How to Start an LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group at Work

In this guide, I’m going to show you the basic steps necessary to start an LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group at your company. I’ll be utilizing information I’ve gathered online, as well as my own past experiences and interviews with a few industry experts!

What is an ERG?

ERG stands for Employee Resource Groups, also known as Affinity Groups, which are groups based around employees’ identities or shared experiences. Examples of ERGS would be People of Color, Women and Nonbinary, LGBTQ+, and Veterans groups.

Benefits of an ERG

The mission of an ERG is to help socialize and normalize the experiences of underrepresented groups and to help guide the way for a more equitable work environment. This can be accomplished through activities, speaker series, book clubs, general discussion, and a number of different creative avenues. Organizationally speaking, ERGs usually fall under your HR or People teams.

But ERGs are so much more than that. They are a way to create psychological safety amongst employees and to provide a safe, equitable environment where everyone’s voice can be heard. ERGs allow for the minority groups to amplify their voice and perspective to ensure the company knows what they need to be successful. Plus, they are amazing for recruiting great talent.

How to start an LGBTQ+ ERG

So, you know what an ERG is and you want to start one for the LBGTQ+ and allies at your company. But where do you even begin? Check out our 6 step guide below for forming your own LGBTQ+ ERG today!

  1. Validate interest in the group
  2. Draft your guiding docs
  3. Pick an executive sponsor
  4. Work with HR to get approval
  5. Have a “vision” meeting
  6. Maintain and grow

1. Validate interest in the group

Gabe Rodriguez, Sr. Manager of Human Resources at Cision, Inc., defines ERGs as “employee-led focus groups” which “aid in the promotion of diversity, but also help to create a culture of ‘belonging’.” It’s important to note the employee-led part, as the success of your ERG will depend greatly on the employees involved.

Employees (not management) should decide which ERGs are needed. Of course leaders should have some input, but employees ultimately must voice which groups or classes of employees are underrepresented and need to be resourced.

Gabe Rodriguez, Sr. Manager of Human Resources at Cision, Inc

Each work environment is different and the mindset and temperament of your colleagues will determine how best to accomplish validating employee interest in your group. I am lucky enough to work for a smaller company with a strong culture of open communication, so asking around for interested parties to help jump-start our LGBTQ+ ERG was a breeze. But if you work with quieter, more reserved coworkers or in a less open work environment, then maybe a subtler approach of casual conversations or even a small email blast could help gauge interest in your new group.

To validate interest in your group, you could:

  1. Talk to your coworkers.
    • This is the easiest and most natural way. Have a casual conversation with your close coworkers and let them know that you’re thinking of starting and LGBTQ+ ERG and you wanted to know if they’d be interested in participating. Let them know that they can (and should) socialize it with their close coworkers as well, and have them reach out to you with any questions. You can quickly and easily find out if there’s at least a handful of people (5 or more) available and interested to help with your group this way.
  2. Use your company chat software.
    • Pretty much every company these days has a means of communicating with your team at large. Tools like Slack offer specialized rooms where you can go in and ask questions of a sub-set of employees. Find a #general room or any room around #lgbtq or #civilrights, etc, and see if you can drum up some interest.
  3. Send an email.
    • Start with a few of your close colleagues and friends who you think would be interested in an LGBTQ+ ERG and send a group email. Give them a brief overview of what you want to do and ask if they are interested. Also, ask them to forward the email along to anyone else they think would be interested. Make sure your contact details are included so that people can reach back out to you with questions or support.

Another quick and simple way to gauge interest and start building a contact list is to use a Google Form. Set up a quick, two-question form that asks, “Are you interested in having an LGBTQ+ and Allies Employee Resource Group” and “Would you be interested in helping lead said group?”. Make sure to go to settings and set the form to automatically capture emails, or else you’ll be left with a lot of responses and no idea who they came from!

2. Draft your guiding docs

Most ERGs go awry or nowhere because of a lack of direction, purpose, or leadership. A well-written charter will help the ERG stay on track and outline certain items such as scope, roles & responsibilities, budget, and decision making – to name a few.

Gabe Rodriguez, Sr. Manager of Human Resources at Cision, Inc

Your guiding docs are just that, documents that guide the purpose and execution of your group. These docs should include things like:

  • what you hope to accomplish and how,
  • how membership is determined (remember, be as inclusive as possible and don’t alienate your allies!),
  • how you will recruit new members,
  • who the forming members are,
  • how you will structure your meetings (frequency, etc),
  • how you will communicate with the group and with interested new employees,
  • what your mission statement is

[Name of group] aims to build a community of LGBTQ+ and allies within [company name] who work to educate, give back to the community, and to represent [company name] as an LGBTQ+ friendly work environment.

Example mission statement

Naming your group

Another thing you’ll have to decide on is a name for your group! It can be anything that represents the group as a whole. Sometimes the acronyms are cute, like Amazon’s Glamazon ERG and BigCommerce’s BProud ERG. Open it up to your colleagues and host a vote or brainstorm. I’m sure a great name is just a thought away!

Also, remember to think “visually” when you come up with your name. How will it look as a logo? Will it lend itself to being on a shirt or a mug? Just a few things to keep in mind.

What acronym to use

This can be a tricky one, but an important discussion to have. How will you formally refer to the LGBTQ+ members of your team? Will you use LGBT? LGBTQ+? Queer? GSRM (Gender, Sexual, and Romantic Minority)?

Here’s our advice: unless you’re in a super modern and progressive work environment, go with LGBTQ+ and allies. The plus is an important symbol to represent the not listed groups within the umbrella, and LGBTQ is a commonly recognized acronym. Queer has a pretty heavy past although it’s being slowly reclaimed by the community. Some people see it as a curse word still, so it may be best to stay away from. Finally, GSRM is a newer term that not everyone may easily recognize, so it might make it difficult to drum up attention if no one understands who you represent.

3. Pick an executive sponsor

Picking an executive sponsor is important because 1) it shows executive buy-in on your ERG and 2) it allows you to tap into someone of power to help you with your mission. Contrary to what you may think at first glance, it’s not necessary to find an executive sponsor who identifies as LGBTQ+.

“But why?” you may be saying to yourself. Well, for one, the number of openly LGBTQ+ leaders may be limited at your company, and two, having an ally as your executive sponsor can provide a useful perspective! Remember, never underestimate or alienate your allies; they are critical to your success as a whole and provide a valuable part of our community.

Ensure you get a great, supportive executive sponsor who will help the group to build advocates and will support events, budgets and communications within the organization.

Debbie Shotwell, Former at CHRO Saba Software

Finding an executive sponsor can be easy in smaller companies, but in larger ones you may need to work with your leadership teams to try and get perhaps a Director or higher involved. If you work in a start-up style environment, then you likely have the luxury of knowing your executives a little better and, hopefully, feel pretty comfortable reaching out to them.

Either way, don’t start by just throwing a net out to everyone and hoping to catch something. Instead, be intentional and thoughtful about who you reach out to and only reach out to one person at a time. Find someone whose values you believe align with your ERG’s and reach out to them via email or personally if you can. Let them know what you’re trying to accomplish, show them your guiding docs, ask for advice and feedback, and ask whether they would be interested in serving as your executive sponsor.

The typical executive sponsor responsibilities are limited, but can include:

  • Serve as the “on-paper” official in charge of the group
  • Act as a resource and filter for comms coming from the group
  • Show up to and speak at events (to show support)
  • Work with the executive team (if necessary) to fulfill the ERG’s goals

4. Work with HR to get approval

There’s a good chance your company already has a process in place for establishing new ERGs, but if not, then you can use this opportunity to work closely with them to build out said process for you and for future ERGs!

woman sharing her presentation with her colleagues
Photo by Canva Studio on Pexels.com

Start by working with your leadership/management team and your executive sponsor to reach out to your HR team. I would start with an email introduction of what you are trying to accomplish, what the group is about, the guiding docs, and the names of the ERG leadership team. While you could continue via email, it’d probably be helpful to request a meeting to discuss next steps in setting up your LGBTQ+ ERG.

Your HR team may ask you to come up with a few more documents or to create a few guidelines for the group, and that’s normal. After all your boxes are checked, you can work with your HR team to send an announcement email to the company about your new group along with contact and meeting information!

5. Have a “vision” meeting

Some of your first meetings may feel super casual with lots of talkative voices; people just bursting to get their ideas out with the group. Or you may get a more reserved group who are there more to listen than to participate just yet. Having an agenda with time limits can really help guide either group and make sure your meeting stays on the rails. It may even be worth having a volunteer act as note-keeper and time-keeper; that way, you can share meeting notes and have someone help keep you on track.

One of the first meetings you have should be your vision meeting. This is the meeting where you solicit feedback from the group on what they want to see in this new LGBTQ+ ERG. Start by providing everyone with your guiding docs ahead of time and having them available for review at the meeting, as well. You’ll also want to make sure everyone is aware of your mission statement, as this should help guide your vision meeting.

  1. Start with a quick around-the-room of introductions. Have everyone say their name, what role they have, and why they decided to join today’s meeting. This is a great way to quickly see the vastness of your cause across different roles and to help rally everyone around your mission.
  2. Next, have a brief discussion about the mission statement and what it means to each of you. Have everyone share their interpretation of the statement and also share additional things they want to be represented, if necessary. It’s always possible that you can learn something from these meetings that helps you iterate on your mission statement.
  3. Now, try to narrow down 2-3 areas of focus that your group would like to impact within the company. It could be things like “social life”, “community service”, “education”, etc. Then, time-box a discussion for each area and have people share ideas for events or actions that could contribute to the area. Remember, there are no bad ideas! Write down everything and narrow it down later. Using Post It notes and a whiteboard is a great way to accomplish this, but if you’re doing it remotely then I would recommend a Google Sheet or a specialized tool like FunRetro.
  4. Finally, wrap up by choosing 1-3 ideas/activities to schedule follow-up meetings on as action items. You’ll always want to leave your meetings with action items and owners for those items, so don’t forget!

You can send everyone off by quickly thanking them for showing up and participating and by reiterating the importance of what you all are working on. Everyone should leave feeling energized and excited for what’s coming!

Sherri Manning, Chief People Officer at BigCommerce, also pointed out the importance of having a structured employee leadership plan for the group, to make sure things run as smoothly as possible.

“Select committed leaders that view ERG leadership as FUN – not as just ‘extra work’ or not just as a career/promotion differentiator,” she said. “ERG leadership is ‘work’ so people need to have passion about the extra time and commitment required. The trade off for everyone involved is expanded exposure to projects, a chance to broader one’s skill, and more.”

“And then design your structure for leadership rotation or defined leadership terms,” she added. “No one can provide the necessary leadership and commitment indefinitely. Make this a great experience for leaders; allow them to mentor their successors and then to step back and be part of the group.”

6. Maintain and grow

Now it’s rinse and repeat! But really, a lot of what you do from here on out is just building upon what you’ve already accomplished. Here are a few ways you can iterate on what’s working, change what’s not, and grow your LGBTQ+ ERG.

six woman standing and siting inside the room
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

Form small committees

We have found it super helpful to form small committees (2-5 people) to take lead in different areas. For example, we have a social committee, a pride month committee, a pride parade committee, and a progress committee.

  • The social committee helps plan at least one small activity per month to help get people together and interacting.
  • The pride month committee works on all things pride in June, including communications, decorations, activities, etc.
  • The pride parade committee is much more specialized and only works on our presence at the local pride parade.
  • Finally, our progress committee works on company policy change and progress.

Set up an email newsletter

Set it up early so you can keep track of people who are interested and communicate out things like meetings, etc. If you want something simple, just have people sign up using a Google form and add them manually when sending an email. Be careful sending bulk email like this, though, as it will sometimes get you flagged for spamming.

We use Mailchimp (which has a free plan) to manage our communications and it works great and gives us detailed insights into how our emails are being read. It’s simple to set up an account, without a credit card required, and Mailchimp allows you to not only make sign up forms but also has a full editor and templates to create and manage sending your emails. I highly recommend it.

Don’t spam people with your messages, though. Be thoughtful and concise in your actual emails and try to spread them out so that you only send one every two weeks or less. This will vary based on your organization, but you never want people to feel annoyed by your messaging. Always listen to your audience and watch your open rates and unsubscribes to see if people are consuming your content.

Get some swag

Everyone love swag, whether it’s a coffee cup, a sticker, or the beloved free t-shirt, you’re sure to expand your visibility with some cool, free, branded products. Search around online and with local vendors to find out what your options are for shirts and swag and come to your leadership team with a proposal.

If you don’t have a budget for your organization, often the HR team (or others) will be willing to find money to help support a good cause that gives good visibility to the company. I’ve had luck in the past working with our Recruiting team, in particular, to obtain budget since ERGs are a great marketing and retention tool for them.

Heads up, printing all the colors of the rainbow can be expensive and difficult, so be prepared to make some concessions when looking to stay within a budget. Also, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with DTG (Direct to Garment) printing, which is more effective for designs with lots of colors than screen-printing. It costs a little more per shirt for large quantities, but many screen-printers can’t accommodate more than a certain number of colors. I don’t want to discourage you from making an amazing logo that uses the rainbow spectrum, but I want you to be aware of some of the limitations it presents.

Ask for support

Speaking of a budget, it’s actually common for companies to provide their ERGs with a budget to fund their activities. How much is budgeted depends on the company and the employee engagement, but it can be from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

If your ERG started without a budget, it may be worth a conversation around changing that for the next fiscal year. Remember, you want to be sensitive to things like budgeting and yearly plans, so be reasonable about expectations and timelines.

This is a time for your executive sponsor to shine, as they can help you come up with messaging and help communicate your request to the leadership team. Work closely with them to ensure your message is heard and to ensure your messaging is appropriate.

Also, you don’t have to rely solely on your HR team for funding. As mentioned above, I’ve had luck working with our Recruiting team, as well as our Support and Engineering teams and Marketing teams. If your leaders are passionate about their employees and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) then they will work with you to find what you need.

Be reliable and communicate

One of the most depressing things is to see a great idea take off just to have it slowly die down until it disappears. Help protect your LGBTQ+ ERG from fizzling out by making sure you communicate clearly and reliably with your colleagues.

We’ve already talked above about the importance of an email newsletter, but what should be in that newsletter? Well, if you’re sending only twice a month (our recommendation), then you’ll likely need to consolidate a few ideas into one email. A couple of examples of email content could be:

  • Showcasing any upcoming events
  • Reminding people of upcoming meetings
  • Sharing pictures and stories from the group
  • Running a contest
  • Do a “Share your story” campaign
  • Linking to your intranet page (if you have one)

Whatever cadence you choose for sending these messages, stick with it! Set a calendar reminder so you don’t forget when your next email is scheduled and to ensure you send it. People will come to expect and rely on these messages to learn more about your org.

Same goes with meetings, pick a cadence and stick to it! It’s easy to not remember to schedule your next meeting, so set up a recurring event or make it part of your closing meeting agenda to schedule the next meeting. Whatever you do, stay consistent and let people know what they should expect from the group when it comes to face-time and meeting.

Plan amazing events

“Ensure that, based on your guiding docs, you encourage members to participate and have events that focus on the mission and vision of the ERG and the Company. Community involvement, volunteer opportunities and fund raisers are highly effective and obviously great for recruiting talent to the organization,” says Debbie Shotwell, Former CHRO at Saba Software.

And she’s right. Planning a fun event may be as simple as having everyone out for a beer, but does that really help forward your mission? Instead, try to plan your events thoughtfully and try to tie them back to your mission and values if you can. This will help you ensure that your events are not only fun, but are also making an impactful difference in your work environment.

Some examples of events that have worked well for us in the past:

  • 90’s skate night to meet and greet with ERG leaders
  • “social hours” (instead of “happy hours”) at coffee shops to support non-alcohol drinkers.
  • virtual bingo with LGBTQ+ names and events
  • LGBTQ+ speakers, or speakers on LGBTQ+ topics
  • intersectional panels with multiple speakers from different ERGs and a shared theme
  • book and article clubs
  • local LGBTQ+ volunteerism or events

When having a “social hour” or any non-structured event, always have some discussion topics and/or games to play to keep people on track and engaged. The topics should relate back to your ERG and your mission/goals.

Conclusion

What do you think? Hopefully I’ve given you all the tools you need to start an LGBTQ+ ERG at your company. Is there anything I left out? Anything you have questions about? Just drop me a comment and let me know!

Special thanks to Debbie Shotwell, Gabe Rodriguez, and Sherri Manning for agreeing to interview for this post! You’re all amazing leaders and I’m so lucky to have you in my network!

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