An Affinity for Groups

An article a few years ago in Forbes noted the changing nature of what used to be called “affinity groups” but are now known more often as employee resource groups. If you are in a large company, or if you would like your SME to become a large company someday, the value of these groups can be good news for you.

A report by Mercer in 2011 — “ERGs Come of Age: the Evolution of Employee Resource Groups” — shows how employee resource groups moved beyond the traditional populations of ethnic minorities, women, and LGBT, and into such areas as disability, religion, military service, or other mutual interests such as learning a foreign language or protecting the environment. Groups based on something other than purely work-related interests can bring together people within a company who might otherwise never meet, with the potential for a positive spillover from the non-work interest into work-related issues.

Affinity groups are especially useful for large organizations — especially those that operate in multiple countries — because they encourage the sharing of ideas across corporate boundaries. Success and growth require ideas, ideas are facilitated by sharing, and in many large companies there are barriers to the kind of sharing that can enhance creativity and innovation. Whether they are organizational boundaries that create stovepipes within a company, or national boundaries affecting a multinational organization, these groups offer your employees an opportunity to step over those boundaries and share with people whom they might not get to know in a regular work setting, and can encourage those people to continue engaging over time.

They are also useful for recruiting. Employee resource groups demonstrate an open-mindedness and inclusive atmosphere that is appealing to many of the most creative people in the labor pool. An inclusive environment suggests a freer flow of ideas, it tells candidates that you are not restricted to traditional ways of thinking, and it can help a candidate who is looking for a more progressive and diverse environment feel like they have found it.

These groups require some investment from the company; in the 64 organizations Mercer surveyed, the average corporate expense was $7,203 per 100 members, and there are non-financial costs associated with the time employees spend involved in group activities. But of course, you have to spend money to make money, and this seems like a relatively low-cost investment that supports workforce development, retention, and of course innovation.

On the surface, affinity groups might seem exclusionary, as if people with some common interest are isolating themselves from the rest of the organization. The end result, though, is typically a more inclusive company. First, group members find themselves more connected to the organization when they discover new ways to express themselves and integrate their lives into the company, such as through finding a group of people with similar interests or backgrounds. Second, these groups encourage more interaction between people who might never have met. Rather than cutting people off from the rest of the company, employee resource groups can help pull employees in.

If you have a small organization with 10 employees, this is not going to mean much to you; you would be better served by looking for external groups in which your employees can participate, like professional associations, MeetUp groups, or a chamber of commerce. But if you are in a large organization, consider encouraging your folks to participate in groups like these. The benefits you can take away should far exceed your cost.

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