Putting Differences to Work: LGBT Inclusion in Virginia’s Private Sector
Change is never easy. Adapting a corporate policy to support change can be even harder. But that hasn’t stopped many of Virginia’s businesses from embracing change and including diversity friendly policies into their work place.
“Diversity is change, whether it’s the time you come to work or the interests you have to come through – change is always going to cause some controversy,” said Bill Cooper, Deputy Director of the Richmond Federal Reserve’s office of Diversity and Inclusion. “When ever there’s a move to do something different, there is going to be challenges.”
The Fed’s policy on inclusion is sweeping – in 2009, they began developing Employee Resource Networks(ERN). These internally formed, and organically grown groups adhere to a program based on what the Fed’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion program manager Shelia’s Jackson calls “the three ‘C’s. ” – community, careers, and culture. One of the networks that sprouted from the ERN program was PRISM, which caters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees. “We recognize the business value of these affinity groups [in the ERNs], and they help with recruitment and retention of employees.” PRISM has worked internally to help management develop benefits packages for LGBT employees and their families – and who could forget the dust cloud created when PRISM put the rainbow flag under Old Glory during Pride month 2011?
While the Richmond Fed boasts the very public presence of PRISM, they are respectful the group members’ privacy – an interesting balancing act that is all part of being a diverse work environment. “Some (PRISM members) are out, others are not – being very sensitive to that membership is key. It’s specific to that group and less to others.”
While Jackson couldn’t point to any specific instances of complications from having a progressive diversity policy, she admitted it did create new challenges. “As we become a more inclusive environment, that’s going to result in conflict. We’re teaching our people how to lean into that discomfort and be able to navigate the difference so we can end up in a good place.
Cooper stressed how a company can grow from this conflict: “Any organization that toughens through that will be better when it comes out on the other side. That’s what we’re willing to do here.”
The Fed’s impact on Richmond, Virginia, and the Nation is not to be understated – though independent of the federal government, they help develop national monetary policy, and regulate and supervise financial institutions headquartered in their multi-state region reaching from South Carolina to Maryland. The success of the Richmond Fed’s diversity and inclusion practices have made them a go-to source for other corporations in the area, putting Jackson in a consulting role in some cases.
But the Fed aren’t the only influential group in the area making waves with their inclusive policies. Capital One Financial Corp., the 8th largest private employer in Virginia, has a similar collection of groups that make up their diverse work force.
“We want to put our differences to work – to add value to our business,” said Donna Schaar, Capital One’s Senior Director of Human Resources and Diversity. Schaar has been with the company for 17 years – she remembered when market trends started to shift toward inclusive diversity policies in 2003, and by 2004 diversity networks were in place at all their offices. Similar to the Fed’s program, Capital One has diversity networks for race, gender, creed, and ability. “Diversity is part of our DNA… It’s about our values, and doing the right things. And that drives us, and diversity is innate in our values and everything we stand for,” said Schaar.
Capital One’s diversity network, again, similar to the Fed’s, is required to follow business principles that help employees flourish while still embracing contrasting views. “Diversity is about difference, and innovation is about difference.” Said Schaar. “I really think that for a company’s continued success, they need to be open to different ways of thinking and different experiences as well.”
World AIDS Day is routinely observed in Capital One’s offices, a move inspired by their LGBT network. They also participated in ROSMY’s ”Spring Cleaning Day,” a day of service where they helped organize the youth group’s offices, do some deep cleaning, and help with some painting. Additionally, the 4th largest credit issuer in the U.S. offers benefits for same-sex partners firm-wide.
While financial and corporate giants have taken great steps to be inclusive, it’s also important to look at the small and medium size businesses in Virginia that embrace LGBT people in their workforce and the impact those people have on the economy. Thats where Justin Ayars, JD., President of the Richmond Business Alliance, comes in.
“We face the same taxes, the same problems, moreso because of political reasons, but our dollars are as valuable and vulnerable as everyone else’s,” said Ayars. Ayars also owns 2113, a restaurant downtown near Shockoe Bottom. He’s been working with the RBA to give a voice to LGBT owned businesses and allies in the local economy. Ayars said it was important to not limit the organization to just LGBT business people, and that including allies hearkens back to the successes of the civil rights movement of the 60′s. “Without our friends and allies, we might not be as effective, so why not include them in our activities? Sometimes political, but in this case, for business.”
There is research and studies showing the impact LGBT individuals make on the economy, locally and nationally. There are phone apps that show how gay-friendly companies are. But beyond this hard data, Ayars said businesses should be seeking any and all income options, no matter your orientation. “LGBT people are just as valued in the economy as other people, beyond any economic demographic study.”
As more corporations start to accept these progressive changes – though many still lag behind – it’s possible to look at the work they are doing as a form of advocacy. As Jackson said about the Fed’s ERNs, “The programs are designed for exposure for the group who otherwise might not have exposure. Yes, we advocate, not just for PRISM, but each of the groups.”
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