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What your LGBTQ+ employees want you to know about their workplace experiences

Diversity and inclusion have climbed corporate agendas over the past decade, yet many LGBTQ+ employees continue to face discrimination and victimisation in the workplace. Understanding what LGBTQ+ employees need and want is the first step to foster inclusivity.
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The benefits of an inclusive workplace culture cannot be understated. From greater productivity and higher employee retention rates to more workplace innovation, it makes business sense to promote inclusivity. Yet, findings from a recent CIPD Research Report on LGBTQ+ workplace experiences show that discrimination and abuse is still an issue for LGBTQ+ people at work – despite many employers making strides to reduce conflict and harassment in the workplace.

Everyone, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or background, should have a positive experience at work to fulfil their potential and thrive. So how do you change the narrative and make a lasting impact on your LGBTQ+ employees’ lives and wellbeing?

Start with a data-informed roadmap

Ashley Williams is a psychologist at the business psychology firm Pearn Kandola. Williams, whose work primarily focuses on the impact of stereotypes on career experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, says that one of the challenges organisations come up against when looking to implement inclusive workplace policies is how to track the progress within their team – especially when considering the scope of LGBTQ+ experiences. This makes gathering the right data difficult to come by.

However, obtaining this information around the employee experience is essential for inclusive workplaces as it highlights any strengths and blind spots of the organisation. This then provides employers with the roadmap they need to navigate these challenges.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach

Alex Arundale, Chief People Officer at business software and services provider Advanced, warns against grouping LGBTQ+ experiences together under one umbrella. ‘This creates problems of its own. The challenges a trans person may face in the workplace, for example, can be different to those of a cisgender gay man.’

Similarly, Suki Sandhu OBE, who is the Founder and CEO of Audeliss Executive Search and who is considered one of the UK’s leading specialists in sourcing diverse talent, says managers need to distinguish the needs of the individual identities that exist within the umbrella. ‘It is critically important to tailor development programmes and training to ensure that everyone within the community can succeed.’

This could include redressing legacy performance indicators, like merit promotions. James Arrowsmith, a partner at law firm Browne Jacobson and a member of its D&I committee working to lead LGBTQ+ initiatives, says that the idea of promoting ‘on merit’ ignores the fact that everyone coming into an organisation will be at a different stage in their development, and some will have been held back as a result of inequality and discrimination.

‘Progressing people in this way exacerbates and perpetuates inequality. Instead, organisations need to invest in each person according to what they need to reach their potential.’

Promote inclusion beyond company policy

When it comes to true inclusion, everyday interactions with peers and leaders matter as much as organisational policies or formal processes. Williams says there’s a tendency for employers to focus on extreme forms of negative behaviours, such as discrimination, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. However, by doing so, they may be overlooking modern or implicit forms of discrimination and exclusion.

‘These extreme behaviours do happen, but research shows that LGBTQ+ employees are less likely to report on it as there’s a reluctance to believe that any negative experiences have been driven by these motivations,’ says Williams. ‘Instead, some of the most common behaviours that we often hear about from LGBTQ+ employees, and some of the hardest ones to manage, are the ones that are somewhat ambiguous.’

Raise awareness of microaggressions

According to linguistic experts at Babbel, many of these interactions are examples of microaggressions – behaviours and language that subtly or indirectly communicate a derogatory, alienating, or hostile message.

Microaggressions are often a sign of unconscious biases that creep into the common vocabulary as expressions that might not seem upsetting in one context but are inappropriate when directed towards a specific person. Microaggressions can be so subtle that you may not even realise you’re being offensive or hurtful.

Common examples include heteronormative or implicit assumptions, such as: ‘So who’s the guy in the relationship? ‘or, ‘I bet you love [TV show] RuPaul’s Drag Race.’

Another, ‘There are so many terms for how we refer to people nowadays, you can’t say anything anymore,’ serves to shrug off adopting new, inclusive terms of speech associated with the LGBTQ+ community.

Promote a culture of allyship

‘You can’t expect people to immediately understand something they have never experienced,’ says Arundale, who adds that in focusing on LGBTQ+ challenges, L&D departments should be equally focused on educating non-LGBTQ+ colleagues in how to be an ally – a person who promotes a culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts.

‘From small interpersonal interactions to organisational policy-making, allyship can have a huge impact on allowing our LGBTQ+ colleagues to feel comfortable and use their voices in the workplace.’

Allyship can be as simple as encouraging cisgender colleagues to declare their preferred pronouns or as important as having a Transitioning at Work Policy and implementing organisation-wide education through the L&D team.

Prioritise mental health and psychological safety

According to Sandhu, LGBTQ+ employees are more likely to experience mental health concerns. ‘It is essential to prioritise mental health and wellbeing in the workplace,’ he says. ‘Without access to support, training, and the facilities to manage this, we could see further detrimental impacts to our workforces.’

One way to safeguard employee mental wellness is to make it safe for people to bring their entire selves to work. Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte and dean of the Josh Bersin Academy, says, ‘psychological safety is an issue in all areas of business: can I speak up without reprisal? Can I raise a sensitive or difficult issue without being penalised?’

Ultimately, people who feel secure in their workplace, supported by policies that promote acceptance and positivity, will be more engaged, loyal and more focused on their jobs.

Meaningful workplace inclusion requires executive buy-in and representation

Arundale says that a lack of representation and voice amongst decision-makers means that organisations don’t know what they don’t know – and often, they aren’t asking.

‘Whilst there are growing resources available to help L&D and HR professionals learn how to engage with their LGBTQ+ population, this discovery and planning needs to be driven from all levels of the organisation, not just HR teams,’ she says.

Recent research by Bersin shows that DEI is really a business and not an HR practice. Companies that are diverse, inclusive, and safe have higher performing teams, making them high-performing companies. But there’s still a steep learning curve.

‘We have a few years of conditioning to go through with CEOs for them to understand that gender diversity is real, important, and very meaningful to employees,’ says Bersin. ‘It will soon become an employment brand issue, where Glassdoor ratings and other public metrics force companies to take it seriously.’

Sandhu further emphasises the need to see more representation of LGBTQ+ employees in senior leadership teams. ‘There are currently just four publicly out LGBTQ+ CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and no publicly out LGBTQ+ CEOs in the FTSE 100, and these figures haven’t improved for several years. In fact, there are now fewer LGBTQ+ CEOs in the FTSE 100 than in 2018,’ he says.

Arundale concludes: ‘Having LGBTQ+ experience at this level of the organisation can really help make others feel comfortable to share their experiences, challenges and raise their voices to a solution.’

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Michelle Randall

Digital Editor and Writer

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