Erdem O. Merala and Jojanneke van der Toornb,c
a Tilburg University
b Leiden University
c Utrecht University
LGBTIQ+ Employee Resource Groups: What does the science say?
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer (LGBTIQ+) employees face unique challenges at work such as suffering poorer mental and physical health than their heterosexual colleagues.1 These challenges may be compounded in times of COVID-19 with employees working from home with reduced access to the necessary resources and personal interaction. Supporting employees and keeping them connected is now more important than ever. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can play an important role in that respect. They are uniquely placed to provide a safe space for LGBTIQ+ employees, facilitate alliances between LGBTIQ+ employees and their ally colleagues, and advocate for structural changes in the organization (e.g., at the policy level). In this article, we review the academic literature on the LGBTIQ+ employee resource groups. We discuss what they are, what we know about their promises and pitfalls, and how they can be most effective, with the aim to contribute to evidence-based inclusion management in organizations.
What are LGBTIQ+ Employee Resource Groups?
LGBTIQ+ ERGs are groups for LGBTIQ+ employees and often their allies to get together, form a community and lobby for positive change within the organization. The main aim of these ERGs is to improve the working lives of the LGBTIQ+ employees in the organization one way or another.
How are they positioned within the organization? LGBTIQ+ ERGs can have various forms and be positioned in the organization in a multitude of ways. While some groups exist within the organization without the recognition of the upper management, other groups are officially recognized and, in some cases, initiated by the organization itself. In some cases, the official recognition of the upper management might require ERGs to have a clear business agenda such as increased job performance or competitive financial advantage.2 At the same time, this recognition can also bring representation at the managerial level (e.g., by serving at broader diversity committees) and thus allow LGBTIQ+ employees to actively be part of the decision-making processes in the organization.3
What are their aims? The goals, functions and the structure of LGBTIQ+ ERGs can vary across organizations and depending on the needs of its members.4 While some groups actively lobby for change and try to attain certain rights for LGBTIQ+ employees (e.g., domestic partner pay); other groups have no political agenda and solely focus on networking and socializing. These varying goals are not mutually exclusive, and they can change over time in response to the needs of the group’s members.5
Why do people join them? LGBTIQ+ employees can have a multitude of goals and motivations for attending or forming these groups. These reasons might be personal (e.g., being more open at work), professional (e.g., networking, mentoring) or political in nature (e.g., creating change within the organization and society at large).6 These motivations and goals can coexist and/or change over time. Regardless of the reason, however, participation in an ERG can have its benefits and drawbacks for the employee. These, we discuss below.
What are the benefits of LGBTIQ+ Employee Resource Groups?
Scholarly work on LGBTIQ+ resource groups is still in its infancy. There has been some valuable qualitative work examining the perspectives of the members and leadership of these groups,7 but additional insight can be gained from work on diversity networks or resource groups in a broader sense (i.e., with a focus on other marginalized groups within organizations) and from work on Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs, student networks) in schools. From this body of work, we identified potential benefits of LGBTIQ+ ERGs both for employees (LGBTIQ+ employees and allies) and for the organization itself which we discuss below.
- Reducing prejudice and discrimination
One benefit of LGBTIQ+ ERGs, and a very important one, is that they have the potential to reduce prejudice and discrimination. Although the scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of LGBTIQ+ ERGs in this respect is scarce, the relevant literature suggests that they might be ideally suited for this. Research suggests that interventions that are most successful in reducing prejudice rely on eliciting empathy, fostering mediated contact between members of minority and majority groups and developing alliances.8 Most LGBTIQ+ ERGs meet all three of these criteria, making them prime candidates for successfully reducing prejudice in the workplace.
Other work, on the effectiveness of Gay-Straight/Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) in schools, further underscores the potential of ERGs.9 We draw this parallel because both these alliances and GSAs have the same goal, improving the lives of LGBTIQ+ individuals in a very similar way. GSAs create a safe space, where both students and faculty (LGBTIQ+ and allies) can come together, socialize, and support one another. Indeed, several studies indicate positive effects of GSAs for LGBTIQ+ youth and their allies. For example, a recent meta-analysis shows that the presence of GSA is significantly associated with lower levels of self-reported homophobic victimization in schools.10
- LGBTIQ+ERGs as a point of visibility
LGBTIQ+ ERGs can serve as a point of visibility.11 Existence of an ERG signals the organization’s commitment to improving the work experiences of LGBTIQ+ employees and employees know where to turn for resources and support. This visibility can be especially useful for sitting employees who conceal their LGBTIQ+ identities in fear of repercussions. Since they might lack a network of LGBTIQ+ colleagues, knowing where to turn in case of need might be vital. Scientific evidence shows that the symbolic value of such ERGs not only benefits its members but can also instill a sense of belonging in employees with stigmatized identities who are not even thinking of actively participating in the group.12 The visibility of the network can also play an important role in attracting prospective LGBTIQ+ employees by assuring them of the organization’s commitment to creating a safe environment for them, and by being a point of information on what it’s like to work at the organization as an LGBTIQ+ person.
- LGBTIQ+ ERGs fostering a sense of community
Another important benefit of LGBTIQ+ ERGs is that they foster a sense of community amongst LGBTIQ+ employees and create a supportive environment.13 Since LGBTIQ+ employees are likely in the minority in their respective departments, joining the network provides a chance to meet other colleagues who share their experiences as an LGBTIQ+ person at work, resulting in a much-needed sense of belonging and community. Moreover, as we discussed above, this feeling of community and belonging is not necessarily limited to the members of the group but can benefit non-members with stigmatized identities as well.14
ERGs can also fulfill the professional needs of their members.15 Some of the networking opportunities that are available to cis-gendered, heterosexual employees such as unofficial after-work drinks or watching games together might not always be accessible to LGBTIQ+ employees. As such, an LGBTIQ+ ERG can act as a platform for LGBTIQ employees to network amongst peers and enjoy official or unofficial forms of mentoring, making these groups a learning community.16
- Involvement of allies
LGBTIQ+ ERGs can also serve as a platform for allies to support their LGBTIQ+. Having allies join resource groups (or certain group activities and meetings) broadens the reach of the ERGs within the organization, which can have positive consequences for LGBTIQ+ employees on multiple fronts. The more LGBTIQ+ employees and their allies bond, the more likely these allies will be to defend and support their LGBTIQ+ colleagues.17 In addition, by more frequently interacting with LGBTIQ+ people and more actively listening to their experiences, allies will be better equipped to recognize and call out more subtle forms of discrimination – something that majority members usually struggle with.18 Engagement of allies will contribute to LGBTIQ+ people establishing supportive relationships at work and maintaining a more LGBTIQ+ supportive climate, hence improving LGBTIQ+ people’s daily experience at work. Aside from the positive impact of allyship on the experience of LGBTIQ+ employees, allies themselves benefit from it too. They tend to have a positive experience with being an ally, derive a sense of belonging from being a member, enjoy being a role model, and build beneficial individual relationships.19
- Organizational change
In addition to the personal- (e.g., career development, social needs) and group-level (e.g., community building) benefits discussed above,20 LGBTIQ+ ERGs also have organizational-level benefits in that they have the potential to create change within organizations.
Addressing diversity, discrimination and prejudice in the workplace is not only an individual or a group level phenomenon. Managing the experience of LGBTIQ+ identities at work also requires acknowledging that there are systemic inequalities in place within organizations,21 otherwise the reach and contribution of the resource group may be limited.22
LGBTIQ+ ERGs can create change directly by organizing amongst its members and lobbying for positive change. For example, a case study illustrates how LGBTIQ ERGs in a large university worked together to attain domestic partner benefits.23 The study showcases how organizing around a group goal and pushing for change can help attain inclusion for all LGBTIQ+ employees, whether they are members of the ERGs or not.
LGBTIQ+ ERGs can also contribute to organizational change more indirectly, by serving as an amplifier for LGBTIQ+ voices in the workplace.24 LGBTIQ+ employees who feel excluded may refrain from speaking up about an injustice or contributing their ideas in organizational meetings.25 However, LGBTIQ+ ERGs, by virtue of providing a sense of belonging can help increase these voices. This, in turn, can help LGBTIQ+ people contribute to organizational change by individually voicing their opinions.26
- Organizational benefits
LGBTIQ+ ERGs can also more broadly benefit the organization. Work on various forms of workplace mistreatment targeted at LGBTIQ+ employees suggests that LGBTIQ+ employees experience lower job satisfaction and performance and report lower levels of organizational commitment27. ERGs can contribute to an inclusive environment and in turn this inclusive environment can help LGBTIQ+ employees have greater job satisfaction and commitment.28
What are the potential pitfalls of LGBTIQ+ ERGs?
Understanding the complexities of LGBTIQ+ identities and experiences is vital in successfully managing these experiences in the workplace to provide all members of the LGBTIQ+ community a safe space. In this section, we briefly discuss some of the important aspects of the LGBTIQ+ experience that might create pitfalls in creating, evaluating and joining an LGBTQI+ ERG.
ERG participation can benefit LGBTIQ+ employees by facilitating positive interactions with other LGBTIQ+ employees. However, recent research suggests that this may also come at a cost, as active engagement with the ERG may make one’s LGBITQ+ more salient leading one to perceive more prejudice and discrimination against their group.29 This suggests that being in an ERG can both positively and negatively impact on the mental health of LGBTIQ+ employees. However, the benefits of LGBTQI+ peer interactions are likely to outweigh the costs30 and the negative impact of perceiving more prejudice and discrimination may be remedied by the ERG’s attempts to deal with systemic injustices at the workplace.
LGBTIQ+ identities are diverse; people can identify as lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex, queer, or any of the other myriad ways included in the spectrum and even choose not to identify. Not thinking about this diversity disproportionally affects some LGBTIQ+ individuals. For example, trans individuals oft times feel underrepresented in such inclusive efforts.31 This underrepresentation might create invisible barriers against some LGBTIQ+ employees in entering these ERGs and reaping the associated benefits. Therefore, not treating all LGBTIQ+ as just one group and listening to the voices of each member is crucial.
Another aspect of the diverse LGBTIQ+ experience is the intersectionality of identities. Most LGBTIQ+ employees have multiple and intersecting identities and, thus, have different needs and experiences. Recent work shows that LGBTIQ+ employees with intersectional identities (such as LGBTIQ+ women and people of color) have more negative experiences at work compared to their cis-male and white LGBTIQ+ colleagues.32 Therefore, to not limit the benefits of the ERG to a certain subgroup of individuals, the ERG should be aware of the intersectional nature of LGBTIQ+ identities.
We discussed the benefits of visibility, but for some ERGs visibility can be a double-edged sword if the group experiences a tension between wanting to be visible and being “too visible.” Research shows that some groups tackle this by de-emphasizing the relevance of their difference from the rest of the organization.33 This means emphasizing similarities with the rest of the organization and highlighting that their LGBTIQ+ identity is not relevant. This approach, however, runs the risk of not acknowledging the systemic inequalities within the organization34 by desensitizing the members of the organization to the unique problems that the LGBTIQ+ employees face. One way out of this conflicting visibility problem is by highlighting both the belongingness and the uniqueness of the members of the group.35
Visibility can create a tension also when some LGBTIQ+ employees want to keep their identities concealed at work. These employees may see the group’s visibility as a threat to their concealed identity.36 In this case, if the ERG has some online presence, the employee with a concealed identity will know how to reach the ERG if they need to.
This last point also raises the question of whether an ERG should allow cis-gendered and heterosexual allies to join all the meetings or be a member of the group at all. Even though we laid out potential benefits of allies joining the LGBTIQ+ ERGs, they might also inadvertently create a barrier for some LGBTIQ+ employees. Potential solutions include having a separate ERG for the allies and reserving some meetings exclusively for the LGBTIQ+ members.
What is the verdict?
LGBTIQ+ ERGs have great potential in improving the lives of LGBTIQ+ employees in the workplace. Voice, visibility, and community can have personal and professional benefits for the employees such as an increased sense of belonging and access to mentorship. Listening to its LGBTIQ+ voices can help the organization change for the better, for example by incorporating more inclusive policies and attracting more diverse talent.
Realizing the full potential of an ERG requires both the members of the group and the administration to be aware of potential pitfalls. An inclusive ERG has to recognize the complexities of LGBTIQ+ identities and experiences and be cognizant of systemic injustices facing LGBTIQ+ individuals. Additionally, the administration needs to show active recognition and support for the ERG. This might be in the form of taking part in the group’s activities via joining meetings, supporting with financial means, and actively listening and trying to implement the group’s suggestions. Meeting these conditions will strengthen the impact and reach of an ERG.
1Belle Rose Ragins, ‘Sexual Orientation in the Workplace: The Unique Work and Career Experiences of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Workers’ (2004) 23 Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management 35; J van der Toorn, ‘Naar Een Inclusieve Werkvloer: Seksuele Oriëntatie En Gender Identiteit Op Het Werk’ (2019) 32 Gedrag & Organisatie 162; Deena Fidas and Liz Cooper, ‘The Cost of the Closet and the Rewards of Inclusion: Why the Workplace Environment for LGBT Matters to Employees’ (2014).
2Rod P Githens and Steven R Aragon, ‘LGBTQ Employee Groups : Who Are They Good For ? How Are They Organized ?’, Learning In Community: Proceedings of the joint international conference of the Adult Education Research Conference (AERC) (48th National Conference) and the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education (CASAE)/L’Association Canadienne pour l’Étu (2007); Fiona Colgan and Aidan McKearney, ‘Visibility and Voice in Organisations’ (2012) 31 Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion: An International Journal 359.
3Rod P Githens and Steven R Aragon, ‘LGBT Employee Groups: Goals and Organizational Structures’ (2009) 11 Advances in Developing Human Resources 121.
4Marjolein Dennissen, Yvonne Benschop and Marieke van den Brink, ‘Diversity Networks: Networking for Equality?’ (2019) 30 British Journal of Management 966.
5e.g., Githens and Aragon (n 3).
6ibid; Colgan and McKearney (n 2); Dennissen, Benschop and van den Brink (n 4).
7e.g., Colgan and McKearney (n 2); Yvonne McNulty and others, ‘Employee Voice Mechanisms for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Expatriation: The Role of Employee-Resource Groups (ERGs) and Allies’ (2018) 29 The International Journal of Human Resource Management 829; Dennissen, Benschop and van den Brink (n 4).
8Florien M Cramwinckel, Daan T Scheepers and Jojanneke van der Toorn, ‘Interventions to Reduce Blatant and Subtle Sexual Orientation- and Gender Identity Prejudice (SOGIP): Current Knowledge and Future Directions’ (2018) 12 Social Issues and Policy Review 183.
9Jack K Day and others, ‘Gay-Straight Alliances, Inclusive Policy, and School Climate: LGBTQ Youths’ Experiences of Social Support and Bullying’ (2020) 30 Journal of Research on Adolescence 418; V Paul Poteat, Jerel P Calzo and Hirokazu Yoshikawa, ‘Promoting Youth Agency Through Dimensions of Gay-Straight Alliance Involvement and Conditions That Maximize Associations’ (2016) 45 Journal of Youth and Adolescence 1438.
10Robert A Marx and Heather Hensman Kettrey, ‘Gay-Straight Alliances Are Associated with Lower Levels of School-Based Victimization of LGBTQ+ Youth: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’ (2016) 45 Journal of Youth and Adolescence 1269.
11Colgan and McKearney (n 2).
12for example, see work on ethic spaces: Teri A Kirby and others, ‘The Symbolic Value of Ethnic Spaces’ (2020) 11 Social Psychological and Personality Science 867.
13Githens and Aragon (n 3).
14Kirby and others (n 12).
15Janine Nahapiet and Sumantra Ghoshal, ‘Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage’ (1998) 23 The Academy of Management Review 242.
16Wendy M Green, ‘Employee Resource Groups as Learning Communities’ (2018) 37 Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 634.
17V Paul Poteat and Olivier Vecho, ‘Who Intervenes against Homophobic Behavior? Attributes That Distinguish Active Bystanders’ (2016) 54 Journal of School Psychology 17.
18Alex M Krolikowski, Mark Rinella, and Jennifer J Ratcliff, ‘The Influence of the Expression of Subtle and Blatant Sexual Prejudice on Personal Prejudice and Identification With the Expresser’ (2016) 63 Journal of Homosexuality 228.
19Sharon S Rostosky and others, ‘Positive Aspects of Being a Heterosexual Ally to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) People’ (2015) 85 American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 331.
20Dennissen, Benschop and van den Brink (n 4).
21e.g., see Erin A Cech and William R Rothwell, ‘LGBT Workplace Inequality in the Federal Workforce: Intersectional Processes, Organizational Contexts, and Turnover Considerations’ (2020) 73 ILR Review 25.
22Dennissen, Benschop and van den Brink (n 4).
23Rod Patrick Githens, ‘Organization Change and Social Organizing Strategies: Employee-Initiated Organization Development’ (2012) 23 Human Resource Development Quarterly 487.
24Ciarán McFadden and Marian Crowley-Henry, ‘“My People”: The Potential of LGBT Employee Networks in Reducing Stigmatization and Providing Voice’ (2018) 29 The International Journal of Human Resource Management 1056.
25Wen Wu and others, ‘Needs Frustration Makes Me Silent: Workplace Ostracism and Newcomers’ Voice Behavior’ (2019) 25 Journal of Management & Organization 635; Cheng Feng Li and Ye Zhuang Tian, ‘Influence of Workplace Ostracism on Employee Voice Behavior’ (2016) 35 American Journal of Mathematical and Management Sciences 281.
26 April Guasp and Jean Balfour, ‘Peak Performance: Gay People and Productivity’ (2008).
27Eros R DeSouza, Eric D Wesselmann and Dan Ispas, ‘Workplace Discrimination against Sexual Minorities: Subtle and Not-so-Subtle’ (2017) 34 Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences 121.
28Hyunkang Hur, ‘The Role of Inclusive Work Environment Practices in Promoting LGBT Employee Job Satisfaction and Commitment’ (2020) 40 Public Money and Management 426; Jennica R Webster and others, ‘Workplace Contextual Supports for LGBT Employees: A Review, Meta-Analysis, and Agenda for Future Research’ (2018) 57 Human Resource Management 193.
29Christopher T Begeny and Yuen J Huo, ‘When Identity Hurts: How Positive Intragroup Experiences Can Yield Negative Mental Health Implications for Ethnic and Sexual Minorities’ (2017) 47 European Journal of Social Psychology 803.
31Jamie M Grant and others, ‘Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey’ (2011).
32Cech and Rothwell (n 21).
33Dennissen, Benschop and van den Brink (n 4).
34Cech and Rothwell (n 21).
35Lynn M Shore and others, ‘Inclusion and Diversity in Work Groups: A Review and Model for Future Research’ (2011) 37 Journal of Management 1262.
36McFadden and Crowley-Henry (n 24).