It’s easy for corporations to hang up a rainbow flag, turn on Diana Ross, and call themselves inclusive when Pride Month comes around. But just saying you love Pride is not the same as being an ally.
According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, 46% of LGBTQ workers aren’t open about their sexual orientation or gender identity at work because they’re worried about being stereotyped, making people feel uncomfortable, losing relationships with colleagues, and more. One in five LGBTQ Americans has personally experienced discrimination when applying for jobs, according to another report, and 22% experienced discrimination when it came to equal pay and promotions.
The working world, in short, is still far off from being truly welcoming to LGBTQ folks. That’s why leaders and managers have to take initiative to create change. Meena Chander, founder of the This Is Us Conference, which focuses on LGBTQ diversity and inclusion in the workplace, emphasizes that “inclusion of any kind has to come from the top down and has to be part of everyday life or culture in an organization.”
So we asked some bright minds in the world of business how companies can start to make the changes necessary to make queer employees more comfortable at work. Here are eight things leaders and managers can do to make workplaces more LGBTQ-inclusive.
1. Make It Clear Your Company Knows What Queerness Is—and Shows It
Joelle D’Fontaine is the founder of At Your Beat, a dance and fitness company in the UK and New York that prides itself on being inclusive. She argues that the first way to build a more supportive environment—and to encourage queer people to apply to join your company—is to make it clear that your company sees LGBTQ culture.
“If you just allow people to be who they are and you don’t shy away from expressing that in your company language and visuals then that’s inclusion,” she says.
Start with your marketing assets: What’s the tone of voice? What imagery are you using? Make sure people see that there are faces like theirs on your staff—whether that’s people of color or visibly queer, trans, or nonbinary people. “If a person can look at your website or social media feeds and think, ‘Oh, there’s no one like me there,’ then you have a problem,” D’Fontaine says.
2. Listen and Take Action When LGBTQ Employees Speak Out
I remember working in a television newsroom in London at the time of the attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. That evening one of our presenters said, on air, that he didn’t think it was a hate crime toward gay people. I watched that video at home and cried, and the next day in the office I demanded to know if that man would be reprimanded for what he’d said. He left the company months later, but for unrelated reasons—that particular incident had no impact on his time there.
Luckily, I had colleagues who heard what I was saying and supported me. But there wasn’t enough action taken at the top, and that meant that it never felt like my needs were seen or heard.
If your queer employees feel like they can’t talk about the issues facing them as queer people—or that no one in a position of power is listening and taking action to make them feel welcome, safe, heard, and valued—then you’ll never get anywhere. So take it upon yourself to listen closely to what your LGBTQ employees are saying. Really listen, without dismissing their experiences or perspectives just because you haven’t had the same ones. And then do something with that information.
3. Create and Support Networks
For LGBTQ employees, as for any historically underrepresented group, the knowledge that you’re not alone and that your colleagues have your back is essential. One way to build that sense of community is through affinity or employee resource groups.
“Networks are a great way for minority groups to not feel so isolated, to feel like they belong, to feel like their voice is heard; even when their immediate team is not particularly diverse or interested in minority issues,” says Jack Minty, who works as a senior policy advisor in the British civil service. “A well-run, active network—one with regular meetings, a welcoming leadership team, a friendly figurehead, and high-profile, engaging events—can feel greater than the sum of its parts.”
If you’re a manager or leader who happens to identify as LGBTQ yourself, you can help start such a group, which can be crucial for building solidarity and making sure LGBTQ employees don’t feel adrift. And regardless, you can play a part to encourage and support networks with resources as well as your time. Advocate for funding for the group’s activities, explain the importance to other leaders to encourage buy-in across the organization, and make it clear you’re eager to participate and help as an ally in the ways group members feel is appropriate.
4. Be a Role Model of a Sensitive, Thoughtful Ally
Non-LGBTQ co-workers also need to be doing their part to be inclusive every day and you can lead by example and help foster a culture where that’s the norm.
It can be useful to have concrete ways for employees to create a more inclusive workplace. Some companies have programs for allies, who commit to calling out homophobia or transphobia, and can be identified by rainbow lanyards or saying “I’m an ally” in their email signature. You can lead the charge on such an effort or support employees who are doing it.
Pay attention to and use the right pronouns, too, and encourage everyone else to do the same as well as to include their pronouns in their email signatures. That way, if people are still uncomfortable with having the conversation about pronouns—or perhaps a colleague feels too long has passed with another colleague to ask the question—the information is readily available.
“We have trans people in our classes and nonbinary instructors—the key thing to do is acknowledge and educate staff,” D’Fontaine says. Create an environment where it’s not just acceptable for queer employees to voice their concerns, but where straight and cisgender folks have the right language to participate in the conversation sensitively and ask thoughtful questions. “It’s not negative to not know about these things, but it is to remain ignorant.”
5. Add Diversity and Inclusion Into Performance Evaluations
Saying diversity is crucial to a company’s mission and releasing regular diversity reports are both great ways to start building a company that’s more representative. But in addition to declaring your intentions and assessing where you are on a regular basis, it can also help to provide positive incentives, says Vieve Protein Water CEO Rafael Rozenson.
One company he worked for “bonused and evaluated [people] on their efforts to improve diversity within the organization. This led people to pursue a wide variety of diversity causes,” he recalls. “For example, I set up our first LGBTQ recruiting events and got senior members to come.”
When you build diversity and inclusion into an employee’s performance evaluation, it becomes something they know they have to pay attention to and will be held accountable for. This prevents diversity and inclusion from becoming something nebulous, that everyone feels is spoken about rather than acted upon. Instead, you’re showing your team in a concrete way that it’s a priority for everyone all the time.
6. Think About Benefits and Opportunities
HR experts I spoke to were quick to point out how benefits and opportunities which might be great for straight employees need to be extended in appropriate ways for LGBTQ employees. For example, make sure you’re offering robust support to new parents, such as parental leave not only for those who have given birth but also for their partners and for those who have just adopted a child or otherwise grown their families.
Make sure your health insurance plans are inclusive, too, and take into account the needs of LGBTQ employees. Explore whether your insurance plans can cover gender-affirming treatments and procedures, for example, as the cost can otherwise be prohibitively expensive.
Even seemingly small aspects of a company’s bureaucracy and benefits can have an impact on the wellbeing of LGBTQ employees. If you have paperwork or online forms of any kind, make sure alternative gender options and titles like “Mx” are available.
It’s also important to consider international offices. Sometimes an employee won’t be able to move as easily to a foreign country if gay rights or trans rights are far less developed there. So keep in mind that it’s not just about offering opportunities uniformly, but also considering the different ramifications for each person. Engage in conversations with your employees, and find ways to give them equivalent opportunities.
7. Make Sure You’re Inclusive of All LGBTQ Folks
If queer inclusion is not completely inclusive, it’s not inclusion. As a leader or manager, it’s important that you work to improve circumstances for everyone.
Make sure that, when you put your ideas into practice, those who benefit—and those who commend you—represent different groups. If gay male employees are finding satisfaction in new changes but lesbian or trans staff aren’t, then you need to reconsider your course of action. Listen to those who still feel left out of the first steps you take and keep building, rather than seeing these voices as being overly critical of virtuous choices.
8. Always Be Vigilant
Gather information on where you are and make improvements on an ongoing basis. Simply asking once what problems there are and going through the motions to address those issues will not fix everything.
“I’m a massive advocate for anonymous, regular staff surveys,” says Minty. “It’s a great way to surface issues to your leadership team that would normally go unsaid. Getting the questions right—and sticking to them for consistency—is important, too. That way you can map progress over time.”
Society has taken centuries to become more equal, and it still has a long way to go. Your company must be as invested in long-term, gradual improvements as the wider world is. “The best way to do anything with regard to equality generally is to acknowledge and recognize when it is not happening in your own establishment,” says D’Fontaine. “Be very honest.” And then do it again and again.