Opening the Closet Door: Next-Level Inclusion for LGBTQ Employees 

Your company has likely already taken the necessary legal steps to ensure equal opportunity for its LGBTQ employees. Even before The Supreme Court officially included sexual orientation and gender identity under Title VII protected classes last year, most private sector employers had already implemented “check-the-box” nondiscrimination policies. 

By all accounts, 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, in 2002, only 5% of rated businesses afforded protections based on gender identity. In 2020, that number rose to 98%. 

Your company also probably understands the business case, and hopefully the moral and ethical case, for creating a diverse and inclusive workforce. You may even have taken steps to further LGBTQ inclusion by creating employee resource groups or making public commitments to the LGBTQ community. 

But Stop Kidding Ourselves

On the surface, workers seem to be respecting each other’s differences and companies seem to be making positive progress. Yet if that’s the case, then why are 43% of LGBTQ employees still closeted at work? 

Some more insightful stats: 

  • 47% of LGBTQ employees believe that being “out” at work could hurt their career. 
  • 75% have reported experiencing negative day-to-day workplace interactions related to their LGBTQ identity in the past year.
  • 1 in 5 LGBTQ Americans have 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%).
  • 22% of LGBTQ Americans have not been paid equally or promoted at the same rate as their peers.
  • 53% of LGBTQ employees heard lesbian and gay jokes at work, while 37% heard bisexual jokes and 41% heard transgender jokes in 2018.
  • 1 in 5 LGBTQ workers report having been told or had coworkers imply that they should dress in a more feminine or masculine way.
  • 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, almost half of LGBTQ workers aren’t comfortable bringing their authentic selves to the workplace. And for good reason. They fear that discrimination associated with being openly LGBTQ will cause damage to their career, limit their opportunities and pay, and negatively impact their emotional wellbeing.

We must look below the surface to truly understand the impact workplace cultures have on LGBTQ employees. 

Create Ongoing Positive Experiences 

The truth is, we are doing some things well, or at least heading in the right direction. But we haven’t done enough. LGBTQ workers must feel included on a daily basis at work. This requires meaningful strides that must start at the top. According to McKinsey Quarterly’s “LGBTQ+ Voices: Learning from lived experiences”:

“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.”

So how can company leaders improve the ongoing workplace experience for LGBTQ employees?

Big Steps

Stop Misconduct Early

One of the best ways to prevent workplace discrimination, harassment, and bullying — as well as promote inclusion — is to show employees that company leaders take misconduct seriously and will act swiftly and effectively to resolve incidents. Unfortunately, the hardest part of this is getting people to report bad behavior in the first place. 

Even with an external reporting measure in place, like an anonymous hotline or a reporting app, when companies manage investigations internally or don’t resolve incidents quickly and effectively, employees are scared to report misconduct because of fear of retaliation and/or a hostile work environment. The EEOC says that 75% of incidents don’t get reported for this very reason. Furthermore, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation reports:

“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.”

The best way to overcome 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. 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. 

Implement Reverse Mentor Programs 

Reverse mentoring fosters understanding and accountability by giving leaders insights into the experiences, challenges, motivations, and needs of diverse employees. These programs help leaders stay connected to what it means to be a certain type of person in a particular workplace, providing a better understanding of how to make things better. As McKinsey Quarterly points out:

“The experience can be transformative, even for executives who are already promoting inclusion. A participant described mentoring his company’s president: ‘He’s not homophobic or anything like that. He’s pretty open. But he never realized what needed to be done. It was only by engaging more, by having a direct example of what it means to be gay in the workplace that he realized, “I need to get more involved, and visibly involved.”’”

(For some practical reverse-mentor program implementation ideas, check out this Harvard Business Review article.)

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Recruit for Diversity More Intentionally

A study led by Dr. Stefanie K. Johnson examined the relationship between the diversity of finalist pools and the chances of a woman or minority being hired. When there was only one woman or minority candidate in a pool of four finalists, their odds of being hired were statistically zero. However, when that number increases to at least two women or minorities, the odds of hiring a woman were 79 times greater and the odds of hiring a minority were 193 times greater. 

Now, if you find that your entire candidate pool is the status quo, find diverse sources. Ask your LGBTQ employees for referrals. Get involved with professional recruiting events for LGBTQ students and professionals. Contact LGBTQ organizations for recommendations. For instance, here’s a list of LGBT Professional and Student Associations from the Human Rights Campaign.

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. There are countless options here, but asking your LGBTQ employees for their input is a good place to start. A few ideas: 

Small (But Might) Steps

Smaller steps may not require board-level approval, but they will certainly pack a meaningful punch to discourage LGBTQ discrimination and improve the daily lived experience for LGBTQ employees.

Use Correct Pronouns

If you don’t know a person’s preferred pronoun, find out in a respectful manner: Send a group email to the office (not to specific employees) and let them know your prefered 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.

Display Visual Support

Large or small, visible displays of support tell your employees loud and clear that you support LGBTQ employees and expect the same from them. A few ideas to get you started: Hang a Pride flag, feature an LGBTQ employee on social media or newsletter (with the person’s permission), invite speakers to share their experiences, or host a Pride party. 

Implement Inclusion and Unconscious Bias Training

If you don’t already require employee inclusion and unconscious bias training, add it to your annual training package. According to McKinsey, “LGBTQ+ survey respondents whose organizations provided employee training on inclusion and unconscious bias were 1.4 times more likely to feel very included in the workplace.”

Ultimately, companies that develop more truly inclusive cultures will benefit via improved financial performance, stronger innovation, less attrition, and a more engaged workforce. Plus, with more and more Gen-Z and millennials entering the workforce, the importance of diversity and inclusion will only become more paramount. As company leaders, you don’t just have an ability and opportunity to create ongoing, positive experiences for our LGBTQ employees. You have a responsibility.

Jared is founder and CEO of Work Shield, a start-to-finish workplace harassment and discrimination reporting, investigation, and resolution solution that protects employees, employers, and cultures at the same time. Jared practiced law and ran a practice focused on human resources, ERISA, benefits, and employment matters for over 15 years and is a knowledgeable resource on workplace culture and harassment and discrimination issue. 

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