How to Create an Inclusive Workplace for the LGBTQ+ Community

by Amy Spurling June 1st, 2022

Each June, everything turns rainbow. Company websites are updated with new, prismatic logos. Storefronts fly the pride flag and sell rainbow merchandise. Colorful parades bring communities together and thousands of social media posts are made about the importance of inclusivity. 

It’s easy to get sucked into the rainbow washing we see happen too often during a time that’s meant to be a celebration. So it’s incredibly important to stop and reflect on the accomplishments of a marginalized group in the United States and help amplify those voices that can so easily get lost in the noise.

This is a moment for collective amplification. Ask yourself, how can your company be a true ally to both the community and your LGBTQ+ employees? 

As a lesbian, female founder and CEO, inclusivity is something that I am constantly conscious of as we work to build a company that goes beyond the “DEI” buzzword and actually creates an environment in which people are free to express themselves. 

Celebrating Pride and your LGBTQ+ employees doesn’t have to be just a June event. Supporting your employees year-round not only creates a happier, more engaged team; it creates an overall better workplace. Here are some ways you can achieve this in your company:

DEI starts with the leadership team

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines diversity as  “the collective mixture of differences and similarities that includes for example, individual and organizational characteristics, values, beliefs, experiences, backgrounds, preferences, and behaviors” and inclusion as “the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.”

But understanding diversity, equity, and inclusion is only the first step in making it part of your company culture. 

Making DEI a stated objective and part of your company philosophy is critical or it will never happen. Implementation has to be purposeful; you can’t simply check a box and hire one person from each community for it to count and be impactful in your company because even within a group, people are different.

To appropriately recognize and value DEI, you need to champion various perspectives that people bring to the table across all kinds of groups. Make sure voices are heard.

If you make an effort to hire a diverse group of entry-level employees but the company board is composed solely of one group, you are missing the mark. Diversity should be reflected up and down the company organization structure.  Keep this in mind as you build your team and departments within your company. More LGBTQ+ people in visible leadership roles is a good start.

Create a safe space for individuality 

Amplifying the voices of marginalized groups is just as important as giving them the space to speak out in the first place. As people and organizations are trying to learn (and unlearn) and advocate for positive change, positive conversations can easily turn into intense ones, especially when you have a truly diverse group of employees with different backgrounds and belief systems. 

While it’s important for individuals to know it’s okay to walk away in order to feel safe, it’s equally important to give them support so they don’t feel unwanted, discriminated against, unheard, or undervalued. There are some simple steps you can take to nip this in the bud from the start:

Review your policies for LGBTQ+ inclusion

Company anti-harassment, bullying, and nondiscrimination policies should include LGBTQ+ individuals. Other policies like dress code expectations should be neutral and not reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, policies that require women to dress one way and men to dress another are not only problematic but also infringe on people’s rights. And don’t forget to be LGTBQ+ inclusive when it comes to policies on parental leave, adoption, compensation, etc. Your equality and diversity policy should, of course, include LGBTQ+ people. But having a separate policy is an even clearer way to tackle (and hopefully prevent) discrimination in the workplace. 

When writing these policies, it’s helpful to refer to the Human Rights Campaign, which provides a glossary of accurate terminology related to sexual orientation and gender expression. A great way to ensure you’re always respectful is to listen to the terminology a person uses when self-identifying.

Provide LGBTQ+ training

Whether it’s during new hire orientation or ongoing training initiatives, LGBTQ+ topics are important to cover if a company aims to recognize and eliminate workplace discrimination.

Having employee allies and representatives from the LGBTQ+ employee population helps demonstrate an inclusive culture and offers resources to those seeking support. 

Training topics should include: LGBTQ+ terminology and gender-neutral language, inclusive conduct, implicit bias, how to report harassment/discrimination/bullying, how to be an ally, etc.

SHRM offers an Inclusive Workplace Culture Specialty Credential and additional training materials and resources. You can also find helpful training materials here: Understanding and Managing Gay and Transgender Issues in the Workplace, LGBT Workplace Issues Resources, and LGBTQ+ Workplace Education Center.

Respect people’s pronouns

Just as you would refer to someone as he/him and she/her, some transgender and nonbinary individuals use their own pronouns like they/them and ze/zem. When unsure, just refer to someone by name. Refusing to use someone’s preferred name and pronouns can lead to harassment and is illegal when done intentionally and persistently, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Incorporate gender-neutral language

Employers practicing true inclusion have removed gender-based pronouns from company materials like employee handbooks. It really is simple to replace “he” or “she” with “they” and it visibly supports the acceptance of NB individuals.

Create unisex toilets

The last thing someone should worry about at work is which restroom they can safely use. This is especially difficult for transgender employees when an office offers only men’s and women’s bathrooms. Offering unisex, single-user restrooms for all employees can be helpful, but it is important to not restrict people to those as it can be discriminatory treatment. Rather, allowing people to use whichever restroom is consistent with their gender identity is best.

Celebrate LGBTQ+ history and events

Pride month is a great opportunity to get involved in your LGBTQ+ community, within and outside of your business. Be an ally, attend or walk in a pride parade with an employee group, raise funds for an LGBTQ+ organization, promote LGBTQ+ history and education in company materials, conduct diversity awareness training, etc. And remember, many of these things don’t have to happen only in June. Celebrating inclusivity year-round is key.

It’s also important to recognize that workplace inclusion for LGBTQ+ employees isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the law. And to be effective, company leaders need to model best practices and inclusivity. Inclusive behavior and zero tolerance for anything else come from the top, down.


Be careful not to rainbow-wash

Branding changes for the month as a recognition of support is great, but the commercialization is a problem. If a company is making rainbow shoes to sell and profit, that’s not truly supporting LGBTQ+ people. The same goes for companies that publish a new rainbow logo yet support anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, for example. 

Sure, it’s better than not showing support and instead publicly supporting things that are limiting rights for marginalized communities. Public support is still public support. But there’s a better way to do it.

The New England Patriots, for example, posted rainbow content on their website and received a lot of backlash and hateful comments. In response, they said hate was not welcome on their page. What started as a rainbow-washing moment turned into their show of support in shutting down hate speech, which is significant. A lot of positives can come from actions like these.

And instead of virtue signaling on social media during awareness months like Pride, AAPI Heritage Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, or Black History Month, go the extra mile: highlight accomplishments from each community, champion a cause that’s important to them, make donations to important organizations and nonprofits, support ongoing discussions and talks on relevant topics, etc. 

When you celebrate marginalized individuals and also recognize how coworkers can actively support and show acceptance (allies!), you demonstrate your company’s commitment to inclusion.

What to do when your workplace isn’t supportive

In June 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ+ people could not be discriminated against in the workplace. This landmark decision falls under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite being federal law, however, LGBTQ+ professionals still face hardships in the workplace.

In fact, nearly half of all LGBTQ+ employees believe that being openly themselves will negatively impact their job search. And of those who are out, one in three say they have faced microaggressions and/or blatant discrimination while at work. One in four have left a job because they felt uncomfortable or unaccepted. 

As so many from the LGBTQ+ community are familiar with, employees have only a couple of options when their workplace isn’t supportive. 

They can fight it out in their current situation, which is exhausting. Battling for a more inclusive workplace or, worse, suppressing who you are and limiting self-expression to conform to your workplace results in a lot of emotional burden. And quite frankly, it’s unfair. You can fight for your voice to be heard and to be accepted, but if it isn’t coming from the top, it’s never going to change.

The other option is to find something new. That is so much easier said than done and there aren’t many options if you live in a smaller community. Fortunately, remote work has opened up so many more opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community to find companies that are supportive. And in the current talent market, now might just be the best time to make the change and find a job in a more inclusive workplace, even if it’s virtual. 

How to find an LGBTQ+ inclusive workplace

If there is large representation in a company, people won’t feel like the “only.” This creates a sort of safety net. I’ve walked into plenty of spaces in which I was the only woman, which is dreadful. I’ve had to hype myself up and get in the right mindset to fight the “ugh” feeling of those rooms. Oppositely, when you walk into a room with people from a lot of backgrounds with a shared positive experience, you can create a new perspective on what an environment can look like.

Employees searching for an LGBTQ+ inclusive workplace are looking for more than just people who look like them. Smaller indicators like companies where everyone has pronouns in their email signatures can show an active step in the right direction to inclusivity and recognition that this needs to be normalized. 

More significantly, established employee resource groups (ERGs) for various communities (LGBTQ+, POC, parents, etc.) is a good sign. In fact, ERGs have helped improve work conditions in a number of significant ways:

  • ERGs improve work conditions for marginalized groups and remote workers by connecting people and improving the physical work environment (like creating gender-neutral bathrooms).
  • They are employee-led and establish a safe place for important conversations, which lowers the chance of suppressed feelings and toxic work environments.
  • Through ERGs, people-leaders shine and demonstrate managerial capabilities that may otherwise be overlooked as a result of unconscious bias.

Representation up and down the management structure is also a positive indicator of an inclusive company. Take a look at your board of directors, management team, middle management, and so on. See where things either fall apart and everyone starts to look the same or, oppositely, where there is a lot of representation.

Leaders need not only to build a diverse company, but they need to lead with empathy, too. Realize that people joining your team will have to undergo some serious unprogramming; they’ve been dealing with non-inclusive work environments and hardships for so long that it will take some time to adjust, even if you’re the most LGBTQ+ friendly company to ever exist.

Bottom line: Listen to your employees. 

Create space for them to share their thoughts and perspectives, their feelings and needs. Even if communication is different from what you’re used to, it’s important to respect that someone’s experience is their experience. There are things you may not understand intrinsically; after all, it is hard to understand the experiences of someone whose life is totally different from yours. Unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, accept their experience is valid and try to listen. 

Do all the above, and you’re working toward a more inclusive future of work.

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