Magazine article HRMagazine

Affinity Group Danger Zones

Magazine article HRMagazine

Affinity Group Danger Zones

Article excerpt

Structure affinity groups so they are lawful.

Smart organizations want to increase employee engagement and inclusion. One way to do that is through affinity groups.

What are affinity groups? They are groups of employees who have a common interest or characteristic. Sometimes the commonality is based on a factor that is not protected under equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws, such as the employees' position. Usually, however, affinity groups are built around EEO-protected characteristics, such as race, gender and sexual orientation, and are supported financially by the organization.

There are obvious benefits to having affinity groups. They can increase morale, retention and innovation, as well as business, because of greater inclusion of diverse perspectives.

In some organizations, an affinity group may be seen as the antidote to marginalization of certain groups of employees. Affinity group meetings provide a place to experience business and social inclusion for those who are or feel marginalized.

Yet, these groups, if not structured properly, can have divisive and exclusionary effects. Moreover, there are legal risks that need to be navigated. Just because the goal of the affinity group is laudable does not mean that the group is lawful.

The following four hypotheticals highlight some of the legal and business risks of affinity groups, with recommendations on how to manage them.

Affinity Group For White Men

Employer ABC has affinity groups for women; people of color; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. The employer provides financial and other support for these groups so that they legally would be characterized as benefits of employment.

A group of white men asks to form an affinity group. The HR leader considers saying, "You don't need one. You already have one; it's called the senior leadership team," which is made up of white men but for one exception.

The emotion behind the fantasy response may be understandable, but the response is, of course, inappropriate because legal risk would accompany it. Title VII's prohibition on gender bias knows no gender. The same is true of racial bias. Denying a benefit to employees because they are white and male is, well, discrimination. But that does not mean that the request necessarily needs to be honored.

The key for an organization is to develop upfront nondiscriminatory criteria in determining whether it will provide financial or other support for a proposed affinity group. Among the criteria an organization may consider are the following:

* How will the proposed affinity group help its members achieve the company's mission and goals?

* How will the proposed affinity group increase inclusion and business development among the individuals in the group (as opposed to employees generally)?

* Are other affinity groups or mechanisms already in place that serve the need addressed by the request?

Making decisions about proposed affinity groups based on the answers to these kinds of questions doesn't eliminate all legal risks, but it does minimize them.

Let's return to the white men at Employer ABC. If the organization's power circle is dominated by white men, the white men seeking to form an affinity group may have an uphill battle. But would that be true for a group of entrylevel employees in human resources?

There is no clear-cut answer; rather, it depends on applying legitimate nondiscriminatory factors.

If Employer ABC has an affinity group for women and not one for men, it might consider including men in a broader affinity group on gender that would focus, although not exclusively, on issues women face that men don't.

It is not that you need men to be part of the group for legitimacy. You don't. But men can learn from being included, and men who are enlightened about the obstacles that women often face are more likely to become mentors and sponsors for female colleagues. …

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