MERGE Makes Strides Toward LGBT Workplace Equality

Kate Opalewski
By | 2016-09-08T09:00:00-04:00 September 8th, 2016|Michigan, News|


Coming out at work is becoming easier for LGBT workers with inclusive policies making their way from the board room into the everyday culture of the American workplace. Things are progressing and there is a demand for more equality, but hard-working Michigan employees are still at risk of being fired or harassed on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Equality Michigan’s Department of Victim Services tracks at least 50 cases of LGBT employment discrimination each year. Compounding the issue, since 1974, is a Congress that repeatedly rejects legislation to protect LGBT workers in the private sector. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been introduced in every Congress since 1994 except the 109th, and defeated. ENDA was replaced by a more comprehensive Equality Act in 2015 that will take time to pass through the current Congress as there is no clear pathway. In the meantime, Michigan is one of eight states with campaigns working in 2016 to amend existing state anti-discrimination laws, such as the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, to protect the LGBT community.
Many Fortune 500 companies decided long ago not to wait for change to happen. They have implemented their own policies and practices against LGBT discrimination in the workplace. The Big Three automakers, for example, were some of the first companies to adopt healthcare benefits in June 2000 for same-sex domestic partners of salaried and hourly employees. Over the course of 30 years, employee resource groups (ERGs) have increasingly become the best vehicles to help a diverse range of people obtain a voice within large corporations and influence change.


Julie Geiger of Deloitte & Touche, Brandon Johnson of Ernst & Young, Jesse Johnston and Jamie Liegerle of General Motors, and Gary Johnson of Fiat Chrysler.

LGBT-specific ERGs are one way employees can gain acceptance and build understanding on the job, and at the same time help their businesses flourish. They promote an inclusive environment that helps companies to hire and retain the best employees. They also help companies reach out to LGBT customers, improving their bottom line.
The Michigan Employee Resource Group, or MERGE, has been meeting once a month for the past ten years to discuss topics ranging from how to increase LGBT ERG membership to social and judicial issues that impact the community. The networking organization is made up of LGBT ERGs from major corporations in southeast Michigan.
“Several of us who were members of other Detroit-area ERGs had been chatting informally and saw an opportunity for something a little more structured to share stories and best practices,” said Adam Bernard, associate director of competitor intelligence at General Motors. Bernard is also the chair of GM Plus (People Like Us), the company’s affinity group since 1993 (officially in 2000) for direct, contract and retired employees of GM Corporation, its subsidiaries and affiliates, in support of LGBT workplace equality.
“We share ideas on a variety of things, including how to keep members active and participating within the ERGs, and sharing ideas or addressing LGBT issues within our companies. Events are designed to be informal and social in nature,” said Bill Peters, senior IT project manager in the Application Development Project Management Office at Ford Motor Company. Peters is also the chair of Ford GLOBE, the company’s LGBT ERG established in 1994 under the name “Ford Family,” which changed a year later to GLOBE.
Both GM Plus and Ford GLOBE, in collaboration with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA), formed MERGE in 2006 as a social group of the Big Three ERGs. Bernard notes that George Westerman, who at the time was part of IBM’s ERG (and later went to work at Affirmations), was the one who came up with the original notion of the group. “Partnering with MERGE was an easy decision,” said Jim Houston, vice president and district manager for South Oakland at Comerica Bank. “We are committed to becoming the financial services provider of choice to the LGBT community and other diverse communities. Through our participation, we work to increase customer access to experienced colleagues who understand the unique needs, perspectives and opportunities of individuals and businesses in the LGBT community. Our participation also supports our workplace diversity efforts. I know that, personally, I chose to accept a position with Comerica Bank because of its sponsorship of LGBT events. When I was considering a job offer from Comerica, seeing the bank’s sponsorship of Motor City Pride helped ease my concerns about the bank’s culture of acceptance for LGBT employees,” Houston said.
Comerica has earned a second consecutive perfect 100 rating on the 2016 Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index — a measurement of how equitably large private businesses in the U.S. treat their LGBT employees, consumers and investors. “One of Comerica’s best practices was the creation of our diversity training program, called Master of Diversity Awareness. The program encourages employees to grow in their understanding of and appreciation for diversity. This can be accomplished by participating in diversity initiatives, attending community events and participating in diversity training and a variety of other activities,” Houston said.
The HRC compiles an annual list of the major companies who have met the criteria of being a best employer to work for. Eight Michigan-based corporations received a perfect score from HRC: Ford, General Motors, Dow Chemical Co., Dykema Gossett PLLC, Kellogg Co., Herman Miller Inc., Steelcase Inc., and Whirlpool.
In 2002, only 13 businesses nationally scored 100 percent; today, 407 businesses achieved this top rating, spanning nearly every industry and investment throughout the world. This year’s CEI contains 70 new businesses that opted into the survey. In addition, the number of rated businesses affording specific protections for transgender employees has increased significantly from 5 percent to 87 percent. Even transgender medical coverage has gone from a rarity to common, according to the 2016 CEI report, with 40 percent of Fortune 500 businesses now offering these crucial benefits.
For the 12th consecutive year, Ford has received a 100 percent on the HRC CEI, and continues to remain a leader in LGBT corporate equality. “We are very proud of this achievement,” Peters said. He said the company has a public facing website that serves multiple purposes and supports the company’s efforts within the LGBT community.
“It is a conduit for communications with people that may not be comfortable emailing using corporate email. It also communicates externally that Ford GLOBE is active in many places. This can result in vehicle sales because of Ford’s supportive and inclusive policies,” Peters said.
So what can other companies do to improve their rating? “We would recommend partnering with the appropriate persons within the organization to work on possible solutions and action to close the gap,” Peters said. Bernard added, “The key is an engaged leadership team that sends a positive message of diversity from the top down because they will make the policies enabling you to meet the HRC criteria.”
Or, directly connect with MERGE for support and information on how to strengthen an LGBT ERG within a company.
“We have seen our ability to help companies that are a little newer to this space,” Bernard said about developing a workplace culture that welcomes input from a wide variety of individuals with diverse beliefs and backgrounds. “A couple of things we consider best practices include our storytelling (informing leadership about the community from both a personal and business standpoint), our education and training (which includes PFLAG Straight for Equality training) and our new mentoring program for LGBT and allied individuals. I think we’ve learned some lessons from other companies as to how to engage and interact with leadership, which has shaped our own internal communications,” Bernard said.
MERGE collaborates with the Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce, among other organizations. They discuss best practices and challenges for LGBT ERGs using tools provided by the chamber via Out and Equal, the world’s premiere nonprofit organization dedicated to achieving LGBT workplace equality. Together, both organizations hosted a monthly meeting in March at the Detroit City Distillery in downtown Detroit, where representatives from around 10 companies attended. The overall goal of the event was to determine if Michigan companies are on the same page in regard to LGBT workplace equality and the amount of support given to LGBT ERGs.
“We wanted to know the pros and challenges LGBT ERGs are still facing in the workplace,” said Kevin Heard, board president of the chamber. “While the information gathered is not reflective of all companies that are a part of MERGE, it gives us a starting point.”
Some common pros listed were:
– Size of ERG organization.
– Involvement at company events.
– People within ERGs are acknowledged.
– 75 percent ally participation.
– Human resources puts forth effort to equalize benefits.
– Executives support the ERG organization.
A few of the challenges listed were:
– LGBT participation is lacking.
– There is a lack of protection in workplace laws and companies should do more to change that.
– The ERG is not promoted within the company.
– Members are afraid of management backlash — dealing with religious coworkers and LGBT employees.
– Human resources is not versed on LGBT rights, requests or laws.
“The only common practice I see is that all of these companies have ERGs, but are they given the tools to be truly impactful? Or after marriage equality, are employers easing up on the focus? Is it a company culture issue? For workplace equality advocates, marriage equality was a huge step, but it was only the beginning. We have no protections in the state for LGBT employees. We have faith that our business and advocacy community will push to get that changed, but first, all must be on one accord,” Heard said.
“MERGE is trying to make that happen, and the chamber will be more than happy to continue these conversations and help create best practices for any company that wants to develop an ERG or scale their current ERG,” he added.
Networking opportunities are made possible during MERGE social events. This month’s mixer is scheduled for Sept. 8 at 5:30 p.m. on the patio at Como’s at 22812 Woodward Ave. in Ferndale.
Coming up, MERGE will be represented during an Out and Equal conference in October this year in Orlando, Florida.
“We are excited about the work that is happening. There are some dedicated individuals stepping up to provide leadership and advance LGBT equality,” said Andrea Shorter, director of community relations of Out and Equal. “People spend a majority of their waking hours at work whether it’s in the office, online or remotely. We need to be authentic and treated and supported in an inclusive manner. Our overall quality of life depends upon that. MERGE is doing some good, critical work in Michigan. We are cheering them on.”

About the Author:

Kate Opalewski
Kate Opalewski is BTL's features editor and has been since 2015. She has covered a variety of topics ranging from art, politics and community outreach. Recently, she was honored by the Detroit Police Department LGBT Advisory Board for her work for the local LGBTQIA community.