In a promising time when huge steps are being taken to ensure a more LGBTQ-inclusive workplace, the real work lies ahead of us. An immeasurable amount of time is spent ideating on ways to continue supporting those important moves while creating new ones. Your company has more than likely already taken the necessary legal steps to ensure equal opportunity for its LGBTQ employees. With the Supreme Court officially including sexual orientation and gender identity under Title VII protected classes earlier this year, most private-sector employers had already “checked the box” of implementing fully inclusive nondiscrimination policies.
Your company also probably understands the business case, and hopefully the moral and ethical case, for creating a diverse and inclusive workforce. In fact, you may have taken steps to further LGBTQ inclusion by creating employee resource groups or even making public commitments to the LGBTQ community.
It’s true that businesses have made significant progress in the past 20 years with wide-scale adoptions of LGBTQ-specific practices and policies. According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) 2020, only 5% of rated businesses in 2002 afforded protections based on gender identity. In 2020, that number rose to 98%. But even with these advances, more needs to be done.
Statistics on Stigma
From the outside, workplace communities seem to respect each other’s differences and companies seem to be making positive progress. But if that’s the case, then why are 40% of LGBTQ employees still closeted at work? Some recent insightful stats:
• 1 in 5 LGBTQ Americans has experienced discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity when applying for jobs. LGBTQ people of color (32%) are more likely to experience this type of discrimination than white LGBTQ people (13%).
• 47% of LGBTQ employees believe being “out” at work could hurt their careers.
• 50% of LGBTQ workers nationwide feeling compelled to be in the closet on the job
• 41% experiencing more than ten types of negative interactions related to their LGBTQ identity at work in the past year.
• 22% of LGBTQ Americans have not been paid equally or promoted at the same rate as their non-LGBTQ peers.
• 53% of LGBTQ employees report hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people, 41% transgender-specific and 37% bisexual-specific jokes
• 1 out of 5 LGBTQ workers avoided a special event at work such as lunch, happy hour or a holiday party due to an unwelcoming environment.
• 31% of LGBTQ workers say they have felt unhappy or depressed at work.
Despite inclusive and equitable policies and high-level corporate commitments to inclusion, the diversity fault lines are still prevalent. Almost half of our LGBTQ workers fear that discrimination associated with being openly and authentically themselves will cause damage to their career, limit their opportunities and pay and negatively impact their emotional well-being. It’s a grim reality that could be helped by implementing a strategic approach to re-instilling their faith in leadership.
To understand and work on lowering these numbers, we must first acknowledge the impact workplace cultures have on LGBTQ employees.
Taking the Necessary Steps: Affirming LGBTQ Employees in the Workplace
In all honesty, we are getting some things right — or at least heading in the right direction. But there is still more work to do. LGBTQ workers must feel affirmation and inclusion on a daily basis at work. Most of the effort to make this possible begins at the top. According to McKinsey Quarterly’s “LGBTQ+ Voices: Learning from lived experiences” report, “When employees see company leaders express support for LGBTQ+ rights, refuse to tolerate discrimination and hold that ground when the going gets tough, they believe that their employer will support them if they choose to be open about their identity.”
No matter how closely we personally identify with our LGBTQ employees, as managers, women and minority business owners and leaders, many of us can understand firsthand some of the struggles they are facing.
So how can we leverage our own experiences and leadership positions to improve the ongoing workplace experience for LGBTQ employees?
Making the Moves Towards Solutions
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
When businesses invest time and resources in what’s important to LGBTQ employees, it is a public demonstration of leadership’s commitment to supporting its people. While dedicating funds may not be possible for this year’s budgeting, decide now to make it a priority for the coming fiscal year. There are countless options here but asking your LGBTQ employees for their input is a good place to start. A few ideas:
• Sponsor Pride events
• Donate to and learn more about the efforts of the HRC Foundation
• Affiliate with your local LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce
• Set up and support the forming of an Employee Resource Group to address LGBTQ workplace issues and educate others. The 2018 Corporate Equality Index reported that “97% of LGBTQ ERGs are sponsored by an executive champion who connects the group to the upper management of the company.”
Stop Misconduct Early
It may seem difficult to imagine, given the hardest part of this is getting people to report bad behavior in the first place. A low-hanging opportunity to decrease the prevalence of workplace discrimination, harassment and bullying — as well as increase inclusion — is showing employees that company leaders take misconduct seriously and will act swiftly and effectively to resolve incidents.
Studies have found that only 6% to 13% of individuals who experience harassment file a formal complaint. That means that, on average, anywhere from 87% to 94% of individuals did not file a formal complaint. The EEOC says that 75% of incidents don’t get reported for fear of retaliation. Furthermore, according to a 2018 Human Rights Campaign Foundation report “The top reason LGBTQ workers don’t report negative comments they hear about LGBTQ people to a supervisor or human resources? They don’t think anything would be done about it — and they don’t want to hurt their relationships with co-workers.”
Bringing an external incident management partner to the table shows employees that you take them seriously and you are committed to dealing with concerns fairly. It also demonstrates that company leaders hold themselves accountable for behaving ethically and equitably. The best way to overcome a fear of reporting is to take the company out of the equation (i.e., the intake and investigation of these issues) by partnering with a third party that offers safe reporting, impartial investigations and ensures clear, quick resolutions to the employer.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
When we set expectations at the top for how employees should be treated, the influence and impact will quickly trickle down the ranks to create a more equitable workplace for our LGBTQ+ employees. Smaller steps may not require Board-level approval, but they will certainly pack a meaningful punch to discourage LGBTQ discrimination and improve the daily experience for LGBTQ employees.
Show of Support
Visible displays of support tell your employees loud and clear that you support LGBTQ employees and expect the same from them. Such displays might look like hanging a Pride flag, featuring an LGBTQ employee on social media or newsletter (with the person’s permission), inviting speakers to share their experiences or hosting a Pride party.
Use Correct Pronouns
Often, people make assumptions about the gender of another person based on the person’s appearance. If unknown, here is a respectful way to find out how someone identifies: instead of singling out specific employees, send a group email to the entire office and let them know your preferred pronoun. Then ask recipients to let you know if they have a preferred pronoun.
Normalize LGBTQ Relationships
When we refer to LGBTQ people’s significant others correctly (partner, spouse, etc.), it demonstrates respect and normalizes the relationship to the office at large. Don’t assume that all co-workers are straight. Not making assumptions will give them the space they need during the coming-out process.
Implement Inclusion and Unconscious Bias Training
In a time when so many organizations are deciding the best path forward, reflect upon the obligation to your company when it comes to recognizing LGBTQ inclusion. Company leaders have a responsibility to create ongoing, positive experiences for our LGBTQ employees. With more and more Gen-Z and millennials entering the workforce, the importance of diversity and inclusion will only become more important to top performers and prospective employees.
Reflecting upon the obligation to the organization when it comes to recognizing LGBTQ employee inclusion could lead to climbing financial performance, stronger innovation, less attrition and a more engaged workforce.