The LGBTQ+ population is growing quickly. In 2012, 3.5% of the U.S. population identified as LGBTQ+. In 2017, that percentage grew to 4.5%. And millennial percentages are even higher: In 2018, 8.5% of U.S. millennials—those born between 1981 and 1996—identified as LGBTQ+. In Canada, the LGBTQ+ population is believed to be even higher. According to a 2017 Fondation Jasmin Roy survey, 13% of Canadians belong to the LGBTQ+ community.
With increasing numbers of LGBTQ+ employees in the workplace comes a greater responsibility for organizations to create inclusion and diversity programs to ensure LGBTQ+ employees not only feel safe at work but also that they can excel in their careers. These programs are designed to be carefully maintained and nurtured to become part of a company’s mission and not just the employee handbook.
Research conducted by Glassdoor in 2019 in the U.S. reported that 53% of individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ experienced or witnessed anti-LGBTQ+ comments by co-workers. A recent study also suggested that nearly 50% of LGBTQ+ employees remain closeted at work for fear of being stereotyped or that it would jeopardize their professional connections.
In the U.K., about 18% of LGBTQ+ employees or prospective employees say they have been the target of discrimination in the workplace, according to a 2018 Stonewall report. In Canada and Australia, this percentage was a staggering 40%. Furthermore, 2 in 10 Australians said they’ve experienced physical violence in the workplace due to their sexual orientation.
This discrimination—or fear of discrimination—can turn skilled and talented employees away from your business.
According to a global study conducted by McKinsey & Co., companies in the bottom quartile for gender and race diversity are statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns. Inversely, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.
So how do you create a culture of safety, inclusivity and diversity in your workplace to support your LGBTQ+ employees and strengthen your company?
Know the ‘why’ behind your mission
You’re ready to get your inclusion and diversity programs up and running. Great! But before you do, take a step back. For your program to succeed and get internal buy-in, “the ‘why’ and the mission behind it needs to be agreed upon by all,” says Teddy Heidt, the founder and CEO of the Gauge Collective in Chicago and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Before you can envision a desired impact, identify why an LGBTQ+ initiative is important to your organization. “Any inclusion initiatives you roll out should be responding to challenges you’ve identified through your people or engagement data,” says Ryan Vincent, a member engagement executive at INvolve, a U.K.-based corporate membership organization and consultancy helping businesses to build more diverse and inclusive cultures.
According to a global study conducted by McKinsey & Co., companies in the bottom quartile for gender and race diversity are statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns.
“Sometimes organizations will try and start initiatives from the top down, and a few months down the line they find there’s no engagement or impact and then scrap them. When this happens, it’s usually because people from all levels of the business haven’t been involved in the development process—you have to find out what the lived experiences of your people are and what support they actually need to navigate any barriers they’re facing,” Vincent says.
To accomplish this, Vincent suggests tools like employee engagement surveys and exit interviews. “Ask questions about diversity and inclusion in these instances. They can tell you a lot about the experiences of diverse communities in your workplace,” he says.
Put your words into action
Heidt says one of the biggest mistakes an organization can make when talking about inclusion is allowing it to be a surface-level conversation instead of an action. He says that as a former employee, he would look to work at organizations that backed up their talk of inclusion with action like partnering with nonprofits or running initiatives in the workplace. Establishing roots in the LGBTQ+ community outside of the office shows a dedication to the mission of inclusion. Consider donating to nonprofits that support the LGBTQ+ community in your area. Another idea is to purchase items like lunches, prizes, etc. from LGBTQ+-owned businesses.
One way to make your “why” more concrete: Include it in your company mission statement. Your mission statement is often your first impression to potential clients and employees, so let them know what you stand for right off the bat. Companies like Coca-Cola and Google are outspoken about their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
You should also adapt your internal and external communication strategies to relay your updated mission. Heidt suggests leveraging your leaders to share personal stories about why this is important and why you’re making the change to be more inclusive.
Create internal consultant groups
You don’t necessarily need to hire an external consultant to help structure your inclusivity and diversity programs. Tap employees who are already part of the LGBTQ+ community. “There’s a sense of value that comes when an organization leans on an employee for insight,” Heidt says.
If you know of employees who are “out” in your workplace, ask if they would be interested in teaming up to serve as consultants within the organization. This team can help you build outside partnerships, attract potential LGBTQ+ candidates and retain individuals already working for you.
These groups are commonly known as “employee resource groups” or ERGs. “Leverage them as a business resource,” Vincent says. “They will know best what challenges diverse communities are facing in your workplace and, more broadly, can act as an excellent source of ideas for how business policies and practices can change to be more inclusive.
“You have to be careful not to exclude anyone, and to be aware of intersectional identities and all the communities and identities within LGBTQ+. Ensuring all voices are accounted for when developing your initiatives is really important,” Vincent adds.
Vincent says some things you can do to mitigate that risk are to encourage and empower your ERG to work together more frequently on events and initiatives. “In siloing initiatives, you can sometimes force those with intersectional identities to have to choose which facet of their identity they want to identify with on any given day.” Tying initiatives and groups together can help avoid exclusion and provide a holistic view of inclusion.
Additionally, it’s imperative to speak with other organizations and invite diversity and inclusion experts into your business to identify any blind spots. “You can’t know what you don’t know, but someone else will be able to point it out. No one should compete on diversity and inclusion, so take advantage of industry networks and use them as learning opportunities to find out about best practice[s] outside of your organization,” Vincent says.
Own your mistakes
You’re not going to get it 100% right, but taking ownership of your missteps solidifies honesty and transparency within your organization.
“As the world changes and as our community continues to grow and become more prevalent, there are some gray areas,” Heidt says. “A brand or organization that is willing to learn from things and grow from it is huge.”
Committing to transparency during these mistakes solidifies your mission of inclusivity to both your LGBTQ+ employees and those looking in from the outside.
The LGBTQ+ community is continually growing and changing, so what may be correct today may not be tomorrow. “It’s going to continue to change, so there’s opportunity to learn at all levels,” Heidt says.
The LGBTQ+ community brings a wealth of knowledge and creativity to the workplace, but if 50% fear the consequences from coming “out” at work, then that energy is spent on keeping up appearances rather than turning it into profit for your company. “If you don’t embrace who we are and the skills that we bring to the table, you’re going to also be ignoring a larger and larger population as time goes by,” Heidt says.