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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Start an Affinity Group at Work, According to Real People Who Did It

people in an affinity group at work
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Mike Tickle found out he was dyslexic when he was in university. So naturally, when he entered the career space he wondered if there were others in the same position as him and how he could adapt to working while being dyslexic.

What did he do? He found a group of like-minded people answering this exact question. He became involved in the British Dyslexia Association, and eventually began helping to implement dyslexia support groups in his office and others.

Across the pond, Gina Calder was focusing her energies on a different group: women. Calder worked her way up in the healthcare industry (not known for its large numbers of women in leadership) with the help and support of her network. She realized that while “I benefited immensely from that experience, I was kind of building that mentor network myself—learning directly from those mentors how to do things and how not to do things—and really wanted the opportunity to provide that kind of guidance and support and coaching to other people, especially women and women of color and young women,” she says.

I was kind of building that mentor network myself—learning directly from those mentors how to do things and how not to do things—and really wanted the opportunity to provide that kind of guidance and support and coaching to other people, especially women and women of color and young women.

Gina Calder

A colleague recommended she read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and while initially she “wasn’t entirely sure it was going to include anything relevant,” she was surprised to find herself drawn to the text. After holding their first group discussion about the book, Calder and her team piloted a Lean In Circle at her organization. Since starting, more than 300 women leaders have participated in and benefitted from the program, and there are even plans in place for the first all-male Lean In Circle.

“It was great to hear—[and] sometimes a little challenging to hear—that even for women who were much more seasoned, who had more experience, who had served in lots of different executive roles and organizations…many of the challenges were the same,” says Calder, now Vice President of Ambulatory Services at Bridgeport Hospital.

Affinity Groups 101 What Is an Affinity Group?

An affinity group is defined in Merriam Webster as “a group of people having a common interest or goal or acting together for a specific purpose.” In the workplace, you may also refer to it by its more common corporate synonym, “employee resource group.”

ERGs or affinity groups can be anything from sports leagues to book clubs to other random groups where employees hang out to share a common interest—but they’re often the most powerful when they’re focused on creating a diverse and inclusive workplace.

And they can take many forms: veterans groups, faith groups, women’s leadership groups, women in tech groups, groups for people of color, LGBTQ groups, disability groups, to name just a few examples.

What’s the goal? Tickle likes to bucket the purpose of an affinity group into three categories: There are groups that “are there to drive change” in the big picture, groups that “are there for people to come together and create a safe space to share their experiences,” and there are groups that are there to use “a strength in numbers to help solve particular issues.” While they can be organized and run in various different ways, they usually encompass one, if not all three, of these missions in some way or another.

If You're Wondering... What Are the Benefits of Having Affinity Groups at Work?

Affinity groups hold plenty of benefits for employees and employers alike, especially those looking to put diversity and inclusion at the forefront of their business.

A 2013 study conducted by the Center for Effective Organizations found that employee energy levels are higher when they participate in ERGs and that “ERG membership provides employees with a more engaging and fulfilling work experience.”

The Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN) reports that ERGs can play a significant role in making workplaces more inclusive for those with disabilities, citing that they influence how comfortable employees are in disclosing their disability, help companies retain employees with disabilities, and increase employee’s job satisfaction, commitment, and productivity.

And research published by the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University states that a majority of millennials are more likely to apply to and stay at a company that supports ERGs, and that over 75% of millennials “reported that the presence of ERGs would have a positive impact on their level of engagement at work.”

Psychological safety is the responsibility of everyone, not just managers, not just individual contributors... You don’t have to be an ‘other’ or an underrepresented minority group to understand the importance of [it].

Melissa Obleada

Both Calder and Tickle also argue that diversity and inclusion aren’t just hot-button topics right now—something almost every company is looking to get better at for the sake of their reputation and the retention of their best talent. They’re also topics most everyone cares about and wishes were more prominent in the workplace.

“Psychological safety is the responsibility of everyone, not just managers, not just individual contributors... You don’t have to be an ‘other’ or an underrepresented minority group to understand the importance of [it],” says Melissa Obleada, the Diversity and Inclusion Program Manager at HubSpot who’s been a part of launching their People of Color at HubSpot (POCAH) and LGBTQ+ Alliance groups. “The more an organization can make it clear to everyone that they’re open to respectful dialogue, the easier it is for everybody to succeed and do their best work.”

The Guide How Do You Start an Affinity Group at Work?

While there are plenty of reasons why companies should promote affinity groups in the office, it doesn’t necessarily mean every company actually has them or has considered starting them.

If you’d like to launch one—whether because you’re looking to mingle with like-minded individuals, create positive change in your organization, or support a specific group of individuals in the workplace—you’ve come to the right place. I spoke to several people who’ve done it at various organizations for advice for successfully getting your group off the ground.

1. Have a Goal in Mind

Every big initiative starts with an idea. Maybe you’re looking to increase how many women engineers or people of color your company hires, to bring in more diverse skill sets and voices. Maybe you’re a part of the LGBTQ community and want to create a safe space for employees to talk about their experiences. Or maybe you’re fresh out of the military and looking to connect with other veterans to learn how to adjust back into the civilian workforce.

These missions and many others are at the core of what makes affinity groups successful. You need to know what your goal is, and you have to be super clear about it. And you also have to have a clear vision of what achieving that goal looks like.

Why? For one thing, this helps to define the rest of the steps you’ll take—who you include in the process, how you lay out your meetings, and what you take away from the experience. But it also gives you a leg up in getting your company leadership on board with your idea. Just like you can’t walk into your boss’ office and ask for funding for a project you haven’t laid a plan for, you can’t expect to gain the support of your company without first deciding what the point of your group is (and how it’ll benefit them, too—but more on that later).

2. Find Your Allies

You certainly don’t have to go it alone when starting an affinity group—and getting some help may relieve some of the stress of building something from scratch and help you get some fiscal and emotional support from the rest of the organization.

Your allies may consist of people who’re interested in co-founding the group with you. Or executive or senior mentors who are willing to sponsor you, set some ground rules, and advocate on your behalf to leadership. Or someone in human resources, your head of talent and culture, or a diversity and inclusion officer who’d be excited to partner with you. It doesn’t have to be a ton of people—even having one or two people on your side can instantly boost your credibility.

Calder really reaped the benefits of having a senior person in her corner when starting the Lean In Circle. “She took care of everything,” she says, mentioning that her colleague made the dinner reservations, sent out the invites, facilitated discussions, and paid for the meals. “And as we got support from the organization more broadly…the organization reimbursed her for the cost of the dinners.”

Tickle adds that your allies can also be people outside your company: “When an organization sets up a dyslexia network, sometimes it’s really powerful for them to bring in somebody from a different company’s dyslexia network to talk about what they’ve done and how that’s been beneficial to give people a feel for how it works in other organizations.”

Obleada emphasizes that it’s important to find people who feel similarly to you, and to make sure that when you start your ERG, “they’ll be your allies and support you in that. They’ll show up to meetings, they’ll bring people to those meetings, they’ll be your hype people.” These shouldn’t be people who are kinda-sorta on board—they should be ready to chip in when needed and stick it out for the long haul. More importantly, they should be sold on your goal and willing to advocate for you and the group when others question your decisions.

3. Make Your Case

If your team is thrilled by the idea of you starting an affinity group, that’s great! Hopefully the next few steps will be pretty painless.

But sometimes you face resistance, either from fellow employees, leadership, or the greater organization.

“When we were announcing these ERGs, particularly People of Color at HubSpot…there were absolutely people who pushed back and didn’t quite understand the need for it. And surprisingly it came from people from both sides—people who were people of color as well as people who weren’t,” says Obleada.

You need the buy-in of your company. Obviously, because you can’t start one without them. But for other reasons, too: They’ll be the ones giving you funding, helping you grow and promote the group, and, oh yeah, the ones attending it! You can’t have a group without members, right?

This means having a clear sell as to why this group will be beneficial for the business and for the company’s culture.

The stats above about how ERGs contribute to employee engagement and retention might help. And you can point to countless research (like this and this) that shows that diverse companies outperform less diverse companies.

If there’s a business performance target it can be tied into, says Tickle, that’s an easy way to convince your employer that this isn’t just a side project—it’s directly related to your day job. He explains that his dyslexia group has helped coach tons of people within his organization on assistive technology, which both helps him and other affinity group members build their communication skills and increases productivity across departments.

Affinity groups can even help your bottom line. Obleada noticed that customers would see HubSpot’s LGBTQ initiatives on social media and write in to say how impressed and appreciative they were that a brand they partnered with supported this community. Having that brand recognition can be huge for retaining and upselling valuable clients.

By having as many different views around the table as possible, you’re likely to be more innovative, [and] you’re likely to build a product that is relatable to the market.

Mayokun “Mac” Alonge

Mayokun “Mac” Alonge, who’s the CEO of The Equal Group, an organization dedicated to supporting companies in their diversity and inclusion efforts, adds that diversity of thought is a powerful business strategy. “By having as many different views around the table as possible, you’re likely to be more innovative, [and] you’re likely to build a product that is relatable to the market,” he says. Affinity groups can help build and nurture this.

And sometimes your sell can be as simple as saying that there’s not much to lose in giving it a shot. Adds Tickle: “Quite often these things are really low cost to it can almost be pitched as a ‘even if the return is small, the actual investment is small.’”

Basically, says Calder, “You want to make it easy for your organization to say ‘yes.’”

4. Work With the Resources You Have

When you’re starting out, you’ll most likely need to work with what you have in front of you.

That may mean meeting outside the office (or in a conference room after hours) and chipping in on a meal, like in Calder’s case; or having employees bring in food and supplies potluck-style; or getting volunteers and donors to help you launch that first or second event. Tickle, for example, explains that for the first couple external speakers he brought in, he managed to get them to come without paying them. Once he was able to prove that these engagements were getting a good amount of attendance, he argued his case for his organization to pay to fly in speakers from farther away.

Especially when you work at a scrappier company like a startup, it helps to start small and be financially savvy. You’ll impress your employer with your initiative, and when your efforts pay off, you’ll further build your case for deserving more funding, resources, and in-office time down the line.

5. Outline What Your Meetings Will Look Like

You probably don’t want to have too much structure to your meetings, since you’ll want to allow for diversity of thought and conversation, but it does help to create a general outline of what your regular meetings might look and feel like to stay on track with your goals (and not to waste anyone’s time).

First, suggests Alonge, “Look into what other people within your industry are doing...what has worked well in different industries, what has worked well in different contexts, and see what parts of that you can apply to your context and your situation.” Maybe you leverage your friends and past colleagues by asking how their companies run affinity groups, or maybe you reach out to other founders or diversity and inclusion specialists on social media to understand how you can best launch your own community. Or maybe you take a page out of Calder’s book and use preexisting guides—like Lean In—to inform your structure.

Look into what other people within your industry are doing...what has worked well in different industries, what has worked well in different contexts, and see what parts of that you can apply to your context and your situation.

Mayokun “Mac” Alonge

Then, create an agenda. For People of Color at HubSpot, for example, “we try to have it be a mix of educational, informative, and social,” says Obleada. When they meet monthly, they start with updates and then bring a guest speaker or two in to give a presentation on anything from integrating diversity efforts into Greenhouse to making internal transfers more accessible for certain employees.

But they’ll also leave room for networking and connecting one-on-one. “We always have people introducing themselves to one another for the first couple minutes of the meeting.” she says.

Tickle adds that the hardest part isn’t getting an affinity group started—it’s keeping things going into a third, fourth, fifth meeting. “If there are some quick wins that the group can achieve, to talk about, to show that it is generating momentum,” he says, you’ll instantly maintain that enthusiasm and motivation. So make sure that with each schedule you outline for your meetings you’re also considering the takeaways and “mini-goals” you want to accomplish over the course of your time together.

6. Assign Roles

Just as you want some structure to your meetings, it’s also crucial to discuss who’s going to own what in terms of keeping the group surviving and thriving.

Maybe, suggests Tickle, you hold an election for certain positions within the group where people rotate out every few months. Or if you’re keeping things small and more casual, you simply direct someone to be the “discussions facilitator.” This person can ensure that everyone’s voice is heard in equal measure, that remote individuals aren’t being excluded, and that the conversation stays on topic and on time.

7. Don’t Forget to Be Remote-Inclusive

Remote teams are becoming more and more the norm—and if you’re looking to create more of a community around your affinity group, it’s smart to consider how you’ll incorporate your distant colleagues into the mix.

Things you’ll need to consider include what technology you’ll need to bring them into the conversation, how you’ll lay out meetings or events so that anyone on any time zone can benefit from them, and what roles remote employees can play in spreading the word and supporting the cause state- or world-wide.

At HubSpot, Obleada’s team utilizes online chat to carry out conversations around articles, breaking news, or experiences between remote folks. Each affinity group they have has their own Slack channel, so no matter “where you are or what time zone you’re in, you have the ability to contribute to that conversation in real time or scroll back and see things you missed when you wake up in the morning,” she says.

In actual meetings, they’ll assign someone the role as moderator for the remote team, making sure any questions they have are answered and they’re able to easily video conference in. And, she adds, “when I open up all my meetings, I say, ‘Thanks for coming, whether you’re in this space right now or watching from Zoom,’ and I wave at the camera.”

8. Understand What You Can (and Can’t) Do in the Workplace

One major hurdle Obleada had to overcome as she worked with her team to launch People of Color at HubSpot and the LGBTQ+ Alliance was understanding the limitations associated with affinity groups.

“My intern that summer when we formed POCAH [came] in with the attitude that you needed to dismantle the systems that oppress you,” she says. “And something we had a chat about was that when you’re working at a public, for-profit company, you need to actually work within the systems to make them better, and you can’t dismantle the systems because those are the systems that pay you, help your livelihood, employ you.”

When you’re working at a public, for-profit company, you need to actually work within the systems to make them better, and you can’t dismantle the systems because those are the systems that pay you, help your livelihood, employ you.

Melissa Obleada

Yes, part of your goal of starting an affinity group may be to challenge the status quo—to encourage your company to change some of the traditions, strategies, or beliefs that may be holding its employees back from being their most successful selves. That said, it’s important to remember that this is still your place of work—and so there are rules as to what is and isn’t appropriate.

Obleada, for example, highlights that there’s a huge difference between professional activism and college activism. So for people who may be coming from organizations or environments that allowed for more freedom of expression, it may be difficult to organize and advocate for certain things under the constraints of a larger corporation.

The key is to understand your context. Most importantly, be respectful, think constructively rather than reactively, and focus on what you can control. In other words, don’t just come to meetings yelling about company policies, but rather brainstorm solutions and communicate them professionally. If you find that there’s not enough room for you to express yourself or make a difference, consider whether you’d be better off working for a company that cares more about the things you’re looking to change.

And remember that work isn’t the only place where you can make an impact—you can volunteer, join local organizations, vote, donate, get involved in conversations, and do plenty of other things off the clock to advocate for better workplaces here and elsewhere.

9. Think Constructively and Holistically

Affinity groups aren’t just about benefiting the people directly involved, although that’s a large chunk of it. A really successful affinity group considers how their work can benefit everyone in the organization, make their company a better place to work for future employees, and boost the company’s direction and success.

Calder, for example, explains that while Lean In Circles are very focused on the success of women leaders, “ultimately the success and development of women leaders supports the success and development of all leaders, and the overall success of the organization and the outcomes of our patients and our communities that we serve.”

And affinity groups aren’t simply a place to vent about your problems—they can be solutions-driven groups that focus on how people’s experiences, opinions, and concerns can be learned from, built upon, and improved.

For example, when someone shares a shocking story about something that happened to them at work, explains Calder, you want to validate the emotions and thoughts they might be having, but you also want to channel it into something constructive. How can this be prevented going forward? How can other people be better allies in a situation like this? What systemic change can be made to avoid these kinds of issues popping up? What would that change look like?

Overall, an affinity group “needs to be something that is meaningful to the participants of course, but is also meaningful to the organization. So how do you keep it constructive is something you constantly have to ask yourself,” Calder says.

10. Provide Internal and External Updates

The best way to ensure your affinity group continues to gain momentum and support? Provide the rest of your organization with updates on your progress, initiatives you’re running, events you’re planning, resources you recommend, and other things you might be discussing or thinking about as a group—whether through a monthly newsletter, a Slack channel, or a presentation at your next company-wide meeting.

Not only is this a great way to get other people involved or excited about your work, it keeps your senior sponsor and other leadership invested in your success because it gives them tangible positive outcomes they can see and refer to.

Other benefits of spreading the word about your affinity group? If your HR team catches wind of your activities and advertises them to potential candidates, it can attract the right kind of talent and positive publicity to your organization. And if clients hear about it, like in Obleada’s case, you can benefit from a boost to your brand.

The biggest thing that leadership is going to look to is engagement because they can’t ignore something that a lot of people are involved in.

Melissa Obleada

“The biggest thing that leadership is going to look to is engagement because they can’t ignore something that a lot of people are involved in, and it also lends your ERG a ton of credibility,” states Obleada.

11. Be Patient

Getting an affinity group off the ground takes time, energy, and a lot of trial and error—and even when it’s up and running you’ll face challenges in growing, creating new initiatives, and getting support. So be patient.

“You’re never going to flip a switch and have things be perfect right away,” says Obleada, and you shouldn’t expect change to happen overnight. Ultimately, she says, “you’re playing a long game.”

As Calder wisely puts it, “you don’t want to try to boil the ocean.” Rather, take steps that are manageable for everyone. Be intentional about who you engage and include in your group, and get a lot of feedback early on. Run experiments and reiterate. Focus on the things that help you reach your goal. Celebrate the small wins rather than getting frustrated by your lack of progress.

If you believe in what your affinity group stands for, it’ll be worth the work, and you’ll look back a year, two years, three years later and know you made a positive impact. It certainly worked for these people.