If it makes dollars, it makes sense and it’s no secret that diversity in the workplace is good for business. Studies have shown that a diverse, welcoming environment results in better teamwork, greater innovation and more resourceful problem solving thanks to the variety of experiences employees bring to the table. In today’s economy, diversity is an ace up the sleeve in the race to be competitive and pioneering, no matter the industry.
This is possible in large part a product of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) at individual companies, and such groups are more important now than ever before. In 2015, after the Supreme Court granted marriage equality in all 50 states, there was a lot of talk about where advocacy and resource groups should focus next, given that the marriage battle had been the one everyone first considered in terms of lobbying. People quickly realized that in 28 states, it is still legal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. In the months that followed marriage equality, we saw over 200 anti-LGBTQ ordinances passed, the most well-known being the so-called “bathroom bills,” which cost North Carolina millions in revenue from cancelled sporting events, concerts and corporate meetings. Religious freedom lawsuits and legislation took an upturn in frequency as states scrambled to define what protected classes mean, and whether sexual orientation and gender identity were among them. Just last week, President Donald Trump tweeted that transgender individuals would no longer be permitted to serve in the military, while the Department of Justice argued the same day in a major federal lawsuit that a 1964 civil rights law, Title VII, which bans sex discrimination, doesn’t cover sexual orientation.
With a diverse workforce comes a need to understand more about colleagues and employees, and adapt to a changing office culture. Recent years have seen workplace equality improve by leaps and bounds, led by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). This past year HRC rated 515 businesses a score of 100 on their Corporate Equality Index, when in 2002—the CEI’s inception year—only 13 businesses were rated 100. In addition, this year saw the biggest leap in number of businesses offering transgender-inclusive health care coverage, from 511 last year to 647 today.
Despite the progress, the LGBTQ equality social climate has been volatile to say the least, and the workplace is the most harmful battleground. It costs not only the workers, but also the companies that employ them. According to the Level Playing Field Institute, more than 2 million professionals and managers quit their jobs every year due to unfairness, a $64 billion cost to U.S. employers annually. Twenty-seven percent said such concerns led them to refrain from recommending their workplace to potential employees and 13 percent admitted to not recommending their employer’s product or services. This does not even include the costs of potential discrimination and harassment lawsuits or the real result of missing out on talented LGBTQ employees who find another employer thanks to stress and overall dissatisfaction with their workplace environment.
LGBTQ-based ERGs have the potential to mitigate such costs and help increase workplace inclusion and acceptance, and there’s plenty for ERGs to do. Once established, they can work with top executives to craft nondiscriminatory policies making clear that harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ employees will not be tolerated. They can run sensitivity training sessions to help non-LGBTQ employees understand their colleagues and what is acceptable office behavior or workplace events for LGBTQ people across larger organizations to meet each other and establish relationships across departments that could benefit working relationships in the future. They can work toward health care benefits that include transition resources for transgender employees, as well as specify exact policies regarding the use of bathrooms based on gender identity. ERGs also work to provide resources for LGBTQ friendly mental health professionals to ensure if an employee is facing trouble concerning discrimination—whether professional or personal—they have someone to talk to for help. Another area ERGs could potentially benefit a workforce is through charitable events to bring issues facing LGBTQ people in the community to the forefront, extending goodwill and making a difference in the lives of those who need it the most, such as community service with a HIV/AIDS organization.
ERGs can and do establish comfort levels in the workplace where LGBTQ employees find it easier to be themselves, with no need to lie about their personal lives or mislead coworkers as to who they really are. In a more casual setting, such as a corporate-sponsored employee appreciation day, LGBTQ employees would be encouraged to bring their partners without fear of having to explain themselves to those with whom they work closely. Even the freedom to put a picture of a partner on one’s desk helps LGBTQ employees feel as included as their other coworkers are. This forms deeper relationships and breaks down barriers to understanding. Being open in the workplace makes employees more productive, less stressed, and more willing to sharing their ideas without worry of rejection based on their orientation or gender identity, which leads to better collaboration all around.
LGBTQ-focused employee resource groups have a lot of potential to impact their workplace environments in a positive way. While nationally, we have made progress in recent years, it’s at the local level where people see firsthand how that progress impacts real people. Businesses both big and small would do well to show their employees they’re on the right side of history, and ERGs are one of the most strategic and beneficial ways to do that. If your company doesn’t already have one you can join, talk to your HR representative and see if there’s room in your organization for such a group. We spend a lot of time at work so why not make it a place where we continue the fight for LGBTQ equality? •