Employee-Affinity Groups: Corporate Ladders or Cultural Sojourns?

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Although experts in the diversity and inclusion arenas are not in 100% agreement about the role employee-affinity groups play in determining just how inclusive any given corporate organization really is or isn’t, it’s important to specifically examine their role, especially where the advancement of professionals from diverse backgrounds is concerned. Employee affinity groups are often highlighted as an important feature of a company’s commitment to diversity and positioned as a path toward advancement opportunities.

Once employed, talented professionals join employee-affinity groups and assume they provide access to leadership, a communication channel regarding key openings at the company; and a meeting place for colleagues with similar backgrounds or interests. Based on mixed experiences and findings, the question remains, Are affinity groups the mechanism leadership looks to in developing, identifying, and tapping talent for senior-level positions, or do they represent the equivalent of scheduled cultural exchanges and social gatherings with little impact on an individual’s success, recognition, or advancement?

The Spectrum

Employee-affinity groups certainly aren’t all the same. As with most programs borne out of corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives, their sophistication depends greatly on where a company sits on the diversity spectrum. Often, firms with a shorter history or less formal commitment to diversity may have fewer systems in place to make affinity groups a viable tool for talent retention and advancement. Companies with more history/experience will often host affinity groups that are more structured, heavily focused on business goals and representative of an active pool of talent to consider as the need to the best talent grows stronger each day.

Recently, The National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a leading national Hispanic civil- rights organization, in partnership with Sodexo Inc. led an initiative to understand affinity groups’ membership, purpose, and outcomes across corporate America and to assess the impact these groups are having on Latino professionals. “Overall, we found that every group across the nearly 50 companies that responded was slightly different from one another,” says Simon Lopez, NCLR workforce development director. “It was clear that good intentions are what drive the creation and support of these groups, but that the ones with the most potential positive impact for the advancement of Latino professionals are those that focus on business bottom-line goals and are constructed to serve as talent pools for all levels.”

Many Faces

Respondents to NCLR’s research submitted more than 10 different options in response to the question, “What activities do your employee-affinity groups focus on?” Answers ranged from raising cultural awareness to promoting community service to conducting product testing to talent development. Given this wide scope, professionals seeking that next big break into leadership must carefully assess how and where they spend their limited time. Although helping to raise cultural awareness is certainly a priority, will hosting a booth in the atrium during Heritage Month help you meet your professional objectives? Further, in the true spirit of diversity and inclusion from a business standpoint, what is truly gained from recognition for your cultural background as opposed to recognition in the boardroom? The ideal is, naturally, a company that strikes a healthy balance between both.

Rolddy Leyva, senior director of diversity at Sodexo, notes, “Each day is an opportunity for us to leverage our employee-affinity groups for talent retention and development as well as for creating a more inclusive and open environment. It’s not an easy mission to manage, but it is possible to support meaningful programs related to specific cultures while keeping a hard focus on our need to keep and grow the best talent from all backgrounds.”

Networking to Advance

The NCLR initiative also highlighted how important employees consider affinity groups for networking purposes, with 100% of respondents noting that they are a networking vehicle. For ambitious, experienced, and highly-coveted professionals of diverse backgrounds, the real issue that needs to be addressed is, “Does networking as part of my company’s affinity group provide access to opportunity and leadership, or access to my peers and subordinates?” If getting ahead is the aim, an employee needs to critically evaluate how the existing affinity group can help or hinder that objective. By asking a few key questions during the interview process or once employed, it’s possible to determine whether it makes sense to invest time and energy in an employee affinity group if professional advancement is the main goal. These include:

  • What is the affinity group’s mission statement? You will have a different experience participating in a group whose stated mission is to honor shared culture and promote its visibility within the company than a group whose stated mission is to identify, retain, and develop top talent for advancement.
  • What systems or programs are in place to identify, retain, and develop talent through the affinity group? Digging deeper will get you past public relations positioning and into the real role of the group.
  • Are there current leaders in management or executive ranks that were identified through the group and developed for their current roles? Ask to meet with them. If there aren’t any, chances are top talent isn’t developed from inside affinity groups.
  • How is the group funded and structured? You want to know the budget, where it’s coming from, and who leads the group in front of leadership. This will help you understand who truly “owns” the group and how heavily the company is investing in its success.

The Point

Diversity and inclusion efforts sponsored by leading companies are continually evolving, and it’s critical that business leaders are held accountable to truly moving their cause forward. Employee-affinity groups represent opportunities that on the whole could be activated more broadly to benefit both employees and employers. In years past, it was acceptable to maintain an employee affinity group for the sole purpose of giving individual employees of like backgrounds an opportunity to interact. More recently, the aim has been to promote visibility of the cultures represented more broadly within the organization. Today, the goal should be centered on cultivating employee-affinity groups for enhanced professional opportunities. It will serve both the business bottom line and the diverse professionals at the forefront of today’s race for talent.

Image courtesy of Apartment Therapy

About Jessica Priego Lopez

Jessica Priego Lopez is president of J Priego Communications. She can be contacted at Jessica@jpriego.com