More than planning Pride
How to start a supportive LGBTQ+ employee resource group
By Jeremiah Lee
Monday, October 11, 2021
I experienced a hostile work environment early in my career.
When the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in 2008, my boyfriend of 5 years and I decided to get married. The CEO of the company I worked at saw a social media post about my upcoming wedding. He started coming by my desk on a regular basis, interrupting my work with increasingly aggressive conversation.
He said gay marriage would create too many legal gray areas that would be expensive for the state to defend. He said he could not support gay marriage until gay divorce was codified. He said someone who did not believe in his god could not be a moral person because they lacked a moral rudder. He said all of these things in an open floorplan office while my dumbstruck coworkers remained silent until he left.
One day, I returned from lunch to find tens of Facebook notifications. The CEO had gotten into a fight with my college friends on my Facebook profile. I read the comments and started to tremble. I walked into my manager’s office, closed the door, and showed him my Facebook profile as I began to cry uncontrollably.
Having just graduated from college into the Great Recession, I needed this job. I was great at my job. But the CEO had brought my personal life into the workplace and repeated the same dehumanizing arguments my own religious family had used to decline my wedding invitation. The head of HR persuaded me to not file a discrimination complaint against the CEO by falsely claiming I would need a lawyer, which I could not afford. Despite strong performance reviews and assignment to a critical project for the company, I was part of a tiny layoff a few months later. This likely was retaliation, but I did not know that was illegal at the time.
My story is not uncommon and many people can share more severe examples. Thankfully, more employers now recognize discriminatory behavior as both ethically wrong and as a competitive threat. A multi-year study by McKinsey & Company found more diverse companies tend to outperform less diverse companies. Increased competition for skilled labor is forcing employers to think about how to foster inclusive environments to attract and retain a more diverse workforce.
Safety in the workplace extends to more than preventing physical harm. Psychological safety requires people to believe they will not experience negative social consequences for sharing their authentic selves, asking for help, challenging the status quo, or making mistakes. For a company to benefit from diversity, psychological safety must exist throughout the organization.
An employee resource group (ERG) can be a failsafe of at least one psychologically safe space in the organization for minorities. It is not a special interest club, but a community where people who have a shared identity can support each other and be supported by allies in the workplace. Such groups alone will not dismantle the unjust, systemic barriers to career opportunities minorities encounter. They should be one part of a larger diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy.
A decade and five jobs after my experience with the homophobic CEO, I co-founded the LGBTQ+ employee resource group at InVision with strong support. Still, I struggled with defining its mission and goals. The only similar group I witnessed at a larger company seemed to just help the marketing department with the company’s Pride parade presence. I wanted something more substantive. My co-founders and I eventually wrote something that captured our intent. If you find yourself wanting to start a LGBTQ+ employee resource group at your company, here is a template you are welcome to copy.
- Write a charter to explain your intent. Feel free to use my sample charter.
- Get support from Human Resources—if you can. If you feel your company would be receptive to supporting such a group, ask for their support. Some companies may be sensitive to any form of employee organizing. Keep in mind that HR departments exist to protect the company first and employees second.
- Find an executive sponsor—if you can. Approach an executive you suspect would be sympathetic to the need for an employee resource group. Having an ally in a high place will be helpful. Share the charter and ask them for a year commitment to being your executive sponsor. Feel free to share my sample executive sponsor expectations.
- Let people know. Ask people to fill out an application form. Ask why they want to join and if they identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community or as an ally. This will help you understand the needs of queer people at your company and provide a minimum barrier to entry into the safe space.
- Create a public and a private virtual space. This could be chat channels, email lists, or both. The private channel should be reserved for people who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community who need some level of confidentiality. The public channel should be for both community members and allies. Invite people to the relevant spaces when they apply.
- Meet! Schedule a meeting and start building the community.
Foster an inclusive workplace for LGBTQ+ people that treats everyone justly according to their circumstances
- Community: Provide a space for LGBTQ+ people at [company] to meet and support each other
- Culture: Positively influence the work environment by helping members and allies be better versions of themselves
- Career: Advocate for learning and development opportunities for members. Help attract LGBTQ+ talent to the company.
- Commerce: Represent LGBTQ+ people in the course of doing business
- LGBTQ+ people at [company] know they have safe space to raise concerns
- Increased awareness of and compassion for gender identity/expression and sexual orientation equality issues
- Proportional LGBTQ+ representation employed at all levels
- Public support of the larger LGBTQ+ community from the company through representation in customer use cases and marketing, donations of money and time, and vendor selection consideration
Who can join?
Any full or part time employee, contractor, or intern at the company is welcomed. We do not discriminate in membership or participation. Participation is completely voluntary.
You can join as someone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community or as an ally (someone who supports the community, but does not identify as a member of it).
A note on allyship from The Anti-Oppression Network
Allyship is an act, not an identity. It is an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluation, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group. Allyship is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized people. It is not self-defined in that our work and efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with.
Executive sponsor expectations
We expect executive sponsors to educate themselves on LGBTQ+ issues. We understand you may have limited exposure to the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. That’s ok if you are willing to listen and to learn. Don’t fear saying the wrong thing. We have all had to grow in our understanding of other people’s struggles. We want to help you be a better ally, not only as an executive, but also as a person.
We expect executive sponsors to ask how the company will increase its diversity in all regards. Equality is a year-round effort. Beyond actively recruiting people from underrepresented demographics, this means creating opportunities for people who have been disenfranchised and committing to their professional development.
Many people from underrepresented demographics have had fewer opportunities to advance in their careers. Executives participate in budgeting conversations the rest of the organization does not. They are able to create the space and defend the chance for unproven people to grow in their careers. We expect you as an executive sponsor to advocate for this within your area when hiring and across the company.
We expect executive sponsors to ask what the company is doing during the moments its brand power can be used for advocacy. June is LGBTQ+ Pride month. It is when gender and sexual orientation equality issues are top-of-mind for people. This is the company’s opportunity to publicly affirm its support of LGBTQ+ people and their equal rights. A similar moment is Spirit Day in October, an annual awareness day of bullying-related suicides of queer kids. The LGBTQ+ employee resource group does not necessarily need to lead these efforts. We welcome allies joining us in our fight. We can be asked to contribute and provide feedback.
We expect executive sponsors to foster a discrimination-free and psychologically safe working environment for all people and specifically with sensitivity to LGBTQ+ issues.
What is LGBTQ+?
The acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning. Additional letters have been added as our understanding of sexual and gender identities has increased. The acronym often continues with IA to specify intersex and asexual, agender, or ally. The plus symbol (+) represents all other non-cisgender heterosexual gender identities and sexual orientations not already represented in the lettered acronym.
It’s ok to say queer.
Queer has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community. It is no longer a slur unless used as a slur. Cisgender heterosexual allies are invited to use the term to refer positively to the LGBTQ+ community. An individual should self-identify as queer before one’s referring to them as such.
Why do LGBTQ+ people specifically need support professionally?
- More than 1 in 3 queer US Americans faced discrimination in 2020, with 36% of such incidents occurring in the workplace. —The State of the LGBTQ Community in 2020, Center for American Progress
- In 2019, 47% of queer employees believed being “out” at work could hurt their career. 43% said they were not fully “out” at work. —Glassdoor LGBTQ Workplace Survey
- “Employees who are out at work tend to be more engaged and are promoted more quickly, whereas those in the closet are more than 70% likelier to leave the company within three years.” —Financial Times
- LGBTQ+ people are underrepresented at every stage of the management pipeline according to research by McKinsey & Company
Thanks to my ERG co-founders, Sarah Diaz and Christian Clark, for helping write the original charter and to Marie Kretlow for the instigation and incredible support of ERGs at InVision.
Cover illustration remix of The Movement by Jorge Margarido.
© 2021 Jeremiah Lee. Text licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 License.
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