Experts recommend leadership engagement as a first step for any new LGBT employee group — and making sure the gravity of the work doesn’t outweigh the fun.

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It’s important to most everyone to be valued for who they are in the workplace; for an LGBT employee, it can be a deciding factor in whether they stay with a company.

In an environment where that kind of inclusivity isn’t readily visible, creating a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)employee resource group is one way to seed it.

Once known as affinity groups, LGBT employee resource groups — or business resource groups, as they’re sometimes called — usually start out as a grass-roots initiative. At the Seattle office of multinational professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one passionate individual founded its local Out Professional Employee Network (OPEN) Circle about 10 years ago, according to Allie Foote, who leads PwC’s Pacific Northwest Diversity Network. “He got the support of the [leadership] partner group in the office, got interested individuals on board, and was able to really make things happen,” says Foote.

Dennis Trunfio recommends leadership engagement as a first step for any new LGBT employee group, and “from the straight allies,” he says, because it sends a powerful message in terms of company values. Trunfio heads PwC’s LGBT Partner Advisory Board, which was created in part so staff could identify the LGBT leaders in the firm. He advises employees seeking executive sponsorship to have a sense of “what they expect to achieve, the benefits to the company, and the resources they’re asking for.”

In 2013, T-Mobile launched six employee groups, including its Pride and Allies Network. In advance of this, Holli Martinez, the Bellevue-based wireless operator’s director of diversity and inclusion, spent several months working with its leadership team. “It allowed me to bring them on board as really strong, supportive stakeholders,” she says. “It’s not just something that they check off a list.”

Martinez found that T-Mobile’s existing culture and values were already largely in alignment with what the Pride and Allies Network stood for, but she notes that it can take time to build that authenticity in some situations.

Outside support

If garnering leadership buy-in seems daunting, guidance is available. The nonprofit organization Out & Equal Workplace Advocates helps LGBT employees create a business-use case they can present when proposing a resource group.

For the most part, businesses recognize that having an LGBT-supportive workplace helps their bottom line, says Chris Brown, Out & Equal Northwest’s executive chair. “They understand that they’re able to retain employees for a longer period of time. They’re also able to attract top talent.”

In addition to individualized assistance, Out & Equal Seattle hosts quarterly educational roundtables — the most recent one featuring guest speakers from Boeing, Microsoft and T-Mobile.

There’s also the Greater Seattle Business Association, or GSBA, an LGBT and allied chamber of commerce. Membership comes primarily from small business, but corporations and nonprofit organizations and their employees are also involved. “Basically, our entire organization is an employee resource group,” says GSBA president and CEO Louise Chernin.

For employees who feel stumped by concerns about the inclusivity of their company’s culture, the GSBA can help. “We’re always happy to come in — whether it’s to provide training, to meet with executives, to meet with employee groups — and see how we could offer opportunities for them to turn that around,” Chernin says.

Once an organization’s executive is on board, there’s the rest of the office to consider. In 2015, Foote set up an OPEN Circle in Portland. After talking with local PwC leadership, she enrolled a couple other staff members, and together they expanded the conversation about group priorities to include the whole site. While she feels the 190-employee office size helped facilitate the approach, she says, “it was important to make sure we heard broader voices than just those we knew were LGBT identified.”

‘Hidden agenda of equality’

Employees and companies can adopt these types of strategies to demonstrate that inclusivity isn’t a one-way street or a buzzword. Trunfio uses an example where PwC’s New York group screened a women’s rights documentary for its Pride Month celebration, inviting members of its women’s network, as well as clients and the community at large. He cautions that sometimes LGBT groups get hung up on thinking everything they do needs to be gay. “That’s really not the case,” he says.

Trunfio’s point goes beyond one employee resource group supporting another, and to what Chernin jokingly calls the GSBA’s hidden agenda of equality. “When you break down a barrier for any group, it breaks down barriers for every group,” she says. “I think we all have a commitment to make sure every part of our community has equal access and opportunity, which will benefit us all.”

If you want people to come to church every week, the stained glass should be beautiful, the music should be amazing, the sermon should have an important and interesting message, and the wine should be good.” - Dennis Trunfio

Martinez echoes similar sentiments. “If you get too singular in what you’re focused on, you can miss the mark, and what this is really about, which is the inclusion of all.”

Finally, while LGBT employee resource groups frequently undertake far-reaching objectives — community involvement, networking, education and advocacy, and company policy and prosperity — Trunfio cautions against letting the gravity of the work outweigh the fun.

“If you want people to come to church every week, the stained glass should be beautiful, the music should be amazing, the sermon should have an important and interesting message, and the wine should be good,” Trunfio says.