jenniferbContributed by Jennifer Brown and Judy DiClemente, Jennifer Brown Consulting

The imperative for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender awareness in the workplace has grown dramatically in recent years. This has been fueled by a larger conversation around workforce engagement and diversity, which asks the question, “Do our employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work?” When large swaths of employees feel the need to manage or hide their identities on a daily basis, the losses in productivity, innovation, and corporate reputation are staggering. The introduction of ever-greater numbers of Gen Y employees, who display an unprecedented comfort with diversity and include many “allies,” stands in stark contrast to the closeted reality experienced by many LGBT Gen X and Baby Boomer employees.

Although many employer-of-choice companies have made great strides and commitments on the policy level, this reality continues to lag behind corporate aspirations and declarations of support. This is especially true in the financial services industry, where the war for talent (especially of the younger variety) rages, and yet where there continue to be serious cultural challenges around diversity and inclusion efforts, and LGBT inclusion specifically.

The Value Proposition of ERGs

At the same time, organizations have woken up to the business opportunity represented by all diverse markets, including the relatively affluent, extremely loyal and brand-aware LGBT employee and consumer markets. LGBT ERGs, for example, although relative latecomers to the ERG community, represent some of the most strategic thinking, tying their diversity to the business. And yet the basic safety needs, and need for community, still persist. For instance, the younger generations who have felt safer and more comfortable, relatively, in being themselves than the older generations, perceive the corporate environment as not a welcoming one, not just of LGBT identity but also of any diversity.

A little background here may be helpful. There has never been a better time for companies to get to know their ERGs. Previously thought of as social outlets for race- and gender-based workplace communities, ERGs are now widely recognized as indispensable to companies operating in an increasingly global, budget-conscious marketplace.

More and more, we are seeing innovative organizations engage their ERGs. Simultaneously, ERGs are asking to take part in meaningful business conversations. Companies that understand the value of ERGs can potentially reap benefits on multiple levels. In distilling the scores of ways in which ERGs are critical to supporting successful businesses, two overarching areas emerge: talent and innovation.

Today, new talent is becoming scarce, particularly next-generation leaders who can effectively guide organizations of the future. To be successful in the global workplace, companies must recruit and develop talent that represents the business environment of today and the future. Potential employees can relate to and are more likely to trust ERG members with whom they share affinities.

ERGs help to counter the increasingly missing connection and sense of significance experienced by many employees in today’s workplace. Employee isolation in an increasingly virtual, global, chaotic work environment can have real economic consequences. As companies strive to cut costs, economize office space, and take advantage of global efficiencies, additional investment must be made to help ensure that a diversifying employee population feels connected and valued. ERGs allow employees to contribute to business goals and find rewarding career paths.

The Unique Mission of LGBT ERGs

The purpose of LGBT ERGs is often a bit different. LGBT identity in the workplace is still largely “invisible.” Out and visible LGBT employees and leaders remain the exception, not the rule. Thus, LGBT ERGs have the dual responsibilities of driving business opportunities and improving the cultural environment at work, such that employees will no longer feel that being part of a visible LGBT affinity group will jeopardize their career paths.

The good news is that LGBT employees generally, like many diverse communities at work, are deeply invested in building a more inclusive, welcoming work environment, as well as in bringing the power of their community’s buying potential to their employers. There is a great story to tell here that will inspire and enlighten LGBT employees (who may not understand the extent of support that is being provided for them by corporate policymakers), the “ally” community, and employees generally, who sincerely believe that a more inclusive environment for all is what’s needed.

Indeed, while ERGs, generally, are paving the way for successful organizations of the future, the focus of LGBT affinity groups is slightly different in several key aspects:

  • Increasing employee engagement by creating policies focused on LGBT communities and creating a culture of LGBT inclusion;
  • Increasing community and client partnerships and networks with LGBT stakeholders;
  • Enhancing recruitment, retention, development, and advancement practices for LGBT employees; and
  • Facilitating internal dialogues and communications to ensure employees are aligned with corporate practices.

Many HR and Diversity leaders rely on the guidance, influence and membership of their LGBT ERGs for purposes that are unique to this group. Specifically, affinity group members are often advocates for domestic partner benefits, as well as for Federal legislation, such as the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and the Uniting American Families Act. Their work in support of equality in benefits and policies has shaped corporate America, and is leading the way for society at large. In addition, many LGBT ERGs also impact their workplaces through self-identification programs, safe space initiatives, and encouraging senior LGBT executives to be “out” in the workplace.

Opportunities for Change

All ERGs must demonstrate their value proposition so that they can outgrow their silos and embed their value proposition throughout the organization. LGBT ERGs have distinct challenges and opportunities to do just that. Companies must look at their old ways of doing business and make adjustments that take advantage of the opportunities that are being overlooked. It is only through honest self-reflection and commitment to change that organizations will be able to access the untapped innovation that already lies within their four walls, harnessing the power of all employees.