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Gay, lesbian, minority and disabled workers find support in corporate 'affinity groups'

Patti Michaud, left, director of records management for Mellon Financial, Susan Whitewood, first vice president for global exposure management, and Maria Anderson, assistant vice president for corporate affairs, are group leaders for several of the “affinity” networks the company has launched in the past year. The groups are an effort by the company to show its support for diverse and minority employees. ( Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Companies are realizing that the value of a diverse workforce, and one of the challenges of effectively bringing together talented workers with a variety of backgrounds is to help improve understanding and promote professional relationships. And that applies to both colleagues who do and don’t belong to those minority or other diverse groups in the workforce.

Gay employees often fret over when or if to come out on the job. It’s not easy concealing your orientation; straight co-workers, even well-intentioned ones, innocently ask personal questions that leave gay people uneasy because answering them may out them — “Are you you have kids…seeing anyone?” Either you have to lie, avoid the answer, or just come out. And the gay person may not have a good enough sense of what the right thing to do might be at the time. These affinity networks help folks talk about these kind of integration issues in a safe space, either physical, virtual or both. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):

When Susan Whitewood opens e-mail reminders about upcoming meetings of her networking group at Mellon Financial Corp., she’s never sure who else received the same message. The network includes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees at Mellon, and its leaders are careful to use a blind distribution list that doesn’t disclose the names of members or potential recruits. Not that the it doesn’t want to grow its ranks. But the group, called PRISM — which stands for Pride, Respect, Individuality and Support at Mellon — is adamant about respecting its participants’ privacy.

Mellon isn’t the only big corporation keen to boost diversity and minority recruitment efforts through affinity networks. Glaxo- SmithKline, General Electric, Xerox and Goldman Sachs are among large employers across the country that have created such networks for gays, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.

“A large piece of it is retention and recruitment,” said Ernestine Harris, director of human resources for Glaxo’s Consumer HealthCare division in Moon and a member of the company’s African-American Alliance. “My sense is we’re starting to recognize the value that diversity can play in the workplace, and I think that’s what is leading to the effort to form affinity groups,” said Robert Kelley, adjunct professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and author of “How to Be a Star at Work.”

Because most affinity networks are sponsored by employers, members typically meet in corporate auditoriums or other company sites. Over coffee or brown bag lunches, members and guest speakers address issues such as mentoring, business role models and how to cope with being a minority within the corporate culture.

At a recent PRISM network “coming out” meeting, members and potential members could talk openly, if they cared to, about how their sexual orientation impacts their job and relationships with managers and colleagues. The network has about 55 members in Pittsburgh and a dozen or so at Mellon locations elsewhere who keep in touch by telephone or e-mail. “People are bringing lots of baggage, history and some fear about what their boss would think or how their co-workers would treat them” if their sexual orientation is disclosed, Whitewood said.

If a worker has to hold something back, they’re not fully engaged in work,” she said. So the network attempts to provide advice and support for people wrangling with the stressful decision about whether to “come out” and also keeps members up to date on issues such as Mellon’s domestic partner benefits plan.

At Glaxo, one of the goals of the affinity groups is to provide colleagues with first-hand insight about how to target products to specific minorities. In addition to African-Americans, its Moon consumer operations has networks for Asians, Hispanics and gays and lesbians.

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Pam Spaulding

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