Working Wonders

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Out & Equal Workplace Advocates has been building bridges between business and the national LGBT community for 10 years. As the group brings its annual summit to Austin, thousands of employees, employers and allies show up in support of workplace equality.

When Selisse Berry completed her studies in education and theology, she felt more empowered than ever to begin a career in the seminary. With master’s degrees from the University of Texas and the San Francisco Theological Seminary, Berry felt prepared for whatever life might throw her way. But when her sexual orientation precluded her from becoming ordained, she was outraged.

“I spent the next couple of years trying to figure out how to deal with that,” she says. “That’s still what motivates me every day.”

Berry channeled her indignity and anger in to productivity, and in 1996, she became the director of Building Bridges, a training program that advocates LGBT-friendly work- places. As the organization’s only staff member, Berry built alliances with other likeminded groups, and by 1999, the nonprofit Out & Equal Workplace Advocates was formed.

The San Francisco-based group champions safe and equitable workplaces for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people, and advocates building and strengthening businesses and organizations that value all employees, customers and communities. As the nation’s only nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to advancing workplace equality for LGBT people, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates hosts networking events and continues to employ the Building Bridges training program in its outreach to businesses and industries. The organization has grown in to one that employs 17 staff members and has 14 regional affiliates, including one in the Dallas area. And the group’s annual Out & Equal Workplace Summit, hosted most recently in Austin in September, brings together thousands of LGBT employees, human resources and diversity professionals and allies from across the country.

“I think society is changing, partly because more people are coming out at work,” says Berry, the founding executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. “They don’t want to have to choose between a life of integrity and a career they love. And they shouldn’t have to.”

According to the Out & Equal Workplace Culture Report, more than 500 major companies currently provide protection for employees from discrimination in hiring and firing based on sexual orientation, while 466 provide diversity training that includes sexual orientation. Even fewer offer domestic-partner benefits to their same-sex employees, and in 30 states, it is still entirely legal for employers to fire someone because of their sexual orientation. That’s despite the evidence showing that companies with equal-employment opportunities and welcoming workplaces have higher employee productivity and better employee performance.

Though Berry concedes the workplace situation for many LGBT people is significantly better than in years past, she maintains there’s still much work to be done. That’s why Out & Equal Workplace Advocates stays busy educating companies and helping them put in place workplace policies that enable people to feel comfortable about coming out.

This year’s Out & Equal Workplace Summit at the Austin Convention Center attracted more than 3,000 attendees and featured speakers such as the U.S. ambassador to Romania, the CEO of Clorox, the general manager of Microsoft, columnist and TV personality Arianna Huffington, and the president of AT&T California, as well as more than 100 workshops relating to workplace equality, and caucus sessions for more in-depth discussion of issues.

“I’ve been told four or five times every year at the summit what a life-changing experience it is,” Berry says. “A lot of LGBT people are proud to bring there companies here. People have really responded positively.”

Looking to the future, Berry says the next frontier to conquer involves encouraging companies to make specific culture changes that will result in more equal workplace environments. It’s also important, she says, for the group to tackle the issues facing many transgender people.

“We’re looking at ways that we can put policies in place to protect them,” Berry says. “I think that within the next five years we’ll have an employee non-discrimination act passed, and that will be a real wake-up call for a lot of employers.”

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