How Employers Can Avoid ‘Rainbow Washing’

Matt Gonzales By Matt Gonzales June 21, 2022
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How Employers Can Avoid ‘Rainbow Washing’

​For most of her career, Maranda Milia hadn't worked for a company that celebrated Pride Month for the right reasons.

Milia, who identifies as LGBTQ, said most of these organizations openly observed the occasion for public optics rather than to truly promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in support of the LGBTQ community. And she believes this is typically the case at many employers.

"It's unfortunate because working for a company that doesn't value the importance of educating their employees or ensuring an inclusive workplace is very hard for an employee," she said. "From personal experience, not being able to be out at work is a large burden for someone to carry."

Luckily for Milia, she no longer experiences this issue working as a human resource generalist for employee experience platform Kazoo + WorkTango, an Austin, Texas-based company that Milia says provides an inclusive environment for employees of all backgrounds.

But if Pride celebrations aren't coupled with meaningful action, such as implementing initiatives to ensure safe work environments for LGBTQ employees and donating to relevant causes, then the organization is engaging in "rainbow washing," which can compromise recruitment and retention efforts while also discouraging workers from coming out at work.

LGBTQ Workers Want Action

LGBTQ inclusion requires more than just openly celebrating Pride. Several recent reports indicate that LGBTQ workers look at a company's track record of equality and inclusion when considering a job. For example, a series of studies by HR consulting firm Veris Insights found that:

  • Nearly 70 percent of LGBTQ women and 60 percent of LGBTQ men have disengaged with an employer due to perceived lack of representation in the workplace.
  • 80 percent of LGBTQ candidates said perception of "an inclusive and equitable workplace" is highly important to the decision to accept a job offer.
  • 44 percent of LGBTQ candidates have felt that an employer was primarily interested in recruiting them to achieve diversity hiring goals.
  • 86 percent of LGBTQ students find it important to feel comfortable being out at work.

Chelsea Schein, director of university recruiting research for Veris Insights and lecturer in legal studies and business ethics for the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has encountered many LGBTQ candidates and students who express skepticism about the commercialization of Pride. Social media is even filled with memes poking fun at the inauthenticity of corporate Pride gestures.

Nonetheless, corporate involvement in Pride is still viewed as a positive sign for LGBTQ workers, even if they know that companies are engaging in rainbow washing, Schein said.

"Being present at Pride is viewed as a boon to queer students," Schein explained. "As one student Veris Insights interviewed noted, 'They took the employees to Pride … and it was so cool to see that [the business leader] was able to do that with a large company, and them being open to it. I'd love to work at a company where I could do that myself.' "

Jobs site Indeed conducted a survey of about 1,000 full-time professionals who identify as members of the LGBTQ community to better understand their current workplace experiences. According to the findings:

  • 87 percent of survey respondents said they researched their company prior to applying to ensure it was LGBTQ-friendly.
  • 71 percent said they checked the company's social media accounts to make sure they were LGBTQ-friendly.
  • 61 percent said they spoke to current and/or former employees.
  • 45 percent reported that they checked employee benefits to ensure they were inclusive.
  • 30 percent said they researched company leadership to gauge sentiment and inclusion.
  • 24 percent reported they checked the company's profile and/or mission to ensure their values aligned with their own.

"LGBTQ+ employees want a company that provides a sense of belonging and psychological safety," said LaFawn Davis, senior vice president of environmental, social and governance for Indeed. "We spend so much time at work with our colleagues conversing, interacting, collaborating and taking that extra measure to prevent discrimination."

Making an Impact: Practical Tips for Companies

Schein said engaging in Pride activities isn't a bad thing. It is one signal of an affirming environment for LGBTQ employees.

But research shows that LGBTQ workers want more. Employers can signal that they are a safe place for LGBTQ employees by celebrating and elevating diverse voices within their organization, which can include:

  • Highlighting pro-LGBTQ and pro-inclusion company policies and attitudes.
  • Spotlighting on the website employees whose gender falls outside of the binary.
  • Engaging LGBTQ employee resource groups and employees in the recruiting process.
  • Mentioning health benefits relevant to the LGBTQ community during the offer process.

Factors such as flexible work options, bias training and the implementation of pronouns also make a difference in creating an LGBTQ-friendly workplace.

"An LGBTQ+-friendly workplace looks like an inclusive and diverse environment that offers employees all the necessary tools to do their jobs well," Davis said. "It makes them feel safe, comfortable, accepted, supported and valued."

Kazoo + WorkTango has made efforts to promote DE&I, increase inclusivity for LGBTQ workers and avoid rainbow washing. For example, the company runs job descriptions through gender-bias software to ensure that each job post is inviting regardless of a candidate's identity.

Patrick Manzo, CEO at Kazoo + WorkTango, said the organization has also found value in reaching out to its openly LGBTQ-identifying employees to get their perspectives on the employer's inclusion efforts. The company then incorporates that feedback into an action plan for Pride Month and beyond.

"While leaders often think they are doing enough to create an inclusive workforce, it's imperative to seek out different perspectives to ensure inclusivity is felt across the organization," Manzo said.

Davis implored companies to remember that their track record, messaging and core values are becoming increasingly relevant for LGBTQ workers.

"Companies should know that an inclusive workplace is not a one-size-fits-all solution," Davis explained. "It takes significant work, and long-term systemic change can happen as long as they put in the time and effort."


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