by Shayne Thomas
30 Jun 2020
5 Ways to Make Your Workplace More LGBTQ+ Inclusive
Inclusion is the only way to make diversity truly come to life at work
In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month—even though many Pride celebrations around the world have been either canceled, postponed, or moved to virtual in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—we thought we’d take a quick moment to talk about the importance of LGBTQ+ acceptance, recognition, and inclusion in the workplace.
Before diving in, it’s important to note that the tried-and-true watchwords of “diversity” and “inclusion” mean two very different things. Diversity in the workplace simply means recruiting, hiring, and developing people who come from walks of life. This could be in the form of gender diversity, ethnic diversity, and religious diversity as much as it can refer to employees of different nationalities, sexual orientations, non-binary gender identities, and beyond.
While having a diverse workforce is certainly an advantage for any company, having diversity without real and meaningful inclusion is really only one half of the equation. Creating an environment where everyone feels welcome and is empowered to bring their full self to work every day is how you can activate all of your well-intentioned diversity efforts.
The LGBTQ+ community is an employee segment that truly understands the fine nuance and delicate balance that exists between diversity and inclusion.
LGBTQ+ employees are afraid to come out at work
Up until the U.S. Supreme Court, just recently, ruled in favor of protections for LGBTQ+ employees—which was a major win for the LGBTQ+ right movement—it was legal in more than half of the U.S. states for employees to fire employees on the sole basis of them being gay, lesbian, or transgender. And while this may not have been exercised actively by all companies in those states, it certainly put LGBTQ+ employees in a precarious position for years.
Because there was always this looming specter of getting fired for having a so-called “non-conforming” sexual orientation or gender identity, nearly half (46%) of LGBTQ+ employees have had no choice but to kept their identities a secret or avoid discussing issues related to sexual orientation at the workplace altogether. In other words, for LGBTQ+ employees to survive and thrive in what could become a potentially hostile situation, many have had to impose a clearly defined separation of church and state or, rather, a compartmentalizing of the “personal” and the “professional.”
This has also been the case for many LGBTQ+ employees in states with pre-existing protections as well. After all, you just never know who in the workplace might be radically opposed to certain lifestyles and, should they find out someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, how they may respond to it—either directly or passive-aggressively. For many LGBTQ+ employees, the risk of coming out, even with protections in place, isn’t worth the potential to be suddenly faced with a work environment that essentially feeling like a living hell.
A step in the right direction, but still a long way to go
The unfortunate reality is that, while the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has, in many ways, cleared the path for LGBTQ+ employees to live without fear—of discrimination, of poor treatment, of access to fewer opportunities, of being fired—in the workplace, it doesn’t eliminate the biases and, to put it bluntly, deeply ingrained hate that still exists within people.
We still see a number of troubling trends facing this employee demographic today. Anywhere from 11-28% of LGBTQ+ employees have said that they have lost a promotion or an opportunity to grow within their company as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Even worse, the transgender and gender non-conforming communities consistently hover around a 15% unemployment rate, which, during non-pandemic times, is roughly three times higher than the average unemployment rate across the United States.
A lot of this discrimination often stems from unconscious bias. And as we’ve already learned, that’s not something that can be “fixed” overnight. It takes a lot of work, effort, and focus to break away from bad habits, especially those that are completely unintentional.
One way to go about this is to make organization-wide changes that actively seek to eliminate bias wherever it may rear its ugly head. Ideally, these changes should take shape in your hiring processes, performance assessments, succession and leadership plans, and beyond.
However, in the absence of wide-spread changes that will inevitably have long-term implications, there are a number of things companies can do now to make their workplaces much more inclusive for LGBTQ+ employees:
1. Nipping discrimination in the bud
No kind of discrimination should ever be tolerated at work. Unfortunately, many people still approach discrimination on a sliding scale: how they may treat or perceive one minority demographic may be vastly different from how they treat another. But as a rule of thumb, your company should have a zero-tolerance policy for any sort of discrimination. This should cover everything from blatant acts of hate to unconscious “micro-aggressions”—in other words, anything that could potentially make employees feel uncomfortable or threatened.
However, there’s one thing that separates an inclusive workplace apart from a non-inclusive workplace: taking these kinds of anti-discrimination policies seriously and, when aggressions of any kind occur, taking swift actions to address the issue immediately. Obviously, how you “reprimand” employees for discriminatory acts will vary based on the severity of the act itself. Still, if an employee comes to you, as an HR professional, with a complaint or if you see discrimination in action, it’s your responsibility to take it seriously. Creating an inclusive workplace comes down to one thing: eliminating any attitudes, behaviors, and actions that make it anything but inclusive.
2. Talk about sexual orientation and gender identity openly
There are many people in this world who don’t know a gay, lesbian, or transgender person—or much less anyone else along the LGBTQ+ spectrum. And because they don’t have intimate knowledge or access to this community, aside from stereotypes they may see play out over and over again in the media, anything and everything LGBTQ+ might seem very out of the ordinary. In fact, it might even make them feel uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say or what pronouns to use, how to act, or what to do in the presence of LGBTQ+ people. This is not their fault. They just haven’t had exposure to this community before.
Having open and candid conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation, even if it may be uncomfortable for some at first, is the best way to remove the stigma that exists as a result of, again, unintended ignorance. By essentially removing the elephant from the room, you, as a company and as HR professionals, can work towards creating a safe workplace where employees, from all walks of life, learn to recognize and embrace differences with more open arms. Knowledge is power when it comes to creating an inclusive workplace. The more you talk about oftentimes sensitive issues, the greater chance you have to remove pre-existing stigmas and make certain topics feel a little less taboo. As an added perk, it opens the doors for employees to be more understanding, compassionate, and thoughtful about their future interactions with LGBTQ+ employees.
3. Help transgender employees feel safe
Transgender people face challenges in their day-to-day lives that many of us can’t even fathom. The fact that the current administration has been adamant about removing transgender bathroom policies is an example of both the blatant discrimination transgender people and widespread misunderstanding of the challenges faced by the transgender community.
The workplace is no exception to this rule. But regardless of where someone is in their transition, the value they contribute as an employee doesn’t change. Unfortunately, many people simply don’t understand what it is to be transgender or the toll it takes, mentally and physically, to undergo a transition process. Because of this, companies need to go above and beyond to ensure that their transgender employees feel safe and secure at the workplace. Whether it’s a matter of introducing inclusive bathroom policies or adding more options than just “male” and “female” on a job application—and many more things in between—being aware and sensitive to this growing community’s needs will go a long way.
4. Embrace intersectionality
Just because an employee may identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that defines them. Many people today have mixed backgrounds. At the office, you might have a black lesbian female, an Asian gay male, a Latinao (that’s not a typo!) male-to-female transgender person, and beyond. The point here is that, when it comes to diversity, no one really ever fits squarely in a box. Nor should they. Creating a more inclusive workplace means creating an environment where people are seen as their whole selves and not put into specific boxes based on their component parts. The great thing about this is that it enables leaders, managers, employees, consultants, vendors, and more to see each other for the value they bring to the organization and not about how they tick specific diversity boxes. In this way, inclusion is really about empowering people to be the best employees they can possibly be by embracing all of the aspects that make them unique. Each of us is unique in our own right. Many of us come from intersectional backgrounds. That, in and of itself, is powerful!
5. Lead with empathy
We’ve talked a lot about empathy before, so I won’t drone on too much about it here. But it’s important to note that empathetic organizations—from leaders all the way down to rank-and-file employees—are those that have the upper hand when it comes to creating diversity and inclusion programs that really make a difference. Why? Because empathetic organizations value treating each other with respect and dignity as well as supporting employees along their career path to be the best and most successful they can possibly be, regardless of how they identify. It’s a matter of valuing people as people, above everything else.
Being empathetic, however, doesn’t mean being “warm and fuzzy” all the time. It’s about words just as much as it’s about actions—and doing the right thing to ensure all people feel safe, respected, supported, and empowered at all times. This is the epitome of inclusion.
It’s time to focus on inclusion
A diverse workplace is only as strong as the measures it puts into place to foster real and meaningful inclusion. Whether it’s to support the safety and security of LGBTQ+ employees or to create an environment that allows all employees—regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, age, and so on—to bring their full selves to work every day and thrive like never before, you start to see that the answer to fostering inclusion at the workplace really comes down to embracing a wholly unbiased mindset.
If you need a little help creating a more inclusive workplace, the good news is that the team at Cornerstone has a few tips and tricks up our sleeves. Reach out to us today to get started.