Groups for Gay Employees Are Gaining Traction

For years, companies have created employee-resource groups for women and racial and ethnic minorities, aimed at boosting recruitment and retention. Now, employers increasingly are creating similar groups for gay and lesbian employees.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Morgan Stanley and Intuit Inc., among others, created groups for gay employees in the past year. The Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights advocacy group, says that 63% of the more than 400 big companies responding to a survey last year have gay-employee support groups, up from 41% in a similar survey in 2002.

The groups are most common at technology and financial-services companies and at companies based on the coasts. They’re less common at retail and industrial companies and in the Midwest.

For some companies, gay-employee groups “are old news. For others, it is brand new and a little bit controversial,” says Andres Tapia, chief diversity officer at human-resource consulting firm Hewitt Associates Inc., which has had a gay-employee group since 1998.

Mr. Tapia says issues involving gays can be polarizing within corporations, just as they are in society as a whole. He says companies with successful gay-employee groups don’t ask employees to “believe a certain thing” about gays. Instead, he says those companies ask all employees “to be part of an inclusive environment.”

Two years ago, Hewitt, of Lincolnshire, Ill., tailored part of its in-house employee-retention survey, asking self-identified gay employees to evaluate the company’s policies and attitudes toward gay employees. Last year, Hewitt began offering the survey to its clients, and Mr. Tapia says some are starting to use it.

International Business Machines Corp. created a task force for gay employees in 1995, the same year it formed groups for women, Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans and employees with disabilities. IBM even has a group for men, where a key issue has been juggling family responsibilities with a career.

Building Business

“It helps us recruit, it helps us retain employees,” says Ted Childs, vice president of global work-force diversity at the Armonk, N.Y., technology company. Establishing a group for gay employees “validates our credibility and our commitment to the concept of work-force diversity,” Mr. Childs says.

It can also help IBM’s business. Working with the gay-employee task force, IBM created a sales team that markets to gay-owned and -operated businesses. Chubb Corp., a Warren, N.J., insurance company, also taps its gay-employee group, formed in 1996, to help develop marketing material targeted at gays.

IBM’s employee-resource groups meet periodically and each is assigned a full-time staffer. Every two years, the eight task forces meet together at IBM’s corporate-training center, where high-level executives discuss business and professional development.

At Raytheon Co., the leaders of its employee-resource groups met last year with about 400 middle managers to discuss the value of diversity to the business. The Waltham, Mass., defense contractor created a gay-employee group in 1998. A senior software engineer, Louise Young, who is a leader in the gay-employee group, says it makes her feel more comfortable and valued. “It improves productivity,” she says.

Other companies with employee-support groups haven’t formed groups for gays. Exxon Mobil Corp. has corporate-sponsored groups for female, African-American, Hispanic and Asian employees, but not for gay employees. Russ Roberts, an Exxon Mobil spokesman, says the other networks sought corporate recognition after forming on their own. So far, no group of gay employees has made a similar request. “Our employees’ interest in developing networks is still very much evolving,” he says.

General Electric Co. didn’t form a corporate-sponsored gay-employee group, as it did for female, black, Asian and Hispanic employees, but allows groups to form in its operating units. GE’s financial-services and entertainment units, for example, have large and active gay-employee groups.

No Change

Gay GE employees have been pushing for corporate sponsorship, because they don’t get the same level of corporate backing as the other employee groups. GE assigns a top-level officer to work with each of the official groups, for example.

But GE isn’t likely to extend recognition to the gay group soon. Deborah Elam, chief diversity leader at the Fairfield, Conn., conglomerate, says GE created the other employee groups to help it comply with equal-employment laws and meet its own affirmative-action goals. “We’re very comfortable with where we are,” she says.

Fast-growing supermarket chain Whole Foods Market Inc. has no formal groups among its 40,000 employees. Paula Labian, Whole Foods’ vice president of human resources, says the company formed a diversity council of executives last year, but hasn’t found a need for specific employee groups. She said no employees have requested them.

Management-training outfits also are tuning in to gay issues in the workplace by offering programs directed at gay executives that complement similar courses for women, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Anderson School of Management at University of California in Los Angeles has offered a weeklong seminar for gay executives since 2001. Last year, 25 executives attended, up from 13 in 2001.

The seminar includes sessions aimed at helping executives navigate the tricky politics of moving up the corporate ladder and opening up personal lives that can include a same-sex partner. Robin Johnson, a professor who leads the program, says she encourages participants to be public about their sexual orientation because isolation can “kill your career.” She offers advice on how to go public. “It’s about figuring out how and when, and then to focus the energy back on your contribution to the company,” Prof. Johnson says.

 

March 10, 2006

By Erin White

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