By Melissa J. Anderson

Out and Equal Workplace Advocates works primarily with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) employee resource groups (ERGs), to make Fortune 500 to Fortune 1000 companies better places for employees to come out at work. “We provide resources to leaders with in companies as well as diversity training for companies at large,” explained Selisse Berry, Founding Director of Out and Equal Workplace Advocates. The organization also hosts the annual Out & Equal Workplace Summit.

The organization has grown considerably in the past 14 years. According to Berry, the first conference hosted about 200 individuals. “Now we have trouble finding locations that are large enough to host us,” she said, alluding to last year’s conference of about 2,500.

As an expert in working with LGBT ERGs, Berry explained that their importance is not simply symbolic. They can and should be be strategically important to a company. Here’s why.

1. Recruiting and Retention

“Any employer wants to be an employer of choice,” Berry explained. “And if they are excluding 10% of the population, that’s not going to happen.”

The presence of an LGBT ERG is a litmus test for how progressive a company is from the point of view of employees, clients, or customers. If a company is not actively showing it’s an inclusive workplace, top talent will avoid it.

2. Connect and Network – Across Companies and Industries

The networking value of ERGs has been discussed frequently – and it means a lot to be able to connect with individuals facing similar challenges in the workplace. But it’s about more than sharing advice or gaining personal support. ERGs are a place where individuals can gain access to business leaders who they may not otherwise have access to.

“But also”, said Berry, “LGBT ERGs have often been a resource for sharing information between companies. “It’s about sharing best practices,” she said. “What really worked at one company might work at another, so they don’t have to start from scratch.” For example, she mentioned, ERG leaders have collaborated on strategies for gaining benefits for domestic partners at difference companies.

3. Creating a Better, More Productive Workplace

“The number one reason to create workplaces where LGBT employees are free to be out, is to allow people to focus on their job, instead of hiding who they are,” explained Berry. “So you have much better employees in the long run, if they can be out at work.”

“In many parts of the US, there is still a social stigma around being LGBT. If you’re in the closet at work, avoiding talking about your personal life saps so much of your energy,” Berry continued.

“For many people there is a fear of coming out. But this is changing. When you see your whole company supporting LGBT issues, or even when you see rainbow flags for Pride Month, it makes a big difference, and can encourage people to come out.”

When LGBT employees are out, companies benefit, she explained, by getting more open, focused, productive employees.

She also stressed that corporate LGBT support is especially critical now. “We have no legislative protection, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has yet to be passed. There are no federal laws that protect us.” Companies have the opportunity to provide that support, she explained.