Workplace diversity has been in vogue for some time, but many companies are still struggling to define what it means for their organization, why it is important, and how to include it in their talent management strategy.
LGBT in the Workplace
Seventy-four countries prohibit discrimination in employment because of sexual orientation, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. In the U.S., there is no federal law protecting employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and there is no state-level protection for sexual orientation or gender identity in 29 of the 50 U.S. states. This means employees can be fired for being LGBTQ (LGBTQ is the acronym used to address the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and queer/questioning community). As of 2018, 93 percent of Fortune 500 companies had in place non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. Some 85 percent had non-discrimination policies that include gender identity. Many companies also provide other benefits (49 percent include domestic partner benefits and 62 percent include transgender-inclusive benefits).
Although substantial strides have been made in recognizing LGBTQ issues, more than 53 percent of LGBT workers hide their identity at the workplace. This identity struggle has detrimental impacts on their health, happiness, and productivity, as well as business talent retention and leadership development.
LGBTQ employees often face hostility in the workplace. According to research by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 20 percent of LGBTQ Americans have experienced discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity when applying for jobs. LGBTQ people of color are even more likely to experience this type of discrimination (32 percent) as opposed to white LGBTQ people (13 percent). LGBT Americans do not earn as much or progress in their career as quickly as their straight counterparts—22 percent have not been paid equally or promoted at the same rate as their straight peers.
Transgender workers are especially vulnerable to discrimination. A 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey revealed that 27 percent of the transgender population said they were not hired, were fired, or were not promoted due to their gender identity or expression.
Fear prevents most LGBTQ workers from being open, forcing them to downplay or hide aspects of their true selves, such as the nature of their personal relationships (i.e., referring to a boyfriend as girlfriend) or changing the way they dress or speak. Some 46 percent of LGBTQ workers in the U.S. are closeted in the workplace. Employees report feeling exhausted from spending time and energy concealing their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Offensive jokes based on sexual orientation or gender identity are a common form of workplace harassment. Research in the U.S. in 2018 revealed that 53 percent of LGBTQ employees heard lesbian and gay jokes at work, while 37 percent heard bisexual jokes and 41 percent heard transgender jokes.
In October 2019, a Missouri police sergeant was awarded almost $20 million in damages after being told to “tone down the gayness” to get a promotion. A witness testified that one of the plaintiff’s superiors described him as “way too out there with his gayness.” In 2017, he filed a lawsuit against the police after allegedly being passed over for a promotion 23 times despite excellent performance reviews. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff that he had been discriminated against and was the victim of retaliation for making a claim. He was awarded $1.9 million in actual damages, $10 million in punitive damages for discrimination, and $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages as a victim of retaliation.
It is important for young LGBTQ professionals to have role models. A survey by LinkedIn in 2019 revealed that 70 percent of LGBTQ professionals believe they have no senior LGBTQ leaders to look up to, and this has an impact on people coming out at work.
Openly LGBTQ corporate leaders are rare. Fewer than 20 board directors in Fortune 500 companies were openly LGBTQ in 2018. In that year, Beth Ford became the first openly gay woman to run a Fortune 500 company as CEO of Land O’Lakes. Other prominent gay role models include Tim Cook, CEO of Apple.
In 2018, Dow Chemical Company CEO James Fitterling headed the list. Fitterling came out to all employees in 2014 after 30 years with the company. He is chair of Dow’s President’s Inclusion Council, which sets the scope and strategy of the company’s inclusion and diversity.
The insurance industry, often regarded as old-fashioned and conservative, has some great success story examples. Inga Beale, the first female and openly bisexual CEO of Lloyds of London, was instrumental in the launch of Pride@Lloyds, an internal LGBT employee resource group, and supported the LGBT Insurance Network, as well as doing much to change the culture at Lloyds.
The Benefits of an Inclusive Workplace
An organization with a diverse workforce can draw on the variety of talent and different perspectives employees bring to their jobs. It can improve the company’s adaptability, enhance its ability to provide services to diverse audiences, and inspire employees to think beyond their own experiences and push their boundaries.
Companies with inclusive, supportive environments have better reputations and branding; they draw better candidates for open positions and retain top talent longer. People who feel secure in their workplace, supported by policies that promote acceptance and positivity, will be more loyal, more focused on their jobs, and less distracted and stressed. This ultimately means the organization will function better across the board, with greater efficiency and increased profits.
Creating an Inclusive Environment
A diverse and inclusive workplace is a happy, healthy, safe and productive one—it’s a matter of P.R.I.D.E. Here is how you go about it:
Promote a zero-tolerance harassment policy and make it clear that employees will be disciplined or fired for wrongdoing. Encourage victims and those who have witnessed inappropriate behavior to come forward and report it
Recruit LGBTQ candidates. Job advertisements should be clear about welcoming LGBTQ applicants, and recruiters should discuss diversity and inclusion at interviews. All new staff should be invited to inclusion and diversity networking talks. Spread information and news about LGBTQ issues on social media and the Internet, as well as through advertisements and public displays to show how welcoming the workplace can be.
Identify priorities for action and highlight where strengths and weaknesses within the organization lie. Review the appropriateness and language of internal policies. Focus on inclusivity to explicitly include non-traditional families, create an inclusive dress code that avoids gender stereotypes, and review internal communication for language and imagery that tacitly assumes heterosexual families and relationships as the “norm.”
Develop LGBTQ networks and allies at all levels of the organization. Establish mentoring programs that match participants across genders, races, ages, and sexual identities. To be effective, there must be “buy-in” from the top of the organization—CEO and senior management—which will be parroted by the rest of the organization.
Encourage discussions on diversity by establishing proactive diversity programs involving the entire organization, including diversity and inclusion training and advocate more inclusive language. Discuss with employees of various genders, sexualities, and gender expressions about what would help them to feel more included.
Whether it is goals or milestones that have been met, LGBTQ meetings that have taken place, or the promotion of LGBTQ business leaders, don’t forget to celebrate your successes!
Dr. Dexter Morse is the former director of Industry Risk Management and Insurance
at The International Air Transport Association (IATA), in Montreal, Canada.