Getting to true inclusion for LGBTQ employees requires much more than an anti-discrimination policy in the handbook or rainbow branding each year for Pride month.
Companies can make big changes, such as implementing inclusive benefits and policies for LGBTQ employees and intentionally recruiting for LGBTQ representation. HR can also take smaller steps like including personal pronouns in communications and HR systems and providing employee training to decrease the frequency of microaggressions such as automatically asking women about husbands or boyfriends and men about wives or girlfriends. Other steps include the following:
Whether large or small, visible expressions of support let everyone know that you back your LGBTQ employees. “Symbols and signals are really important,” says Jeff Nally, SHRM-SCP, chief coaching officer and CHRO at CoachSource, a leadership coaching company in Franklin Lakes, N.J. “Even having a rainbow flag flying all year round or having the workplace marked as a safe space with an LGBTQ symbol speaks volumes.”
Employers can sponsor Pride events, partner with relevant nonprofits, be conscious about how people are represented in marketing materials, and encourage LGBTQ employees and allies to share their stories.
Mikal Kelaidis, a sales development manager at Limble CMMS, a maintenance software company in Salt Lake City, adds that any messaging expressing understanding of or allyship with LGBTQ workers is helpful, whether it’s on social media, in company branding or in the employee handbook.
“When talking to candidates, recruiters can speak to how the company supports LGBTQ employees, along with diversity and inclusion in general, by tying that support to values,” he says.
Nally says organizations that are truly successful at achieving inclusion consistently demonstrate their support—at town halls and quarterly business updates, as well as in everyday interactions with employees. “Little things mean a lot,” he says. “But they’ve got to be more than just tokens. They must be backed up by action.”
Commitments to inclusion must be more than surface level, agrees Mike Spinale, SHRM-SCP, vice president of people at Blue Lava, an information security management platform in Menlo Park, Calif. “Make the steps to be included on the HRC’s [Human Rights Campaign’s] corporate equality index. Be an advocate for legislation like the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in employment.”
Empower Affinity Groups
They go by various names, but employee resource groups (ERGs) for LGBTQ employees and allies are a central element of an inclusive workplace.
“Being part of a supportive group at work like an ERG is a huge lifeline for many in the LGBTQ community,” says Ella Slade, who leads worldwide LGBTQ inclusion activities at IBM. “Being able to tap into a community of other LGBTQ people is so important.”
Liberty Mutual’s Pride@Liberty ERG was founded in 2014 and has more than 3,500 members. “The group engages members through programming topics like career development and the unique lived experiences of LGBTQ people of color,” says Ron Oppenheim, director of marketing at Liberty Mutual and national co-chair of Pride@Liberty. The group’s podcast, called Proudcast, amplifies their stories and highlights how the LGBTQ community intersects with others, he says.
Data-sharing platform Splunk’s ERGs are so effective because they’re well-funded from the top, says Tony Vincent, senior manager of global partner strategy at the San Francisco-based company and leader of its Pride group. Splunk’s Pride ERG focuses on social support of the LGBTQ community and also helps with sourcing talent, leading trainings and making recommendations to leadership, says Rolddy Leyva, chief diversity officer at Splunk. All the ERGs welcome allies, and each one has a C-suite sponsor.
Coming Out at Work
True equality for LGBTQ employees is an ongoing struggle, but employers can help. Read More
Jon Muñoz, chief diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) officer at strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Va., says much of the company’s progress on LGBTQ inclusion—which includes accomplishments such as being recognized for 12 consecutive years with a perfect score on the HRC corporate equality index—began with the creation of resource groups in the 1990s.
The company’s LGBTQ resource group is “aligned with the firmwide DE&I strategy and action plan, provides support to the talent acquisition function, builds support and programming for engagement and retention, does volunteerism outreach, manages some external partnerships, and stays very involved in support of the community overall,” Muñoz says.
ERGs can be valuable resources to support LGBTQ employees, but only if they’re resourced and funded and ERG leaders are given the autonomy they need, says Bryce Celotto, founder of Swarm Strategy, a DE&I consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C.
“The companies that treat ERGs as social clubs or add-ons without the appropriate budget can do more harm than good and increase the level of burnout among employees trying to support the community,” he says. “They must be treated as real organizational priorities.”
Many people want to be allies of their LGBTQ colleagues but may have questions and feel curious to learn more. And some business leaders are still wondering why it matters if someone can bring their authentic self to work.
“The ‘why’ must be addressed before the ‘what’ and the ‘how,’ ” says Josh Saterman, CEO and founder of Saterman Connect, a consulting firm in New York City that supports HR leaders with DE&I strategies, professional coaching and leadership development.
“So when someone on the team comes out, team members can feel more comfortable and prepared to move from bystander to upstander,” Saterman says. “Education provides moments of recognition and acknowledgment that are powerful. Creating a welcoming, inclusive environment begins with education.”
Celotto adds that making sure middle managers—the people responsible for the day-to-day implementation of DE&I practices—are held accountable for modeling a culture of inclusivity is what often gets lost. “You can have leadership buy-in, trans-inclusive health care and the best ERGs, but if the managers aren’t modeling inclusive actions and aren’t fostering psychological safety, then DE&I goals will not be met.”
Offer Inclusive Benefits and Policies
This is often where the rubber meets the road—where commitment to inclusion goes beyond well-meaning statements and symbols.
“A foundational piece to supporting the LGBTQ community is providing benefits tailored to include LGBTQ employees,” Oppenheim says. “When we consider policies at Liberty Mutual, we recognize that families come in a variety of forms. From health insurance benefits such as gender-affirming care or adoption and surrogacy benefits that do not require a medical diagnosis of infertility, to parental-leave policies that are inclusive of all, our policies reflect the multidimensionality of our employees and their relationships and families.”
Muñoz proudly shares that Booz Allen’s milestones of inclusion go back decades: a full suite of benefits for LGBTQ employees in 1997, family-leave programs for LGBTQ families in 1998 and gender transition benefits in 2010.
Associated Bank, Wisconsin’s largest bank holding company, headquartered in Green Bay, is another HRC perfect score recipient. The gender transition support Associated provides was critical to Elizabeth Byers, a product analyst and assistant vice president at the company, who underwent gender-confirmation surgery in December 2021.
“When I was on the cusp of coming out at Associated back in 2018, I was apprehensive, nervous and scared,” Byers says. “I didn’t know of anyone else who had ever come out as trans at Associated and wasn’t exactly sure how it would go. It was the biggest leap of faith I’ve ever taken.”
Byers’ fears evaporated as she was greeted with “open arms and smiling faces,” she says. The company supported her throughout her transition journey, which was especially consequential during a difficult post-surgery recovery.
“Associated has been there for me through every struggle and every success and assured me that I would have the time and space to take care of any post-op requirements I would need to fulfill,” she says.
Coming out at work can be formidable. But breaking through that pivotal moment carries a payload of fulfillment for both the individual and the organization, measured in well-being, productivity and retention.
“It’s truly liberating to be out at work—to be myself,” says Natasha Getler-Porizkova, brand inclusion leader at LivingHR, an HR services firm in Tampa, Fla. “If you work at an organization that does not approve of or is not accepting of you being out, then you’re in the wrong place. There are a lot of organizations that create safe spaces for LGBTQ employees and will accept you with open arms.”
Roy Maurer is an online writer/editor for SHRM who focuses on talent acquisition and labor markets.