Do you have an “office persona?” Many of us do: it’s the carefully calibrated version of ourselves that’s attuned to our company’s workplace culture and norms. More than half of us cover up some key part of our identity to fit in at work, according to Deloitte research. For LGBTQ professionals, creating an “office persona” is more than just omitting benign interests or hobbies– we’re leaving out critical parts of ourselves, like sexual orientation and gender identity, to avoid overt discrimination and professional bias.
Nearly half of all LGBTQ professionals hide who they are at work. The reasons are complex: 38% percent do so because they are afraid of being stereotyped, 36% think they may make others uncomfortable, 31% worry about losing relationships with co-workers, and 27% are concerned that a co-worker may think that they’re attracted to them just because they are LGBTQ. This leaves employees distracted, exhausted, disengaged and depressed, carrying an extra mental load and emotional burden. It creates an unequal and exclusionary workplace environment. It’s imperative that we do better.
The recent landmark Supreme Court ruling clarifying that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act covers claims of gender identity and sexual orientation is a meaningful and significant first step. But as Americans have learned over the last half-century, laws alone do not create equality: companies and their leadership must drive the change. For LGBTQ employees to truly be equal in the workplace, we must change the prevailing company culture. This change process – especially at small and medium-sized businesses – requires an intentional, thoughtful approach.
What is an Effective Workplace Diversity & Inclusion Approach?
Workplace diversity is the range of human differences present within your company. These include – but are not limited to – race, ethnicity, age, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability. Inclusion is the act of making each employee feel part of your company, where every employee is afforded the same rights and opportunities.
Research consistently proves that diverse groups are more innovative. Inclusion amplifies this benefit, upping productivity and engagement. When employees can show up as their authentic selves, they are more present and focused, performing at a higher level. This is why it’s not enough for your business to have a statement on diversity in your HR handbook– your company needs a proactive inclusion strategy.
From rethinking your company’s overall approach to diversity and inclusion (D&I) to specific concerns impacting LGBTQ employees, here’s where to start:
- Acknowledge mistakes, and be open to growth and improvement. None of us are perfect, and in this pivotal moment, we cannot let perfection be the enemy of progress. Even with the best intentions, each of us will make mistakes. What matters is how you choose to course correct, candidly acknowledging to employees where you’ve fallen short and authentically working to do better. This is the hard work and it can be uncomfortable, but it’s where the change happens. As a company leader, you have a responsibility not only to set this example with your personal actions, but also to nurture a community of inclusion where all employees can have respectful discussion, learning and growth. If your company has not done so already, unconscious bias training is an important first step towards fostering this inclusive space.
- Start an Employee Resource Group (ERG). An ERG is a safe place for dialogue and discussion between LGBTQ employees and Allies at your company, and an important space for acknowledgment, education, and visibility. Your ERG might start with the basics: building on unconscious bias training to educate employees on key issues facing the LGBTQ community, the importance of diverse and inclusive employee policies, and steps your company can take to create a more open and supportive company culture. Choose an executive champion or sponsor that will provide a direct line of communication between your ERG and your leadership team. The Human Rights Campaign is a good resource for learning more about LGBTQ ERGs, including considerations for group guidelines and goals.
- Use your company’s voice publically. 2020 is not the time to publish an HR handbook about diversity and call it a day. Now, more than ever, there is a tremendous difference between being supportive privately and being public about this support. Public acknowledgment and advocacy is essential to reach equality. When businesses are silent on a critical social issue, there’s an assumption that this issue does not matter to them. At Lucas Group, we have always been open in our support for LGBTQ employees internally, but we have not always been publically vocal. We’re evolving our approach this year, and I encourage other businesses to reflect on the role they can play within their community and industry as allies and leaders.
- Be consistent and continuous. Change takes time, and inclusion won’t be achieved through one-off initiatives. Efforts must go beyond Pride month or a new policy guide. Hiring or promoting an LGBTQ professional into a leadership position at your company, for example, sends a powerful signal about the value of diversity. But this token representation doesn’t mean your company has “solved” its LGBTQ inclusion needs. Creating a truly inclusive company culture is the result of creating new habits and consistently staying the course. It is also important to consider how your company’s LGBTQ initiatives intersect with race, gender, religion and disability so all employees may show up as their authentic selves.
Building an inclusive company is not just “the right thing to do”– it’s a contemporary business imperative. Top talent wants leadership that not only reflects their commitment to equality but also is vocal in their support. Increasingly, this viewpoint is held across our society– consumers vote with their wallets and companies follow vendor and supplier diversity requirements. At the same time, progress, diversity and inclusion do not fit nicely into an excel sheet. You can’t “calculate” risk for the impact your pro-LGBTQ position may have on employees, teams, clients and customers, and your business needs to recognize this.
Today, heteronormativity continues to be the default assumption in our society. This is the assumption that gender is binary and that sexual and marital relations are most fitting between people of the opposite sex. It’s an unconscious bias many people hold, even as they openly embrace their LGBTQ family, friends and coworkers. This can lead to inadvertent and uncomfortable scenarios in the workplace, like a co-worker seeing a ring on a woman’s finger and asking, “What’s your husband’s name?” A casual conversation for one person becomes a painful reminder for another that they do not feel comfortable speaking about their wife at work. This scenario underscores that a more diverse and inclusive workplace is not just about rejecting overt acts of discrimination, like hate speech, but changing our prevailing belief structure. Together, we can create a new reality where everyone feels welcome – and equal – as their authentic selves.