If you’re an employee at a company where no gay and lesbian group exists, what can you do to make a little progress in the direction of equality?
The answer is simple: start a group. But the process of actually starting one is a little more complicated. We asked some experts how you can get started.
Kim Mills, director of workplace education at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian political organization, says the first thing you have to do is make sure there isn’t already an underground group at the company that you don’t know about.
Once you’re fairly sure you aren’t duplicating someone else’s efforts, Mills says there aren’t many qualifications for the person who decides to take the first step.
“I think you just have to be motivated,” Mills says. “Usually, though, the person who steps forward has some leadership ability.”
Your next step is to determine what rules your company has about the formation of employee groups, according to Sheryl Robertson, the chair of COLLEAGUES, an umbrella organization which gay and lesbian employee groups or individuals can join. Obviously, your job will be in jeopardy if you violate any company rules while trying to start a group.
Once you’re sure the rules are on your side — or at least know what rules you will have to abide by — it is a good idea to start forming a relationship with key people in the human resources department who can be useful when the group wants to become recognized by the company or tried to obtain domestic partner benefits.
At the same time, you can meet one-on-one with some carefully chosen people to let them know what you plan to do, she says. You should also try to meet with employees that you think are gay or gay-friendly and with essential members of management, even if you aren’t sure they what their response will be.
“Make an appointment and tell them what you want to talk about,” Robertson says. She says you’ll be surprised how far one person can get if they are willing to talk a risk.
Robertson says there is no way to avoid the risk of stepping out. She says “somebody’s got to be out,” but adds that “of everybody I’ve known that’s done this, I haven’t heard of anyone that’s been adversely affected.”
“I put it on my resume because it’s leadership experience,” she adds, noting that she has been promoted since she started working with gay employee groups.
Once you have established contact with even a few people who are willing to help in the formation of the group, call a meeting. It can be a small, simple meeting after work at a coffee shop.
“If there are three of you — boom — you have a group,” Mills says.
If employees seem resistant to forming a group, take a closer look at the company to see if groups exist for African Americans, Hispanics or other minorities. If not, “the problem might be that the company hasn’t made it clear to employees that it’s OK” to form groups, Mills says. If other groups do exist, try to get advice and support from their leaders.
Robertson says once you have an established core group, even one as small as two or three people, it is important to try to become an officially recognized employee group, if that is possible at your company.
“If you want to influence, help educate and create a safer work environment at the company, go within the structure,” Robertson says.
It is also important to have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish as a group, Robertson says. Gaining domestic partner benefits is a good goal, but it should not be the only one because the group will be in danger of dying once the benefits are achieved.
Here are some additional suggestion if you want to start a group, compiled from various sources:
- Create a mission statement, and articulate your goals to all members of the group. Set timelines and make structured plans on how to achieve you goals.
- Set up a telephone number and website for your group as soon as possible. Use a company email address and web server only if allowed by your employer’s rules. If not, get voicemail and a website from a service provider.
- Even if employee groups are allowed at your company, if a nondiscrimination policy that includes specific protection based on sexual orientation is not in place, it might be best to stay outside the company’s structure and to use caution in approaching management.
- Start an email list to help members stay in touch and feel connected to the group. Again, use private email addresses for both you and the recipient if the company’s policies are not in your favor.
- Form strong heterosexual allies. Your cause will not succeed without their help.
- If your company requires you to have a member of management sponsor your group, you might not should choose the obvious choice. An open-minded skeptic can help lend credibility.
Not all gay or lesbians in the company will be willing to be a part of the group, perhaps because they are not out or maybe because they are not political. You will have to accept that.