If you really want a diverse workplace, you have to build safe spaces

Removing affinity programs will not help diversity.
Removing affinity programs will not help diversity.
Image: REUTERS/Nicky Loh
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This summer, the financial services firm Deloitte announced that it would be ending its groups for women, minorities, and LGBT employees, replacing them with “inclusion councils” composed of individuals from a range of demographic groups, including white men.

Although the decision and others like it have been communicated as ways to increase inclusion, it’s hard to imagine they will be successful. At their core, diversity and inclusion efforts should acknowledge and support employee identity in the workplace. It doesn’t seem likely that the elimination of spaces that allow employees to feel safe and supported in their identities will do anything to increase inclusion.

The way to recruit, retain, and develop diverse staff is not to get rid of resource/affinity groups—or eliminate top diversity positions, as companies such as Deutsche have done—but to reimagine business resource groups to allow for  intersectionality.

The benefits of affinity groups

Business resource groups (BRGs) or affinity groups were created in the 60s as a tool to address racial tensions in the workplace.

Employees join these groups to feel present and comfortable being themselves in work environments that often strip individuality from what is deemed as “professional.”  Research shows that they “safe spaces for innovation”, and best practices in adult learning consistently identify the need for safe environments that allow employees to raise and navigate issues they may not feel comfortable exploring in general spaces.

Today, sexual orientation, race, class, nationality and other forms of identity has been increasingly embraced as a fluid spectrum. When combined with work place identities like tenure and function —companies are presented with an opportunity to redefine diversity and inclusion around the notion of intersectionality, which has gained growing recognition in research and popular culture.

How to include leaders without diluting diversity and inclusion efforts

In their justification for eliminating business resource groups, corporate leaders at Deloitte suggested a need to include their executives and senior leaders, who are predominantly white and male, in efforts to increase diversity and inclusion. This is important, as it suggests that the groups may have never been established for success to begin with. These leaders should have already been integrated into the operations of these groups at some level, and corporations are only limited by their creativity to do so. Executives and senior leaders could be integrated into critical roles in BRGs, by helping to provide insight into business strategy and priority, serving as coaches on group projects, being receptive to anonymous feedback and sharing a bit of their personal journey as others are trying to figure path.

A modern approach

Racial tensions may have been the impetus for the first business resource groups, but race is too narrow a prism to fully encompass diversity. Employees who identify as black and gay and veteran, for instance, may not be able to speak about their concerns or share ideas in a group that excludes any one of these identities, let alone feel safe in offering their unique perspective towards business challenges.

This intersectionality can create opportunities for employers, but it requires a different approach: cross-functional, meaningful opportunities for employees to engage in problem-solving that acknowledges the multiple identities they hold.

A new framework should consider factors such as how long employees have been at the company and what type of job they have in addition to their identity when creating distinct spaces for engagement. These spaces it creates should also be diverse, like opportunities to meet with senior leaders, invitations to solve business problems, or access to an anonymous platform through which to report identity-related issues.

These groups could be layered based on the identities employees select through surveys and other data provided. BRGs organized by race could also provide pre-identified spaces to explore other identities within their racial groups such as immigrants or mothers—and may partner with other BRGs to explore them together. Imagine if two BRGs partnered to offer small group work sessions for employees of a certain tenure of work function? These structures could be much more dynamic and responsive to the real needs employees face along the spectrum of their identity.

Employers would also benefit from the creation of such spaces. A business resource group for newly-hired people of color, for instance, might teach the employer a great deal about how to recruit and retain these employees and simultaneously offer them opportunities for mentoring and support. Companies could pose challenges—like how to increase diversity and inclusion, for instances—to these groups. Or businesses could offer an annual opportunity for members across different business resource groups to pose a challenge to senior leaders. Business resource groups could help identify developmental areas for the business, thereby framing the problem in their unique perspective, one that might not be apparent to senior leadership who may be overwhelmingly white and male.

Celebrating employee identity and creating workplace community is critical in an increasingly polarized America. Eliminating what can sometimes represent the only safe space for employees to be themselves does not seem a promising solution. I hope that as businesses navigate the next generation of BRGs, they consider what makes their companies shine—employees who feel safe and comfortable showing up as their complete versions of themselves.