Awareness has never been higher of LGBTQ+ colleagues in our society. Celebrations and festivals, such as Pride, Trans Day of Visibility and IDAHOBIT have brought attention to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people within our society.
Meanwhile, high-profile individuals ‘coming out’ and championing their choices give others the confidence to declare their sexual orientation. Great progress has been made towards acceptance within our communities, yet the workplace remains an area where many LGBTQ+ people fear discrimination and a detrimental impact on their career progression.
What can you, as an employer, do to redress this? How can you harness the pride and positivity shown in consumer-facing news and events to make your workplace more inclusive? And, in so doing, how can you help LGBTQ+ colleagues feel psychologically safe and able to bring their true and best selves to work?
Opening up about LGBTQ+
We saw a watershed moment when the 2021 Census in England and Wales asked about sexual orientation and gender identity for the first time posing two optional questions for people aged 16+:
- Which of the following best describes your sexual orientation? Straight heterosexual, gay or lesbian, bisexual, or other?
- Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?
92.5% of respondents aged 16+ answered the first question with 89.4% identifying as straight or heterosexual. Around 1.5% of people (748,000) identified as lesbian or gay while 1.3% (628,000) identified as bisexual.
The second question was answered by 94% of respondents with 93.5% saying they identify with the same gender as their sex registered at birth while 0.5% said their gender identity and sexuality at birth were different. While seemingly a very small percentage, this, nevertheless equates to around 250,000 people considering themselves to be transgender.
Workplaces need to act
As society opens up further to accept LGBTQ+ individuals, workplaces must get their house in order to be equally accepting. Quite apart from the fact the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policies won’t accept any discrimination, employers who don’t have a workplace that welcomes LGBTQ+ people are missing out on a significant talent pool which is only set to grow.
For many younger LGBTQ+ people, coming out coincides with their coming of age at university. Emerging as graduates eager to enter the talent pipeline, they will be among the brightest minds available to businesses. Workplaces with clear EDI policies, LGBTQ+ networks and representation at senior management and board level, will stand to gain most.
Meanwhile, older LGBTQ+ people in the workplace are almost certainly losing emotional, physical, and creative energy to hiding their identity, watching their words and behaviour and not being their authentic selves at work for fear of reprisals. Imagine untapping that energy and enthusiasm for your workplace by making it inclusive?
I know there is work to be done here. Our most recent Inclusive Top 50 Report showed that LGBTQ+ staff at Executive Board level is the least reported data 41.38% of employers not holding this information, an increase on last year’s 27.45%. It’s not much better at Senior Management level with LGBTQ+ data being the least reported here too, with 32.76% of employers not providing this data, an unwelcome drop of 11.19% compared to 2021. In 2021, 29.4% of companies who took part in our survey had LGBTQ+ representation at Executive Board level but in 2022 this decreased to 24.14%.
Not easy, but certainly possible
Creating an inclusive workplace where LGBTQ+ people can feel welcome and wanted won’t be plain sailing for most organisations. But that’s no excuse for not making a commitment to making changes. Here are a few steps to help get you started.
Create a network
Experience shows that networks are vital to ensure voices are heard, policies are formed, updated, and upheld and any necessary actions are taken. Start by forming an LGBTQ+ network, including colleague ambassadors, within your organisation. Speak to other employers who have shown success in this area or call in expert help to shape this.
Lead by example
Make sure your LGBTQ+ network is engaged with your C-suite and HR teams and that it includes people from senior management. If none of your senior leadership team is LGBTQ+, look for anyone who is considered an ally by your group. (And make a note to address your lack of diversity at the top of your company!)
Walk the Walk
The best intentions have no value if they’re not followed through. Having formed your network and identified your LGBTQ+ champions and allies, give them a voice, listen to their views and act on their requests and recommendations.
Cascade best practice
I often hear from managers how headway made in head offices loses momentum as it cascades through the organisation with commitments made in meetings not always translating or reaching to the operational level such as field sales, the shop floor, site workers and operatives. This is especially the case in male-dominated environments such as construction, Engineering and Tech. Ensure they are represented in your LGBTQ+ network and involved in company training and social activities.
In the last six or seven years we have seen a lot more corporate support of LGBTQ+ events. While encouraging, flying the flag for LGBTQ+ rights on ‘high days and holidays’ amounts to nothing if your own culture lacks diversity and inclusion. Take an honest look at your organisation, educate, and train all levels of employees, and deliver on your policies to ensure your support of LGBTQ+ individuals and their culture is authentic and meaningful.
From education comes empathy.
Instigate training and awareness building through talks, webinars and open discussions. It can help to invite outside speakers to break the ice and start the conversation. Encourage people to come with an open mind ask plenty of Q&A.
… and explain
Having got the topic in the open, create regular opportunities for people to speak freely, ask and answer questions. Invite LGBTQ+ colleagues to host these sessions and explain how they feel, what matters to them and the challenges/barriers they face.
CORRECT CONDUCT AND BEST BEHAVIOUR
Eliminating discrimination around LGBTQ+ colleagues will be a gradual process but, over time, decisive action, clear communication, and upholding codes of conduct by the senior management team will help to stamp it out. These tactics will help set the correct tone at work.
Have zero tolerance
Take a public and defiant stance that no bullying, name calling, discrimination or derogatory ‘banter’ will be accepted about LGBTQ+ colleagues, their allies, or champions. Ensure that anyone expressing any kind of homophobia is dealt with severely.
Call it out
Witnessing discrimination and saying nothing is as bad as being the perpetrator of such abuse. Empower colleagues to call out anyone they see using homophobic language or behaviour. Embed this in the culture so that everyone, irrespective of their job role or experience, feels supported and safe.
Encourage LGBTQ+ people to name their allies and invite them to speak up, join the Network and engage in all activities around promoting and supporting their colleagues. Be mindful that allies – especially those who are not LGBTQ+ themselves – may need support and protection to ‘stand up to be counted’ among their peers.
Mind your language
Using LGBT-inclusive language and imagery are key to inclusivity and help reinforce accurate and positive representation. Work with your LGBTQ+ network and stakeholders to review and revise the language and representation within your organisation to be both careful and respectful of gender identity.
MODIFYING WORKPLACE BENEFITS
An LGBTQ+ lifestyle can disproportionately affect individuals in the workplace: being aware of this and making some small adjustments will make a big difference including:
- Creating a safe space for people to speak openly and share any concerns
- Having unisex toilets and/or placing sanitary bins in the men’s cubicles
- Offering fertility treatment to all colleagues, bearing in mind that LGBTQ+ couples are likely to find this helpful
- Being mindful that LGBTQ+ couples looking for fertility, IVF or other family planning support will find this physically and emotionally tough: offer flexible work hours to ease their journey
- Providing access to specialist services to support transgender people as they transition: especially when facing surgery, hormone therapies and any counselling as they navigate their transition
- Making access to mental health services easy: signpost services around the workplace and make it clear there is no stigma attached to using these
Paving the way
While there is a long way still to go for full acceptance of LGBTQ+ colleagues, in terms of workplace diversity and inclusion, LGBTQ+ is one of the most heavily invested in across many industry sectors. My experience shows the other protected characteristics currently aren’t getting anywhere near the same attention or traction within organisations. The LGBTQ+ EDI agenda is powerful and paving the way for an increasingly inclusive company culture.
Paul Sesay is the Founder and CEO of Inclusive Companies Limited, the National Diversity Awards, the Inclusive Top 50 UK Employers List, Inclusive Awards and D&I recruitment company Precedent Group.
With over eighteen years’ experience, Paul is a leading figure across the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion sector, having worked with some of the largest organisations in the world on their D&I profiles. Passionate about inclusion as a whole, Paul continues to work holistically with diverse communities across the UK, encouraging and supporting individuals and groups from various backgrounds to achieve, empowering disadvantaged groups across the nation.