individuals of a particular gender or race, but are instead comprised of new hires or employees who share some other common trait. The key here is that affinity groups need to foster inclusion as a way of advancing the overall business. Let's assume a hospital acquires a physician's practice. An affinity group could help that physician's practice integrate and advance the overall business. The irony is, the first step toward integration can be separation.
What are the risks employers face when sponsoring affinity groups?
Affinity groups have the purpose to empower groups of employees that may not match the power norm. The question becomes whether a particular group is lawful or a good idea, which isn't always a simple yes or no. It would be unlawful, for example, if an employer said, "We’re going to support affinity groups for women but not for men." An employer could say, "In order for an affinity group to receive aid from the organization, it needs to meet certain business criteria, including advancing the mission of the organization, making the organization stronger and leading to greater inclusion."
What types of affinity groups are a no-no?
In organizations where you have white male domination, it might be hard for white men to establish the business case for an affinity group. If you have 28 employed positions — of which 26 are white men — it would be hard to see how a male affinity group could meet the criteria. Why would excluding two women make the organization stronger? The answer is, it wouldn’t. On the other hand, there might be a benefit for a female group because the group could say, "We can help the employer achieve its mission by reaching out to new communities and organizations and can increase inclusion because we are not reflected in the power group."
The key is to focus on the business case and not the gender or race. One organization had an affinity group for African Americans, and when a group of white people asked for an affinity group, it was denied based on race as opposed to the lack of a business need.
What are the biggest problems with affinity groups?
The first is they become landing pads and not launching pads where individuals share their common experiences and frustrations, but don’t talk about solutions to move forward. Another potential risk is saying, "We don’t need to worry about inclusion of women because they have their own group." Groups should empower and maximize inclusion, so ultimately the need for the group goes away.
How can managers encourage affinity groups to talk about solutions instead of problems?
No. 1: you want to make clear to the affinity group that it’s not a vehicle to raise individual concerns and that there is a complaint procedure if anyone has one. You don’t want someone to share something with an affinity group and then sue the employer later for not addressing it when it was shared in confidence in the affinity group.
The leaders of the affinity groups need to know there are some things they can keep in confidence. "I feel excluded" is different from "He told me if I want to be on the case, I have to sleep with him." The former you may be able to work through in the affinity group; the latter you have to report through the complaint procedure.
Do affinity groups ever cross the lines with labor organizations?
Yes. If an affinity group discusses terms and conditions of employment and then bargains with the employer about them, the affinity group may be considered a labor organization that the employer is unlawfully supporting. You also run the risk that the affinity group is seen as a threat to a labor union. Make clear that anyone who speaks in the affinity group is speaking on his or her own behalf and is not acting as an employee representative. Ideally, you explain to the union the value of the affinity group and get its buy-in.
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