Pride in their work
Employee groups support LGBTQ+ workers
When Kathryn Fessler interviewed with Altria Group Inc. in 2008, she was disappointed to learn that the Henrico County-based Fortune 500 tobacco manufacturing company didn’t have an employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees.
As an out lesbian, Fessler considered such groups a high priority when evaluating new workplaces, but she wound up taking the job anyway because everything else about Altria was perfect for her.
However, it wasn’t just LGBTQ+ employees at Altria who didn’t have an employee resource group; no employee group existed there until the early 2010s.
Employee resource groups (ERGs) — also sometimes called affinity groups, employee networks or diversity councils — are employee-led volunteer groups that come together through a common interest or background.
“I was ready to help make it happen the day I walked in, but the company was not at that place yet,” says Fessler, now Altria’s senior director of community impact. “When we got there, I was all in.”
Five years later, in 2013, as public support for same-sex marriage and civil rights grew, Fessler co-founded an employee resource group called Mosaic, with a mission to build, celebrate and advance a vibrant LGBTQ+ community at Altria through member support, advocacy and education. Mosaic, which has about 500 members, hosts educational sessions, brings in guest speakers, sets up town halls, participates in pride celebrations and advocates on behalf of LGBTQ+ employees.
When Mosaic started at Altria, heterosexual and cisgender members outnumbered the group’s LGBTQ+ members, recalls Mosaic’s chair and co-founder, Wesley Bizzell, senior assistant general counsel, external affairs, and managing director of political law and ethics programs for Altria Client Services LLC. That dynamic has changed as the group’s membership has grown.
“This has to be an entity that creates change,” Bizzell recalls thinking at the time Mosaic started. “We are going to change the culture if we are going to do this.”
Fessler, already an experienced mid-career professional at the time of her hiring, had seen the successes that employee resource groups could have at previous workplaces. Although ERGs became more widespread in the past decade, their roots go back more than 50 years.
The first U.S. employee resource group, the National Black Employees Caucus, was started at Xerox in 1970 as a response to racial tensions, and race- and gender-based ERGs initially emphasized social networking and providing opportunities for employees within the same company to share experiences and challenges.
One of the nation’s first LGBTQ+ employee networks was started in the 1970s at Hewlett-Packard Co. Nearly 50 years later, LGBTQ+ employee groups have evolved to become key contributors to business strategy and operations at many corporations.
At Altria, Mosaic has influenced change in a variety of ways, including advocating for updates to health care and parental leave policies. Bizzell notes that the company has increased reimbursement for adoption costs and surrogate pregnancies, as well as eliminating a required infertility diagnosis. The corporation also added gender identity and expression protections to its antidiscrimination and harassment policies, and its on-site clinic’s medical forms are gender inclusive.
A few years ago, while speaking on a Zoom panel about coming out at work, Fessler had what she calls a “zenith moment.” More than 500 employees had tuned in, and the text chat was filled with supportive comments, including some from the company’s top executives.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful that feels,” she says. “We have come a very long way in a very short amount of time.”
Business case for ERGs
About 90% of major U.S. employers now have ERGs, according to a 2021 study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org. And in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2022 Corporate Equality Index, 93% of ranked corporations have employee groups specifically focused on LGBTQ+ employees’ interests.
Some of Virginia’s corporations with perfect CEI scores are Altria Group Inc., Boeing Co., Appian Corp., Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., Dominion Energy Inc. and DXC Technology Co. Capital One Financial Corp.’s LGBTQ-focused employee group won Out & Equal’s ERG of the Year award in 2021, and Boeing Employees with Transgender Family Members was named the best new employee resource group by the organization, which exclusively focuses on LGBTQ+ workplace equality.
Amid the current atmosphere of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and recent restrictions in several states on gender-affirming medical care and transgender participation in youth sports, corporations’ positions regarding LGBTQ+ rights have become increasingly important to employees. For instance, workers at The Walt Disney Co. encouraged the company’s CEO to be more public in opposing the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation; that has resulted in a yearlong feud between the entertainment company and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential hopeful.
In a January report, HRCF called on businesses to embrace pro-equality actions and workplace inclusion to meet the needs of out employees and their allies. About 10.5% of U.S. millennials and 20.8% of Gen Zers, who are now entering the workforce, identify as LGBTQ+, the report says. “U.S. employees are 4.5 times more likely to want to work at a company if it publicly supports and demonstrates a commitment to expanding and protecting LGBTQ+ rights, with Gen Z and millennials 5.5 times more likely to want to work at a company that does so,” according to the report.
At Dominion Energy Inc., the Pride ERG, which started in 2017, now has 556 participants who represent the Richmond-based Fortune 500 utility’s LGBTQ+ employees and straight, cisgender allies. It’s one of the feathers in Dominion’s cap as the company aims for 40% diverse representation (specifically women and people of color) among its employees by the end of 2026.
Pride’s leaders have “been on the front lines of more inclusive change and how that impacts our overall business,” says Maggie Hoge, a senior human resources specialist who works on Dominion’s diversity, equity and inclusion team to support its ERGs and diversity councils.
Often that takes the form of information sessions, including the teaching of terminology that is respectful and inclusive of all employees, as well as highlighting LGBTQ+ employees’ stories. A recent roundtable focused on parenting queer children.
When Ryan Key started out as an intern for Dominion in 2015, Pride didn’t exist, but the ERG was available when he rejoined the company in 2017 as a full-time employee. Now a Hampton-based project designer for Dominion, Key is Pride’s community engagement lead.
Recalling a time eight years ago when he was “very closed off, being a Black gay man,” Key says he found it “hard to be open without fear of being judged.” However, through the Pride ERG, he discovered accepting and friendly coworkers.
Similarly, Ari Taylor, a Richmond-based supply chain sustainability specialist who is Black and queer, recalls finding her way at Dominion, where she also started as an intern. She remembers the support she felt at the utility when its downtown Richmond office was lit in rainbow colors one night in June to celebrate Pride Month.
“I think it solidifies the fact that [Dominion] recognizes that LGBTQ employees and people exist throughout the workforce, throughout the community. We’ve grown to the point where we’re not just tucked away in a corner or in the cubicle and going home,” Taylor says. “So, we’ll light the building, we’ll show up at the festivals, but then we’ll also work to improve what humans have in our office building as well.”
Joining the Pride ERG also helped
Taylor find “people who understand a layer of you a little bit more,” and today she is its chair. Under her leadership, Pride has engaged with local LGBTQ+ organizations and other Dominion ERGs. She also sees Pride as a catalyst for inclusion throughout the utility, which employs 17,000 people in 16 states.
Often, executives are interested in hearing Pride members’ concerns and ideas, as well as their feedback about what’s working well at Dominion. As studies such as HRCF’s show, these conversations are important tools for recruiting and retaining employees.
“We’ve been on a journey and had conversations [including with Dominion CEO Bob Blue] about making sure policies are more inclusive,” Taylor says. “The point of the Pride ERG is to be that resource and be a middleman when necessary.”
Living their values
“The kids nowadays have that mindset [that] we as a company have to meet what our new employees are looking at and for,” says Debbie Riel, who has worked for 43 years at Arlington-based aerospace and defense contractor Boeing Co., where she is a facilities project administrator on the company’s Facilities & Asset Management team. “If we’re looking to hire the best people that are out there and the best employees coming right out of school, Boeing has to do work in the diversity field and support that and promote that, or we just will be fighting with every other company.”
Riel is a co-leader of the Boeing Employees Pride Alliance (BEPA), which has about 2,300 members and started its latest iteration in 2018, although previous LGBTQ-focused groups existed before BEPA. She also leads the alliance’s Potomac chapter in Northern Virginia and serves on Boeing’s regional diversity council.
When Riel started, she was married to a man, but later came out as a lesbian. Her first involvement in diversity work was because her parents were disabled, but it became her own cause. Her diversity work has made her “come out of her shell” more than she ever thought she would, and she has become more comfortable as diversity has grown within the company, and the world, she says.
“It’s becoming more and more prevalent that companies across the board … make diversity a big part of what they are and what they promote and what they present to the outside world,” she says.
One example of change was in 2021 when Boeing expanded benefits eligibility to domestic partners of U.S. employees, a spokesman says.
Although some corporations have had longstanding LGBTQ+ employee organizations, there are still some that are just starting. Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork product manufacturer and hog producer, just launched PRISM, which stands for “Pride, Respect, Inclusivity at Smithfield Matters.”
Smithfield had ERGs for Black employees, female workers, younger employees and people affiliated with the military, and Ron Toran, Smithfield’s director of diversity, culture and engagement, is hopeful about the LGBTQ+ group taking off.
When he first started at Smithfield about a year and a half ago, there was initial interest in the LBGTQ+ community starting a group. Smithfield saw an opportunity with its first Pride Day message to employees. Over the past several months, employees have stepped up as leaders and set up governance and framework for the group.
“I have a lot of compassion for this space, simply because I’m more focused on the inclusivity and belonging aspect that falls under diversity and for me, that means … all support and all collaborate,” Toran says.
PRISM’s mission is to provide education, awareness, advocacy and a safe space for LGBTQ+ and straight ally colleagues at Smithfield.
That, in a nutshell, seems to be what LGBTQ+ leaders want most — a voice within their companies and a safe space.
“My experience,” says Fessler, with Altria, “… is that the values that have caused Mosaic to come into existence, caused it to grow, caused us to find these ways to express acceptance, belonging and equitable experience among all of our employees. … I don’t see that wavering.
“I see it more and more evident. The more leaders — younger leaders — have come to replace the ones who have retired, and every leader I work with [or] interact with at all levels really … embrace … those values.”