A new nonprofit aims to make corporate offices friendlier to LGBT employees by boosting the visibility of straight allies.
Based in San Francisco, the two-year-old Friendfactor is using a competition template to engage both Fortune 500 companies and leading business schools from across the country. By challenging participants to engage allies on campus or in the workplace, the nonprofit hopes to foster greater LGBT awareness and acceptance in the business community.
“The main premise for why we work with these two communities is in the modern world we spend most of our time with the communities we develop in the workplace,” said Friendfactor CEO Joanne Sprague, 32, who identifies as a straight ally. “There is a high opportunity for a locust of change there when people identify as allies in the workplace. It impacts the rest of their lives in their community and church.”
The nonprofit’s competitions come as increased attention is being paid toward LGBT workplace policies. This week President Barack Obama signed an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.
A New York Times analysis in May explored why there are no openly LGBT chief executives at America’s leading businesses. It referenced a recent report from the Human Rights Campaign that found many LGBT people, no matter their job title, remain closeted at work.
“The HRC report said the workplace is the last closet,” noted Sprague.
Initially a New York-based organization focused on advocacy work, Friendfactor re-launched on the West Coast in July 2012 under Sprague’s leadership. During the 2012-2013 school year it organized its first MBA Ally Challenge, crowning the Columbia Business School the inaugural winner.
“If we can educate and engage people while they are at school why being an ally and standing up as ally is important, it has an impact when they became a manager and move up the ranks,” said Sprague.
This past school year, with 12 business schools competing, Columbia won for a second time. The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan earned second and third, respectively. The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia received the Most Improved award.
“I chose Columbia, in part, because of its visible LGBT community. I knew that for the first time in my life, this part of my identity would not be hidden,” said Dyanna Salcedo, an out lesbian and co-president of the school’s LGBT group known as Cluster Q. “Columbia delivered, and the MBA Ally Challenge has only helped boost that visibility even more.”
According to Friendfactor, 60 percent of the student body at Columbia was engaged to be LGBT allies as part of the friendly competition.
“It is a validation for the student body creating a very accepting MBA program,” said Ted Kirby, 28, who graduated in May and is the outgoing co-president of Cluster Q. “We had 750 people sign up as allies.”
A gay man who will join Deloitte Consulting in the fall, Kirby said the contest serves the dual purpose of making Columbia a more welcoming place for LGBT students while also educating straight students about how they can be advocates in the workplace after they graduate.
“A lot of corporations have the right policies in place and have those LGBTQ resource groups people can join. They do outreach to show LGBT students they can be out and flourish,” said Kirby, who purposefully chose to be out on his resume when applying for jobs. “That being said, I think there are a lot of places in this country where it is still not okay to be out. A lot of states don’t have equal protections under the law.”
This year Friendfactor launched its Workplace Ally Challenge to bring its campus-based competition into the workplace. Eight Fortune 500 companies from around the country competed between January and June to engage as many allies as possible in building inclusive workplaces.
In a sign of how embracing LGBT issues in corporate boardrooms can still be controversial, however, three of the participating companies asked not to be identified publicly.
“It was something we offered,” explained Sprague. “We are a nonprofit and the goal is to advance the mission. Telling companies they can’t participate if their compliance department or CEO is risk averse goes against the vision of the organization.”
Of the other five competing companies, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, headquartered in San Francisco, won the contest. The second-place finisher was ConAgra Foods, based in Omaha, Nebraska, and Southern California Edison took third place honors. The other two public companies that competed were Bank of America and Pfizer.
“In communities with small LGBT populations, there are usually plenty of people supportive but they don’t have a way to step up and show that,” said Elizabeth Liedel, 32, a senior specialist in community relations at PG&E who is a straight ally.
A classmate of Sprague’s at Duke University’s business school, Liedel served on Friendfactor’s board for a year beginning in September 2012. When the nonprofit launched its workplace contest, she sought permission from PG&E executives to take part.
The company has long embraced LGBT issues, signing on as San Francisco Pride’s first corporate sponsor in 1986 and creating one of the oldest LGBT employee resource groups. It routinely scores 100 percent on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index.
Yet within its corporate offices there was very little visibility promoting its pro-gay policies and culture, noted Liedel.
Working with the company’s PrideNetwork Employee Resource Group, Liedel helped coordinate a number of activities to engage LGBT allies among the 4,000 employees working in the downtown San Francisco offices. Roughly 15 percent of the local workforce was engaged by the campaign.
“My motivation was not external attention for PG&E but cultivating the right environment internally,” said Liedel.
As part of the competition, employees were given “I’m an ally” cards they could post in their workstations. The company also sponsored its first float in the Pride parade that featured the PG&E mascot Helmet, modeled after its workers’ requisite safety gear.
“We have talked about honoring an ally of the month to keep that awareness going so people don’t think June is the end of it all,” said Gabe Trevino, 38, a gay man who lives in Concord and has worked for the company a dozen years, currently as a business operations analyst.
President of PG&E’s 400-member LGBT employee group, Trevino estimated that 25 percent are straight allies.
“We love our allies. We love that word. And we want to create that environment,” he said.
Collectively, the eight companies that participated in the inaugural workplace challenge reached nearly 2,000 professionals through 69 ally engagement activities, according to Friendfactor. In the space of just six months, LGBT awareness and the inclusiveness of workplace culture at the organizations increased by 18 percent and 10 percent, respectively, said the nonprofit.
Other than recognition at an awards ceremony, set to be held from 6:30 to 11 p.m. this Saturday, July 26 at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, there are no cash prizes handed out to the winners.
“The point is to show your company cares about LGBT equality and having an LGBT inclusive workplace. It is not about money or an award,” said Sprague, who is running Friendfactor with an annual budget of $100,000.
Matthew S. Bajko – Bay Area Reporter
Rick Gerharter – Photo