In-House Resource Groups Can Help And Harm Companies like to portray themselves as big, happy families. Sometimes that family is broken down into smaller groups: like women or minorities, who can look out for each other, and help each other advance. Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin says these networking groups can also lead to a harmful fracturing of the workplace.

In-House Resource Groups Can Help And Harm

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This week we're looking at diversity in the workplace. Many companies like to portray themselves as big happy families, but sometimes they break that family down into smaller groups like women or minorities who can look out for each other.

Reporter Nancy Solomon spent some time at Chubb Insurance Company to find out how these groups work.

NANCY SOLOMON: At Chubb's New Jersey headquarters, there's a black employee network, groups for Latinos, Asians, people with disabilities, working parents, young people. There's a professional organization of women...

INSKEEP: And I think we also have one issue to talk about, a coaching circle that not really one group can take on...

Unidentified Woman #2: And yeah. Well, we've never...

Unidentified Woman #1: Did you ever hear from them?

Woman #2: I've actually contacted this person three times and they've not phoned me...

Woman #1: Okay, well, we need to talk about what we need to do...

SOLOMON: There's also a gay and lesbian network. Midlevel manager Keith L. Smith is a member.

KEITH SMITH: It's the face of diversity for gay and lesbian employees at the organization. Being able to be out and be yourself at work, it takes a level of pressure completely off your shoulders and allows you to be more productive.

SOLOMON: These groups can also change the workplace. The gay and lesbian network, for instance, convinced the company to provide domestic partnership benefits for its employees.

Donna Griffin, Chubb's chief diversity officer, says networking groups are a way to attract talent, especially young people who might Google a company before deciding whether or not to apply.

DONNA GRIFFIN: They do actually look at our Web site and they do look at awards - whether it's, you know, being recognized by the Human Rights Campaign or we're one of the top 50 companies this year for Latinas and, you know, we really try to go for awards.

SOLOMON: Griffin says networking groups aren't just there to make things nice for employees; they also help with Chubb's bottom line. The gay and lesbian convinced the company to allow same sex couples to purchase insurance together, and Griffin hopes that will bring in more business. And she says, the company has been able to recruit more minority brokers and market to immigrant communities with brochures in their first languages.

GRIFFIN: For example, in May of this year, we had a specific program that was geared towards our Asian-American agents and we utilized resources from our Asian business network in order to make that happen.


SOLOMON: The networking groups are becoming such a staple of corporate life, they've even shown up in popular culture. Here's a scene from the TV comedy "The Office."


JENNA FISCHER: (as Pam) Today's a Women in the Workplace thing. Jan's coming in from corporate to talk to all the women about, I don't really know what, but Michael's not allowed in.

SOLOMON: So Michael, played by Steve Carell, retaliates by getting the men together for a bonding session, which doesn't go the way he expects.


CRAIG ROBINSON: (as Darryl) You say we're the same but we get compensated very differently.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

ROBINSON: (as Darryl) We work the same hours as you and you just said we work a lot harder.

STEVE CARELL: (as Michael Scott) You do. So...

ROBINSON: (as Darryl) But we get paid a lot less.

CARELL: It blows, it blows, man.

ROBINSON: (as Darryl) No this would not happen if we had a union.

DAVID DENMAN: (as Roy): That's what I'm talking about.

SOLOMON: In real life too, when new groups come together, it can pull a workplace apart. Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin studies diversity strategies and says networking groups can balkanize a workplace, especially when it comes to racial minorities.

FRANK DOBBIN: When minorities start meeting together, they become re-segregated and whites start to see them as an oppositional group rather than as members of the corporation.

SOLOMON: But Dobbin says networking groups can help some people advance within a company. If you belong to a women's group, for example, statistics suggests you have a good chance of meeting women managers who might mentor you. Black men on the other hand, might have fewer managers to look up to.

DOBBIN: These are the people who can help you get ahead, and these are the people who identify talent and decide who gets promoted. It's managers, not other low-level workers.

SOLOMON: Terri Harrison in Chubb's legal department met her mentor through Chubb's women's group, and when the mentor was preparing to leave her job, she suggested Harrison apply for it.

TERRI HARRISON: And she was tax counsel. And I said I don't know any tax. She said well, you don't have to know any tax. You'll learn it. Like, but what's the job? Well, there's talking to a lot of people and you're a good talker. And she talked me into the job.

SOLOMON: And for employees anxious to move up the cooperate ladder, that kind of mentoring might be the best thing a networking group can offer.

Harvard's Frank Dobbin says if these groups just function like social clubs or outlets for employee complaints they run the risk of becoming mere window dressing; nice for the company brochure, but not the best way to make the company really look more like America.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

INSKEEP: Our series on diversity continues tomorrow when we look at the advertising industry. Critics say it portrays plenty of minorities but still does not hire enough of them.

Man #1: Madison Avenue is kind of a freeze-frame. It's kind of like if an anthropologist wanted to come back and see - well, what was discrimination like in 1970, you've got it right here in the advertising industry.

INSKEEP: And we'll have that story tomorrow.

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