Fostering LGBTQ+ Workplace Inclusion in a Politicised Climate

Whilst well-intended, D&I issues often get reduced to externals: policies, procedures, and politically correct behaviour. In an environment of hyper-sensitivity and polarisation, this can serve to create more conflict and fear. Diane Nowell explores how this can be avoided.
Diane Nowell
Jun 28, 2022

If findings from a recent Deloitte survey accurately reflect the corporate zeitgeist, there’s cause for fresh optimism around advancements in LGBTQ+ workplace inclusion. According to the report – which surveyed hundreds of LGBTQ+ employees across a range of sectors and geographies – the majority (80 percent) of respondents described employer actions and initiatives that were both meaningfully and substantively supportive, positively impacting organisational culture.

It’s not the full story, though. The same survey showed that, despite these widespread gains, more than four-in-ten respondents had also experienced non-inclusive workplace behaviour – such as unwanted comments, sexually charged ‘jokes’ and social exclusion. Worryingly, survey statistics showed that less than half of LGBTQ+ employees (45 percent) felt they could be completely open about their sexual orientation in the workplace, while one-fifth hadn’t disclosed it to any of their colleagues.

These all-too-familiar issues echo similar findings from a 2021 CIPD study which concluded that LGBTQ+ people were more likely to encounter workplace conflict and to enjoy lower levels of wellbeing than their heteronormative counterparts.

It’s clear that employers still have much to do. But, how can organisations effectively foster inclusion and address discrimination, at the same time creating a psychologically safe workplace culture in a highly politicised climate?

Build trust

It’s important for companies to view DE&I goals not as standalone diversity initiatives but as an extension of how they do business all the time.

Martin Boronson is Founder and Director of The One Moment Company. Martin advises leaders on building psychologically safe, inclusive and motivated cultures, helping teams become more inclusive and agile.

‘Too often, issues of diversity and inclusion get reduced to externals – policies, procedures and politically correct behaviour. In an environment of hyper-sensitivity and polarisation, this can serve to create more conflict and fear.’

Martin recommends that organisations focus, instead, on engendering trust – teaching and developing the core personal and interpersonal skills that will underpin change.

‘Building a platform of trust is good for business, good for innovation and good for employee retention. At the same time, having these skills in place – and routinely practised – will make any conversation or initiative about inclusion less confrontational, more educational and more productive.’

Show respect

The business benefits of inclusion are well documented. There’s plenty of research to show that adopting inclusive policies and supporting LGBTQ+ employees not only helps companies to perform better financially but also to become more innovative.

Moreover, policies that promote inclusion are especially important at a time when the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in some sectors – STEM industries, for instance – is thought to be hampering innovation. Some studies estimate that LGBTQ+ people are underrepresented by as much as 20 percent in STEM fields.

And yet, it’s important that DE&I initiatives are heartfelt – reflecting a genuine desire for employee welfare – if companies are to avoid accusations of ‘pink-washing’.

Dr Anita Starzyk is Assistant Professor in Organisational Behaviour at NEOMA Business School. She observes that corporate leaders often feel the need to build a robust business case for creating a psychologically safe workplace culture – citing improved performance and access to more varied insights, for example – even though it’s a strategy that can backfire.

‘LGBT+ employees can believe that their value for the company is tied to their identity and not their actual skills and performance which means they are more likely to feel instrumentalised and stereotyped. Instead of arguing for LGBTQ+ inclusion, a more compelling strategy for corporate leaders is to show their care for the well-being and psychological safety of LGBTQ+ employee.’

According to Dr Starzyk, engaging in honest, open dialogue is key to resolving issues of discrimination and exclusion more effectively. ‘Establishing a psychologically safe workplace in a politicised context becomes more likely when managerial leaders at all levels take the lead – sharing personal information and insights, as well as inviting others’ unique contributions and responding with respect and support.’

Promote allyship

A workplace culture that is inclusive and founded on respect will enable everyone to bring their authentic selves to work – an environment in which all employees can thrive.

But in addition to revising policies to promote greater inclusion – extending parental leave rights to employees in same-sex partnerships, for instance – demonstrating a commitment to fairness through allyship is also key.

Niamh Graham is SVP of Global HX at workplace solutions specialist Workhuman:

‘The first step organisations can take is to actively show their support and allyship of the LGBTQ+ community. Our own research has found that social recognition is inherently linked to psychological safety in the workplace. By implementing a social, or peer-to-peer, recognition programme that encourages employees to regularly thank, celebrate, and reward each other, organisations can create a culture of gratitude that has a lasting impact.

‘The most effective recognition is equitable, authentic, personalised, fulfilling, and embedded in company culture.’

Fund training

Suki Sandhu, OBE, is the founder of DE&I-focused businesses Audeliss and INvolve. Suki feels strongly that safe spaces – such as those that take the form of focus groups – are essential to allow LGBTQ+ colleagues to raise concerns and locate areas for improvement, as well as to allow allies to learn without fear of reprisal in an environment where the burden to educate doesn’t lie with LGBTQ+ employees.

‘Employers and senior teams must invest in training. Educating employees across a business can help contextualise and debunk misconceptions about the LGBTQ+ community and provide businesses with the knowledge to better support their LGBT+ colleagues.

‘It’s vital that LGBTQ+ employees have the opportunity to help build and shape an organisation’s strategies and policies. Businesses should be encouraging the formation of LGBTQ+ employee resource groups (ERGs) which can help inform a business’s overall DE&I strategy. These are also a great way to maintain a formal channel of communication between LGBTQ+ employees and senior leaders, strengthening and creating accountability for meaningful change.’

Embrace change

Significant progress has already been made by many organisations in the bid to build a more diverse workplace for LGBTQ+ employees.

To create a truly inclusive culture will require a shift in perspective – the willingness to embrace a continuously evolving programme of improvement that’s predicated on lived experience rather than received wisdom. The LGBTQ+ workforce isn’t a monolithic group that can be mollified with a neat response from an image-conscious leadership team.

Any effective inclusion strategy must be rooted in intersectionality, mapping and countering those overlapping factors that serve to amplify discrimination and disadvantage.

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant