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An employee resource group (ERG) is a group of employees with varied status who actively engage in communicating and/or meeting around a central unifying purpose, mission, background or activity. As many of you know, LGBT ERGs are stronger than ever and serve an important purpose for their members. Throughout 2011, professional men and women representing more than 14 Fortune 1000 corporations convened in a roundtable breakfast to share a common passion: strengthening the value proposition of their LGBT ERGs within their parent organizations.

The roundtable breakfast was formed by Robyn Streisand, executive committee chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce of New York (NGLCCNY), an organization dedicated to furthering business opportunities for the LGBT community in New York City and Neil Cerbone, president of Neil Cerbone Associates, an LGBT owned consulting firm that specializes in diversity and inclusion transformations. Each was confident that their collective experience, intelligence and perspective would generate a series of strategies and tactics from which all could benefit. Their mindshare was significant; it enlightened and clarified, but most of all, it inspired.

Attendees responded to three catalytic questions designed to maintain focus, expand perspective, ignite thinking, foster participation and transform mindshare into traction.
• How does an ERG prove its value to its parent company? What works and what does not work? Nearly all ERGs promote policies (91 percent) and LGBT visibility (89 percent) to create inclusive workplace. Nearly three-quarters also provide LGBT leadership development opportunities.
• What expectations are realistic? What does a successful relationship look like?
In their programming, LGBT ERGs provide much more than a social network, although networking continues to be a strong value for a majority of ERGs.
• What role does organizational executive leadership play in strengthening the relationship?
• Starting a LGBT ERG is an exciting challenge; but being a founder will require time, energy and courage. Anyone considering forming an ERG should be clear on one question before starting. This could mean taking progressive steps such as forming a social or mentoring network, pursuing domestic partner benefits, transgender-specific healthcare coverage, improved diversity policies, altering the workplace environment and implementing other LGBT-friendly policies.

In attempting to answer these questions, the group recognized that it had actually discovered a number of challenges that frequently interfere with establishing and sustaining ERGs:
• How to expand ERG membership beyond a small number of passionate people, so they do not become overburdened juggling functional responsibilities with ERG commitments;
• How to escape the stereotype of being a social club without losing the benefits and opportunities that social networking provides to members;
• How to meaningfully justify the ERG in terms of a business case that will resonate with the "C" suite;
• How to engage and clarify the role of "C" suite executives;
• How to leverage the experiences of mature and younger ERGs to the benefit of both; and
• How to maximize traction and avoid being limited to think tank status.

Cerbone, who facilitated the roundtable, acknowledged that these are challenges faced by virtually all ERGs regardless of minority or industry. As the group continued its exploration, several best practices emerged:
• Take the time to listen to the entire LGBT community in your organization; tap the grapevine, conduct a survey. Stop selling the ERG and asking for support; start listening to what’s important to your LGBT community beyond joining or not joining your ERG.
• Engage and educate straight allies as members of the LGBT ERG... allies are non-LGBT supporters of the community, and their engagement has been one of the more successful outreach efforts of ERGs.
• Connect with other ERGs and conduct integrated meetings with mixed membership.
• Engage in volunteer community activities that are not specific to the LGBT community to raise the profile of the ERG.
• Work against stereotype; extend your visibility beyond typically gay causes. Be visible in places where they don’t expect you to be.
• Remove the word "networking" from all ERG activities. That word screams "social club." It also screams that I have to know how to "network," which is a social skill that many lack and therefore, avoid. Networking can be a pleasant by-product, not an objective.
• Conduct meetings that are directly related to your specific business (i.e. in a pharmaceutical firm, the LGBT ERG hosts a panel that examines the impact of a specific new drug indication.)
• Schedule ERG meetings that are not connected to breakfast, lunch or dinner. Design them as panels, symposiums, etc.
• Fully leverage your internal resources. Schedule meetings with your marketing, public relations and learning organizations and learn how they build their business cases. They know what will resonate and what will not, they know who in the "C" suite is better able to understand and support a case built on logical evidence rather than concrete data, which may be difficult to determine.
• It is critical when building and presenting any business case that the flip side of the coin is completely avoided. The moment the sentiment "it is the right thing to do" emerges, the business case begins to deteriorate. It is important to keep in mind that even though it is the right thing to do, business cases rely solely on tangible evidence and ROI. Don’t try to mix them; they are combustible.
• Publish bulletins that connect the LGBT community to subject matter that is relevant to your "C" suite.
• Look for quick wins that prove your business case; often times, securing the right speaker at an event creates positive PR.
• Work with HR to ensure all "C" suite executives understand how their Human Rights Campaign rating impacts their bottom line.
• There is nothing more precious than access to "C" suite executives. There is nothing more powerful than lending their presence. This takes some ingenuity. While it is true that the "right" executive can draw a large crowd, if they are the only "star," those LGBT people considering attending begin to imagine what they will have to do get find two minutes to engage them. It is possible to leverage one "C" suite executive to encourage other executives to attend the same event. The message to those who might attend... the more of them there are, the better the chance there may be to engage.
• Leverage passionate straight allies to engage and educate your "C" suite executives.
• Work against stereotype. Participate in high profile company events without calling undue attention to LGBT issues, but make sure all concerned are aware there is LGBT involvement.
• Set very specific objectives when collaborating with other ERGs without the benefit of a facilitator. Replace phrases like, "engaging in a dialogue," "sharing ideas," "looking for synergy," or "seeking partnering opportunities," with more specific objectives like, "How did you get your ’C’ Suite executives to attend a certain event," "What did you do to get some funding from your organization," or "How did you get marketing to help you prepare your business case?"

While ERGs face many challenges, they promote diversity in the work place and are the catalyst behind massive initiatives and undertakings globally aimed at bettering LGBT workplace rights. The number of LGBT ERGs continues to rise and ERG leaders are reporting activity in exciting new horizon initiatives, but they tend to be unorganized and susceptible to fractured leadership and loss of momentum because they are formed by employees who volunteer their time and often function within a grassroots structure. A more structure that outlines participation and undertakings within the group helps it succeed.

All it takes to implement the best practices mentioned here is commitment, diligence and ingenuity. And when you are part of the LGBT community, it seems as if those attributes are mere table stakes. The structure of these groups have adapted through time because of changes in culture and society. Ultimately LGBT ERGs have come a long way since the first ones in 1970 and employees across the United States are happier because of the benefits they provide and likewise businesses are more profitable. ERGs ultimately bolster the bottom-line of a company in several facets by increasing the standard and quality of living of its employees.

Robyn Streisand, executive committee chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce of New York and president and CEO of the Mixx, and Neil Cerbone, president of Neil Cerbone Associates, contributed to this column.

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