Avoid the Affinity Group Danger Zone

Employers of all sizes have generously supported so-called affinity groups for years as a natural extension of workplace diversity, culture, and inclusion efforts. Also known as networking, advocacy, diversity, focus or support groups, it’s estimated that nearly 90% of Fortune 500 companies have them.

Their aim was, innocently enough, to facilitate networking and common interest among various groups of employees, such as veterans, new employees, singles, etc. Now, however, more employers are realizing more clearly the risks vs. benefits of supporting these groups. Here’s why:

Affinity groups can create two primary legal risks: interference with labor organizations and potential employment discrimination, notes Eric V. Hall, partner with the law firm of Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP. Here’s how:

  • Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), some employment attorneys warn, an employer that encourages or sponsors affinity groups might be seen as “dominating” or “interfering” with a labor organization, which under the law is defined broadly to include virtually any type of group that “deals with” the employer concerning wages, hours, and working conditions. This applies to union and nonunion employers.
  • As you know, antidiscrimination laws forbid bias based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Because some affinity groups tend to be organized around such protected classifications, there’s a risk that company decisions regarding affinity groups could be perceived as having a discriminatory intent.

Before your company rolls out the red carpet for all affinity groups, keep these six bits of guidance in mind:

Formalize it. In the rush to encourage such groups as an employee-relations tactic, workplace attorneys say, too many employers allow the groups to informally launch, flourish, and grow virtually unchecked. It’s best to devise a written policy that requires employees to “apply” for affinity-group status and outlines company policies and protections (see the following points for specifics).

Dodge NLRA entanglements. State clearly that affinity groups do not “deal with” the employer with respect to the terms and conditions of employment.

Avoid the gripe-session potential. While employees have the legal right under the NLRA to come together to discuss issues regarding their wages, hours, and working conditions, there’s reason for concern if affinity-group meetings turn into bash sessions against the company. Make clear in your guidelines that employee complaints are to be brought forward through normal company channels.

Be consistent. The buck can stop with you. As the employer, you can call the shots when it comes to approving or nixing a particular group—as long as your policy is consistent. A landmark case in point: When a General Motors (GM) employee’s application to start an affinity group called the “GM Christian Employee Network” was denied, he sued under Title VII, claiming that GM’s policy of prohibiting affinity groups that advocated religious or political positions was discriminatory. A federal appeals court sided with the company, saying that because GM treated all religious affinity groups the same—by banning them—there was no disparate treatment. (Moranski v. General Motors Corp., No. 433 F.3d 537, CA7, 2006).

Decide on the scope of support—and ensure equality. If you plan to allow employee groups to use company facilities, meeting space, equipment, or other resources, spell out your commitment and its limits, and give access to the same resources for every group.

Consider your workforce. To really decide whether the employee-relations benefits of allowing such groups outweigh the risks, examine your workforce and future recruiting and retention goals. Ask these questions:

  • How diverse is your current employee population?
  • Is it a company goal to increase diversity and appeal to a wider pool of candidates?
  • Could such groups aid your firm as a business-development tool?
  • Have employees approached you about the idea?
  • Are other groups or mechanisms already in place that provide these services?

Above all, your aim should be to strive for organizational belonging—not individual differences.