Advancing your career has a few established tactics, including networking, skills building, and finding mentors. Now there’s another tactic: joining affinity groups.
Affinity groups are groups employees with a shared background or experience. For instance, an affinity group may be organized around race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Also known as employee or business resource groups, affinity groups represent diverse, under-represented interests in an organization.
Affinity groups are not cliques or exclusive clubs; they’re immensely useful in your career and your community. Here are six ways that joining affinity groups can send your career and professional reputation soaring, and uplift those around you.
1. Foster meaningful relationships with coworkers
We all know that networking is crucial to advancing your development goals. But networking events tend to be one-offs, and depending on your industry or company, they may be few and far between. Affinity groups gather regularly, and these frequent interactions allow you to forge deeper connections with colleagues from different teams and departments—people you wouldn’t typically encounter during your daily job duties. Your new connections can alert you to upcoming job openings or other opportunities. Through an affinity group, you may end up finding your next mentor or your future manager.
2. Build new skills (and enhance confidence)
Affinity group membership can help you develop (and showcase) expertise, especially leadership and communication skills. Say you get nervous during big presentations at work or have a hard time articulating thoughts and ideas among new people. Joining an affinity group grants you the opportunity to practice public speaking and conversation skills in a safe, relatively low-stakes environment. You may also have the chance to head up affinity group projects or initiatives, which could help position you for leadership and people management roles down the line.
3. Learn to listen better
The best colleagues and most effective managers know how to listen well. Good listeners have the capacity to respect and appreciate diverse perspectives and find common ground. Participating in a range of affinity groups can help you sharpen your listening skills. Remember, you aren’t obligated to join only groups whose members look or live like you. Affinity groups are open to everyone. In fact, it’s smart to sign up for groups in which you don’t have a direct affinity so you can listen, learn firsthand what issues your coworkers are facing, and serve as an ally. By gaining exposure to your colleagues’ unique experiences, you’ll develop a richer, more nuanced world-view, which can serve you in the workplace and beyond.
4. Influence product development
At Ferrara, where I work, we’ve transitioned our affinity groups to business resource groups to align our culture and business initiatives. Groups can have an affinity with a certain candy or snack, and our brand teams will ask the group to contribute ideas to enhance products, conduct taste tests to aid in research and development, and provide perspectives on marketing. Stories from their cultural backgrounds are a window into our consumers’ preferences. In other words, business resource group members have the chance to directly influence the candy and snacks that land on shelves. Even if your company doesn’t formally use its affinity groups as a business resource, you can suggest the idea. Seeing your ideas reflected across products or brands is a surefire way to bolster your career development and get noticed by higher-ups.
5. Help drive positive policy change within your company
Affinity group participation is a form of activism with legal protection. Groups have the chance to make an impact on deeply felt issues by improving company benefits and work-life policies. At Ferrara, our LGBTQ+ affinity group drove the expansion of parental leave benefits to same-sex couples. Change doesn’t just happen; people must drive it. As businesses focus on diversity and inclusion, employees with an active role in affinity groups make executives more aware of their blind spots. It’s hard work, the real work of transformation.
6. Benefit your local community
Affinity group members often feel passionate about shared issues and experiences; that emotion can be harnessed to help neighboring communities. Affinity groups can be pivotal in community engagement, providing volunteer people power and expertise. Group members could do mock interviews with young people preparing to enter the job market, contribute to local food pantries, hold coat drives for those in need, or spearhead other initiatives that enrich communities. Their work can influence the company’s direct monetary contributions to organizations as well.
Many working professionals have busy days and busy lives, but I assure you, participating in an employee or business resource group is a worthwhile use of your time. Your career, peers, and broader community will all be strengthened by your efforts.
Since 2015, Sandi Santa Ana has been a Director of Category Management at Ferrara, where she has helped build the firm's category management function within its sales team. Over the last 10+ years, she has brought her passion for storytelling, turning data into actionable insights, and developing talent to drive sales across categories. She is passionate about driving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace as the co-founder of ¡UNIDOS! Latino Employee Resource Group and an active member of Ferrara’s DE&I Council. Prior to joining the confection industry, Sandi previously held roles at Johnson & Johnson, Revlon, and Acosta Sales & Marketing. She received her bachelor’s degree in business administration with a focus on marketing and management information systems from Northeastern University in Boston. She is first generation American, based in Chicagoland area with her husband and two sons.
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