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The Pros, Pitfalls, and Process of Establishing Affinity Groups in the Workplace

The terms may change, but whether called Affinity groups, Employee Resource Groups, Special Interest Groups, or Cultural Equity Groups, more and more companies today are creating intentional spaces for historically marginalized groups to raise their voices, support one another, and produce meaningful recommendations and change in their organizations.These groups are typically voluntary, employee-led groups that help to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace culture aligned with the organizations they serve. They help to create clearer channels of feedback, more engaged employees, and greater appeal to new hires. However, these groups also come with added challenges to navigate. When businesses are trying to establish these spaces, they must consider:

  • What is the purpose of these groups?

  • How will the organization support these groups?

  • What is the process that employees will go through to create a group?

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A Group By Any Other Name

Many of these terms are used synonymously, but they do have slightly different intentions in their design. Organizations should ask themselves what their purpose is in creating space for employees to meet and why.

Affinity Groups are employee groups with shared social identities or life experiences. These in many ways were the first model of interest groups. They are generally initiated by employees and often involve protected classes, such as sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, national origin, disability, and veteran status. Examples include female, LGBTQIA+, or BIPOC groups. Affinity groups tend to be less regulated and primarily include mentoring, solidarity, and socialization.

Special Interest Groups (SIGs) are designed more around shared goals, causes, or concerns, but can also include passions and broader more generalized interests. Though identity groups would be covered in this term, it is harder to narrow down what constitutes an interest group so they may also include topics like environmental action, working parents, or community service.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) exist to provide support and help in personal or career development for specific groups and to create a safe space where employees can bring their whole selves to the table. Allies may also be invited to join the ERG to to support their colleagues. They often have explicit goals tied to company priorities and values that exist across all groups.

Cultural Equity Groups (CEGs) are the newest groups emerging, and the main distinction is that these have a specific calling to identify and address equity issues in the company and create action plans to propose to leadership. These are also more likely to be funded and have direct ties to decision-making.


Why They Matter

These types of groups can provide numerous benefits to employees and employers. When you are preparing a statement (or trying to convince senior leadership of the need), these can be helpful points to bring out.

  • In one study, 90% of companies interviewed said their Employee Resource Groups helped new employees to get comfortable during the onboarding process.

  • In the same study they found 70% used these groups to improve their diversity hiring goals. Millenials and Gen Zers in particular (soon to be the majority of the workforce) are more likely to seek opportunities to engage with groups like these in the workplace.

  • 90% of the top Fortune 100 firms mentioned affinity groups on their websites, with the vast majority representing protected classes.

  • These groups can make real impactful change on company environment/accessibility, and policies if given leadership support.

  • They can help build the skills of emerging leaders and increase pathways for promotion and development in the organization.

Your organization may already be bought in, or you may need to spend some time discussing the advantages of having groups. It is important to note that simply having these opportunities does not guarantee results. If you want to see the benefits of this work, you have to carefully consider the following elements.


Considerations When Establishing Groups

It can be confusing to figure out how to start and structure groups to be impactful and effective in your work environment. When starting this process, we suggest:

  1. Clear vision and commitment from leadership. Explain why you are interested in creating these types of groups and what you hope to accomplish with them. Leaders are not (and should not be) responsible for deciding which groups will form, but they should be clear about how they intend to support groups when they emerge.

  2. Time, Energy, and Resources. These groups have tremendous potential, but much of that depends on how you structure them. Affinity groups aren’t a one way street. Individuals put in a lot of energy and effort into these groups, and increasingly, there is discussion about how orgs can better support these groups and the individual. The idea of these groups as free labor benefitting the company is a contentious one, and so discussions of additional compensation are becoming more prevalent. Especially since many groups represent marginalized (and often minority) identities, putting an extra burden on staff with no extra pay can actually be a regressive policy.

  • Will you pay employees for their time in these groups? How will that change for hourly vs. salaried staff, or across different shifts? Does participation need to be run by a supervisor?

  • How much time is expected to be spent in these groups?

  • Does each group have a budget? Can they determine how to spend it and are there any parameters on that?

  • Use of space, materials, and other property of your organization. What are you willing to provide?

  • Is there a limit to how many of these groups an individual can join?

  • What are the expected outcomes or accomplishments of these groups (if any)? Are they to present a report, deliver a training, produce suggestions?

  • What kind of oversight is intended? Are meetings open or closed? Do they have to submit agendas or notes? Is there an expectation that leadership participate in some capacity?

3. Clear Process. As we outline in the next section, make sure it is fair and equitable by establishing clear, transparent, and open communication to all employees in your organization how they can start or join these groups.

Some tricky legal considerations:

1. Focusing on a particular demographic does not mean a group can discriminate in accepting members (this is not always obvious to affinity groups). This is due to discrimination laws. Ex: you cannot expressly prohibit a white individual from joining a BIPOC affinity group- though the goal of that group can still be to help promote and strengthen BIPOC members.

2. In terms of what can or can’t be an official group, it can help to name a few guidelines in advance, like prohibiting groups formed for the purpose of promoting or advancing political, religious, or legislative positions, prohibiting hate speech, or requiring that groups demonstrate they address a specific cause, concern, or need within the organization.


Getting Started

Ok, now that you’ve outlined the big picture, what is the actual process you want an employee to go through to start a group?

  1. Demonstrated interest — Have employees with an idea get the signatures of a minimum number of employees who want to join the group. You can scale up or down based on your org size. This helps to build energy, develop networking skills, and ensure that there is enough interest to warrant the time and energy.

  2. Stated goal — Ask those interested in starting a group to identify: why this group? What common experience/interest do they share? What do they hope to accomplish?

  3. Roles & responsibilities — it’s important to set some basic contact points and clarity right from the beginning. This does not have to follow a traditional hierarchy (president, VP, secretary, etc), but it should outline how they plan to share responsibilities. A distributive power model that is task based can actually be more effective than hierarchy because the responsibilities are shared across individuals and no one person is leading any group.

A few examples of policies include:

Other Resources:


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