By: Mary U. Irozuru
In 1993, Deloitte established its first affinity group, the Women’s Initiative (WIN), to address two critical diversity metrics: the high rate of attrition among female employees and the underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership. 24 years later, WIN’s role in advancing Deloitte’s inclusion goals has come to an end. Over the next several months, Deloitte will dissolve its affinity groups for women, minorities, LGBT and veteran employees and, in their place, establish inclusion councils open to white male employees.
One of the reasons offered for Deloitte’s decision to disband its affinity groups was that white men felt uncertain about their role in the company’s inclusion strategy. This was a sentiment experienced by Brent Bachus, Deloitte’s managing director for talent inclusion and engagement, prior to taking on a direct role in the company’s inclusion efforts. He states, “I don’t know that I necessarily felt like I knew what role I was being expected to play, or if I even had a role.” While it is certainly true that the engagement of white men is critical to fostering a company-wide culture of inclusion, I am skeptical of Deloitte’s decision to replace its affinity groups with inclusion councils “where white men hold important seats at the table.”
Through affinity groups, also known as employee resource groups (ERGs), employees create communities around shared experiences and interests. These communities foster a sense of belonging, which is particularly important for those employees who identify with historically underrepresented groups within the organization. By eliminating affinity groups, Deloitte may be inadvertently sending the message that addressing the confusion experienced by white men in identifying their role within the company’s inclusion strategy is more important than maintaining the communities upon which underrepresented employees rely. It also suggests that Deloitte’s affinity groups cannot effectively exist alongside efforts to actively engage white men. Interestingly, at one point, Deloitte was a proponent of a dual approach that coupled affinity groups with efforts to create bridges between such groups and other employees. In Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion, Deloitte cites political scientist, Robert Putnam, who believed that a healthy community requires what he refers to as “bonding capital” and “bridging capital.” While bonding capital refers to solidarity within groups, bridging capital refers to solidarity across groups. According to Deloitte, affinity groups are “potent sources of bonding capital.”
So, how can companies develop bridging capital? Actively engaging white allies and creating connections across affinity groups can take any number of forms. For example, AT&T, for nearly a decade, has hosted an annual conference for its ERGs. Over the course of a weekend, members of AT&T’s 12 ERGs network with one another and connect with senior executives via workshops and fireside chats, among other activities. Altassian, the enterprise software company, takes a more muted approach with its “ask me anything about diversity” sessions. These sessions are a judgment-free safe space for white allies to ask anything. Participants are simply asked to adhere to three ground rules: (1) Everything said stays between the participants and the facilitator; (2) There is no judgment for asking questions in the spirit of education; and (3) Every question is answered with as much data as possible.
While my skepticism for Deloitte’s decision to eliminate affinity groups altogether is shared by others, it’s much too early to determine whether Deloitte’s move represents a step in the wrong direction or the new frontier in diversity and inclusion. I, along with many others, look forward to learning how Deloitte’s inclusion councils unfold over the next few years.
Mary U. Irozuru is a corporate attorney based in Dallas, Texas. She provides a broad range of legal counsel on corporate and transactional matters and represents clients across many industries, including the aviation, healthcare, manufacturing, technology and financial services industries.