The Office for National Statistics in England and Wales shows that around 3.2% of the population identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or another sexual orientation such as pansexual, asexual or queer, which equates to about 1.5 million individuals. Additionally, according to Statistica, 262,000 people (0.5% of the population) state that their gender identity differs from their sex registered at birth. Despite the significant size of the LGBTQ+ population in England and Wales, research shows that LGBTQ+ employees face a range of challenges in the workplace.

For example, they are more likely to experience unemployment and often the work that they get is below their competencies and qualifications. Furthermore, they may encounter discrimination, stereotyping or isolation and may feel stigmatised or rejected by others. Many LGBTQ+ employees do not reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity at work to avoid potential repercussions or negative treatment. For these and other reasons, mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts are more common amongst this population (Mental Health Foundation).

Despite this pessimistic picture, organisations can play an important role in making the workplace more inclusive for LGBTQ+ employees, not just during Pride Month, which we celebrated last month, but year-round. This is how:

  1. Learn more and raise awareness

First, HR teams need to take the lead and educate themselves about the issues LGBTQ+ employees may face and their history of oppression. They also need to become acquainted with relevant legislation related to parental leave for same-sex couples or gender identity transitions in the workplace. This initial step is necessary to spread awareness of sexual orientation and gender identity issues throughout the entire organisation. Further education can be done through books, videos, MOOCs or specialised training sessions.

  1. Conduct an internal audit to determine where more progress can be made

Second, an internal audit evaluating existing measures and policies to determine whether there is bias against LGBTQ+ employees can be helpful to see where the organisation stands and where progress can be made. This practice can be done internally by someone from HR or outsourced. An audit often leads to actionable steps a business can take. It might be your existing policies and practices are less inclusive than you think. For example, reviewing language to ensure pronouns are inclusive and removing potentially offensive language from all communication can make a significant difference for LGBTQ+ employees.

  1. Involve the community to create truly inclusive practices that matter

Third, leverage the lived experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. They of course know the most about this and are often willing to share their insights and experiences. By listening attentively, HR can build on these experiences to develop more inclusive practices. Asking them for advice will not only make them feel listened to, but also allows you to make sure that policies and measures you may consider align with the needs of the community.

  1. Create Employee Resource Groups to enhance visibility and allow people to connect

Fourth, the involvement of the community can go hand-in-hand with Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or Affinity Groups where LGBTQ+ employees can meet and share their experiences. These groups can help create a sense of belonging and be used to organise events, raise awareness, and give them a voice. Creating a safe space where individuals feel comfortable to speak up is a prerequisite for establishing ERGs in an organisation.

  1. Identify supporting allies in the organisation

Fifth, be a role model and make sure there are allies in your organisation. Allies can be heterosexual or cisgender employees who show support for the LGBTQ+ community. Visibly and explicitly showing support will help create a more inclusive workplace culture.

  1. Show ongoing and genuine support and refrain from “rainbow washing”

Sixth, visible cues that signal acceptance are helpful in attracting and retaining talented LGBTQ+ employees. This can take the form of inclusive language in job ads and, during hiring practices, it might help to explicitly state or signal a positive stance towards diversity or include an LGBTQ+ individual on the hiring committee. In a similar vein, you should refrain from “rainbow washing”, that is, superficial or temporary support that is not genuinely acted upon. In other words, actions and behaviours are much more effective than mere statements.

  1. Provide specific support to LGBTQ+ employees to address their needs

Finally, additional support specific to the LGBTQ+ community, or that enhances a supportive workplace overall, could be implemented. Examples include policies that foster mental health, career development support, or health insurance that covers gender identity transitions or expenses related to starting a family.

In conclusion, while many organisations display their rainbow flags during Pride Month, much more needs to be done to create a truly inclusive organisational culture for LGBTQ+ employees. Using internal audits, education, training, and inclusive language, specific support, and Employee Resource Groups, organisations can draw on a range of good practices that allow them to move from temporary and superficial support to creating a sustainably inclusive workplace for all.

Sophie Hennekam
Sophie Hennekam

Sophie Hennekam is a Professor in Organizational Behavior, with a special interest in diversity management. With a background in psychology, she conducts research on a range of topics including hidden and stigmatized populations in organizations, precarious work, identity transitions and the creative workforce. She collaborates closely with industry partners and aims to tackle pressing issues for organizations. She has published in a wide range of journals such as Journal of Applied Psychology, Human Relations, Journal of Vocational Behavior and Human Resource Management Journal.