I am a queer, Mexican, Native American, and caucasian woman. I have been told I will lose my job for talking about my girlfriend at work. I have been ridiculed by customers and coworkers alike because of my race. And there have been times when I have needed a safe space at work but had nowhere to turn.
And while I’ve never felt that way at Trainual, I know that the world still feels unsafe to many people for those same reasons. So, in 2020, I took a huge step toward bolstering our company’s inclusion efforts. I made safe spaces a priority. And I built our affinity group program.
What is an affinity group?
Affinity groups are less formal employee resource groups (ERGs). Meaning, they provide a safe space for fellow employees to connect over the shared aspects of their identity and get the support they need.
These groups can be formed around any common connection or interest. But they’re typically geared toward groups who are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace because of their gender identity, sexual identities, or racial affinity – just to name a few.
For example, here at Trainual, we currently have 6 affinity groups:
- She Se Puede for our company’s Latina Ladies
- Rainbow Collective for our LGBTQ+ team members
- Arc for anyone on our team with a disability
- Trainual Beyond Borders for Trainual folks born or raised outside of the US
- Family Matters for our coworkers who are parents
- Ladies of Trainual for all our teammates who identify as a woman
And we host each of our affinity spaces in their own private Slack channels. This breaks down barriers and formalities that might keep team members from showing their authentic selves. And allows us to shuck the rigidity of emails and scheduling calls.
That’s because our team can share candid moments with each other in real-time – gifs, videos, pictures, stories, jokes, and all. So, we can celebrate, uplift, and support each other as needed.
As a result, we’ve built an incredibly strong community here at Trainual. Because no matter what is going on in our teams’ lives, they have people who can empathize with their experiences. And no one on our team is left looking around with no one to turn to.
But we’re not surprised by these results! Employees with a strong sense of belonging outperform peers without this sense of belonging by 56%, per BetterUp. Plus, they take 75% fewer sick days and 50% less likely to turnover.
And affinity groups provide that sense of belonging. Because they give team members a place where they can finally be themselves. No need to worry about code-switching (AKA adjusting how you talk, look, behave, or express yourself so that you’re treated fairly).
How affinity groups differ from ERGs
Employee resources groups provide the same safe space and sense of belonging as affinity groups but require more dedicated resources. For example, to run an official ERG, you need:
- Financial resources. The amount of money depends greatly on the resources available in your organization. Historically, this range anywhere between $100 and $50,000!
- A paid group leader. Meaning, you have at least one employee who is financially incentivized to perform this role. It is generally in addition to their normal salary and paid hourly.
- Structured meetings. The kind where someone takes minutes and the group meets on resource allocation (especially financial ones) and events. Usually, these meetings happen monthly.
- Events (internal or company-wide). Such as guest speakers on educational topics like racism and sexism, cultural celebrations such as Midsommar, or “lunch and learns” on different cultures or life experiences!
Because of this, you’ll generally find ERGs at larger companies and affinity groups at small businesses with limited resources. That’s because an affinity group has all the trappings of an ERG. But they don’t need to hold formal meetings, host events, or manage a budget. So, it doesn’t eat up as much time or money.
Instead, affinity programs strip down their initiatives and focus solely on the groups’ intention: connection.
Even without a budget or big meetings, just having spaces where the people around you have shared life experiences is a powerful thing. In lots of ways, it can feel like breathing after holding your breath for a long time.
And these groups don’t have to cost your company a thing (so there’s really no excuse not to have them)!
Affinity group vs. ERG – which is right for you?
There is no one path for your company’s inclusion initiatives. So, if you’re at a point where you can put aside thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours a quarter to really invest in it, great! Building ERGs might be the path for you.
But if you’re a smaller company, have limited resources, or just aren’t sure about all this, affinity groups are an equally great place to start. You can always dedicate more resources toward it later on and grow it into a full-blown ERG program!
How to build your affinity program
Let’s get this out of the way first: you don’t need any fancy bells or whistles to build your affinity program. If you provide a space for employees to take off their metaphorical masks and share their experiences – good and bad – you’ve succeeded.
Okay – let’s dive into how exactly you can build affinity groups that help your company thrive:
Step 1: Get buy-in from your leadership team
Spoiler – but buy-in from your leadership team is the first step for every DEI initiative. If it doesn’t come from the top-down, ultimately, it won’t work!
So, when you pitch your plan to build affinity groups, stick to the facts. Per BetterUp, affinity groups lead to (I repeat):
- 56% better employee performance
- Improved mental health, which translates to 75% fewer sick days
- More than a 50% reduction in turnover
Why? Because employees will finally have a safe space to express themselves. So, they’ll finally feel like they belong at the workplace.
Plus, affinity groups don’t need to cost your company anything to get started. And they require minimal time and effort to maintain.
When you pose your pitch like this, I dare you to name one business leader that wouldn’t be hyped about the initiative. And that’s the trick for securing buy-in: get your leadership team as excited about this plan as you are!
🔥 Tip: One way to prove that your leadership team is all-in on your DEI efforts is to have a robust Diversity & Inclusion Policy in place. And you can use our free fill-in-the-blank template to create one in minutes! Grab the free template.
Step 2: Determine what your team needs
With your leaders on board, it’s time to figure out what your team needs!
For me, at least, this wasn’t the easiest task. Because you don’t want to assume aspects of your coworker’s identities – that can be insulting. So, I decided to start with my own experience.
Here at Trainual, our first affinity group (which is still thriving – I might add) was the group for all the Latina ladies on our team. I started reaching out to the fellow Trainual women who’d mentioned their Hispanic slash Latin heritage with me. Then, everyone who said they were interested, I added to a private Slack channel.
When I got through that list, I opened it up to the larger team. I sent out a company-wide Slack message, inviting everyone that identifies as a woman with the same heritage to participate.
It’s super important that your team chooses which groups they join and which ones they don’t. But, admittedly, this can take some self-identification that not everyone will be comfortable with.
So, when someone doesn’t want to join certain affinity groups – no worries. Just let them know what groups are available, in case they ever change their mind.
But I knew that not all of my teammates had experiences that mirrored mine. So, I also invited my teammates to come to me with a community they wanted in the workplace. We would make it official by announcing it to the team and appointing a leader. And that’s how our other 5 affinity groups came to be!
Step 3: Empower your people to own their group
Ultimately, these groups are for your team, by your team – you’re just getting them going. But I will admit that making your affinity members feel ownership of their group isn’t always easy. Luckily, there are a few strategic ways you can go about it, like having the members in the group name their space.
For example, our Latina women’s group voted on the name She Se Puede. By including everyone in that decision, we landed on a name we’re all obsessed with. And just hearing the name gives us that sense of connection and belonging.
Another way to empower ownership is to let your group run itself (as opposed to your HR team). While this might seem like a disaster waiting to happen, most people have been waiting for a space to share their authentic selves. So, they’ll gladly take advantage. But if it comes from a team that feels regulatory (like your People Ops or HR team), it won’t feel like they can do that.
So, I asked our Office Manager, Ariana Morales, to step in and lead She Se Puede. That way, I could step back into more of a contributor role. And no one felt like I had the final say just because I launched the initiative or because I’m from our People Ops team.
One great thing about affinity spaces is that anyone passionate about bringing the group together can lead it. No matter what their department or leadership experience is.
For example, I run our LGBTQ+ group. Our VP of Engineering, Arash Tadayon, runs the one for team members born or raised outside the US. And our Ladies of Trainual group is co-led by Success Coach Rachel Richardson and Marketing Ops Manager Becky Winter. So, it really is a team effort to keep this program going!
Step 4: Give these groups some structure
Now, back to groups leading themselves and the whole “disaster waiting to happen” thing. You’re right – but only if the program or groups don’t have a clear structure.
Think of it this way – if you give someone space to do something with no boundaries, where do they even start? It’s like delegating a task by saying, “do this task my way” – without further explanation or expectations. How do I do the task? How am I supposed to do the task?
So, here at Trainual, we give our affinity groups structure by documenting:
- All the groups are available and who each one is for
- Who leads each group and a bit about their experiences as they relate to the group
- What we expect from all our affinity group members so we can preserve this safe space
- What we expect from leaders, plus tips to help them cultivate this safe space
We use (you’ll never guess) Trainual for this. That way, we can assign this subject to each new employee along with their other onboarding materials.
And we know that they’ve gone through it if they join a group! Because inside the subject, it breaks down how to join a group. And then we make it as simple as reaching out to the group leader directly – no questions asked.
In the group, the group leaders decide on their structure – and how to implement it. So, for the one I lead (the LGBTQ+ group), my first Slack in the channel set those expectations. And I pinned it to the top so anyone who joins will see it.
Here’s how I structured my group:
- Anyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ can join
- No one has to label themselves
- Keep group members’ identities anonymous
- Every conversation is fair game
🔥 Tip: When things change within your affinity groups, you can easily have your group leaders update your documentation in Trainual. And then, notify your team that a new change is made with a click of a button. That way, everyone is up to speed with how your affinity groups work! Try for free.
Step 5: Let groups run themselves
I know I’ve said that like 10 times already, but that’s what allows your affinity groups to thrive: letting them run themselves.
Meaning, these groups can be as active as they want. They can do things with just their members or open it up to the whole team. They can discuss only the shared aspect of their identities or anything under the sun. All that matters is that this space is safe and provides these team members what they need.
For example, She Se Puede hosts a Día de los Muertos celebration for the entire team. This celebration included a traditional Day of the Dead party. Plus, educational videos where group members shared a bit about their heritage.
Meanwhile, Arc prefers to share ideas about how Trainual can best support employees with visible and invisible disabilities. Because there is so much stigma and misunderstanding about disabilities, the group feels more comfortable keeping these conversations private.
While you don’t have to provide groups a budget, we like to have a small budget available. That way, teams can really own how they share their experiences (like Rainbow Collective sending everyone a free pride t-shirt every June).
If you set aside a small budget for your affinity groups, set clear objectives and outcomes for how proposals get approved. (Shocker: but we also put this in the affinity group documentation.)
Then, appoint a DEI council made up of all your affinity group leaders. That’s where you’ll ask for part of the budget. If it gets a yes from the council, the proposal then moves on to our finance team for final approval.
But you can also use this council to brainstorm ideas to improve your groups and chat through any challenges within these groups. After all, these group leaders are all human, so they won’t always have the right answers. This council gives them an opportunity to talk through challenges and, with help, figure out a good course of action.
Likewise, groups can keep their events totally free by keeping them in the channel or office. That way, they don’t need to go to the council. For example, Trainual Without Borders shares pictures and stories of cultural celebrations that most of our team might not be familiar with the larger free.
However, your affinity groups chose to celebrate and connect, what’s important is that your team knows they have a place at your company. One that recognizes who they are and that their experiences might be different. But still invites them to share everything that makes them who they are.