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Thinking Beyond “Rainbow-Washing”

A guide for employers on LGBTQIA+ compliance, support, and inclusivity in today’s workplace

Is your company doing enough to promote workplace inclusivity for LGBTQIA workers? Find out with the ultimate guide for 2022 and beyond. 

It can be hard to know how to best support LGBTQIA+ employees (even if you identify as LGBTQIA yourself), but this guide will answer all of the key questions, such as; 

  • What regulations are in place to protect LGBTQIA workers? 

  • What benefits can your company gain from investing in LGBTQIA support? 

  • How can you avoid discrimination in the workplace? 

  • How should your company respond to bullying or customer-based issues? 

  • What gender identification rights should you support? 

Sound good? Then read on. 

Why LGBTQIA issues matter 

Most people already appreciate that there is a growing expectation to deliver workplace inclusivity for all. But adopting protocols simply because “you should” is not the right approach. First, you have to understand why LGBTQIA issues matter for workers and what the benefits of adopting an inclusive approach are.

Here are a few compelling reasons why: 

  • At 6%, a greater percentage of the population identifies as LGBTQIA than ever before. 

  • The generational shift is clear, with 1 in 6 members of Gen Z identifying as LGBTQIA. 

  • While the U.S. is more liberal than many countries, the acceptance rate is still only 72%

  • The Matthew Shepard Act, which outlaws gender hate crimes, was introduced in July 2009

  • Both college graduates (6%) and non-college graduates (5.7%) have similar LGBTQIA rates. 

Plus, studies in Britain found that half of LGBTQIA workers have experienced depression at work while over 60% have had anxiety. 

With the above statistics in mind, it is almost certain that you will have LGBTQIA workers. Showing that they are valued will ultimately lend itself to increased morale and greater productivity. And since most non-LGBTQIA employees will have friends and relatives that identify this way, most of your workforce actively care about these issues. 

In addition to supporting your workforce, it should not be forgotten that the U.S. LGBTQIA community has a combined spending power of over $917bn. The majority will want to align themselves with companies that they can relate to. Do you really want to alienate an audience that large? We didn’t think so. 

The evidence is clear: There is no time like now to ensure that you’re following your legal obligations and providing the necessary level of workplace inclusion and representation. 

The current landscape 

Ever since its inception, the Department of Labor (DoL) has been committed to promoting equality and diversity in the American workplace. Its mission statement reads: 

Our nation and workforce are stronger when we embrace diversity and when workers can apply their unique skills and talents to jobs that provide fair wages, benefits, safe and healthy working conditions, and ensure respectful inclusion. 

Workers are supported by governing bodies like OSHA, as well as the Civil Rights Act. So, what protections are in place in relation to the LGBTQIA community? Some of the key factors to consider include: 

  • As per the Civil Rights Act 1964, organizations with 15 or more employees cannot discriminate against employees or job candidates based on their sex, gender identity, or sexuality. Many states and territories have their own rules in place to underline this further. 

  • As of June 2020, U.S. workers cannot be dismissed from their employment based on their sexuality or gender identity either, which is in line with the Civil Rights Act 1964 too. 

  • Since 2014, the Executive Order 13672 has included the term “gender identity,” providing LGBTQIA workers with the same recruitment protections as all other contractors and employees. 

  • Gender identity and sexuality are also protected under the Equality Act, allowing employees to seek the same benefits and treatments as all others. 

  • While no direct laws exist to prevent discrimination of this kind against consumers and the public, state and local laws may exist. 

  • DoL laws state that individuals who are in the process of transition are entitled to sick leave. Meanwhile, the Family Medical Leave Act can be used in relation to transitioning. 

Regulations are ultimately in place to ensure that LGBTQIA workers are given equal opportunities to find employment and keep their roles. Similar rules exist in other countries around the globe. For instance, the U.K. Unison rules show that LGBT employees are protected under the Equality Act 2010

In Australia, LGBTQIA workers are protected by the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which covers all types of gender discrimination and harassment, as well as the generic Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986.  

Legal protections exist to guide employers, support employees, and create standardized practices that lead to fairer environments. Employers and senior executives have a legal responsibility to implement winning strategies throughout their businesses, and not just because it’s good for business. 

asian couple hugging happily LGBTQI

The next generation of workplace rights 

In January 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order ending the ban on military service for transgender people. Away from the workplace, 2021 saw commercial surrogacy become legal for same-sex couples, while the option for healthcare companies to discriminate against gay or transgender patients was also overturned. 

It all suggests that the U.S. is heading in the right direction while similar changes are occurring around the world, such as the European Union announcing itself as a ‘Freedom Zone’ for LGBTQIA communities. 

These are important strides, but the changes count for little if they are not followed by employers. It is possible to invest in an internal policy that actively invites more LGBTQIA candidates to apply and attend interviews (however, individuals should not be forced to disclose this information). Critically, you must learn to park any preconceptions at the door.  

What your responsibilities are as an employer 

Updates to the terminology of the Civil Rights Act, Executive Order 113672, and Equality Act are just three examples of the goalposts moving to encourage a more inclusive workplace. So, that must mean LGBTQIA workers are now treated 100% fairly, right? If only! 

The Out Of Office studies show a huge disparity still exists in the general employment rights and opportunities from one part of the country to another. If you are committed to creating a more inclusive workplace, you need to accept your responsibilities as an employer. 

Some of the key responsibilities include; 

  • All employees have the right to be called by the name and pronouns that they are most comfortable with. 

  • Every worker has the right to privacy and confidentiality in relation to their gender and/or sexuality. 

  • Employees must be protected against harassment of any kind from all internal sources within the organization. 

The great news is that you will be rewarded for making those efforts. One-quarter of LGBTQIA workers stay in a job because of an inclusive workplace, while one in ten leave roles for the opposite reason. 

Meanwhile, as the understanding of LGBTQIA issues grows in alignment with the increased identification among the population, new tools become available. A great example is  Pride at Work Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Workplace Inclusion Index, which helps employers track their diversity and workplace inclusion by answering a survey of 35 questions. New resources regularly enter the marketplace. 

Responsibilities Concerning Transitioning Workers 

Only 0.3% of Fortune 500 board directors are openly LGBTQIA. While the figure is a little higher when looking at all businesses, there is no question that the community is underrepresented at the very highest levels. And transgender people face even greater underrepresentation. 

An understanding boss or H.R. team will help overcome many of their problems. Aside from simply trying to provide a more inclusive environment, you must recognize the rights of transitioning workers. The most telling are; 

  • Employees who transition or make legal changes are entitled to have their Official Personnel Folder (OPF) documents updated to reflect their new identity. 

  • If a person is living as the gender they identify as, all federal workplaces must provide restroom facilities concerning their identified gender. 

  • Transgender workers should have the right to privacy and should not feel forced into discussing their transitioning (except for time off requests) or sexuality with anyone. 

  • If a transgender person is happy to talk about their gender, any questions should be made in a respectful manner. 

  • Workers undergoing a transition must be supported with their appearance by being able to dress in a way that aligns with their gender without breaking the dress code. 

Like gay and lesbian workers, transgender people do not need preferential treatment. They simply want an equal opportunity working environment. 

Young man sitting on the ground using smartphone on the window sill at home

Communicating with colleagues 

Employers, CEOs, directors, and H.R. teams should all try and lead by example. However, it’s not all about the employer-employee relationship. You’re a busy senior exec who has limited time with individual workers; it’s the interactions with other colleagues that are far more common and hold a huge influence on an employee’s happiness, motivation, and productivity. 

Studies show that LGBTQIA workers face more cases of harassment than others. This includes micro-aggressions, sexual harassment, and hearing jokes about them.   

Therefore, you must make this a company-wide commitment. Implementing the steps below is a good place to start; 

  • Actively send all employees on appropriate training courses that cover all aspects of suitable workplace conduct. This should cover LGBTQIA issues, as well as sexism, racism, and any other forms of workplace inequality. 

  • Highlight that it is not acceptable for workers to engage in gossip, rumors, or any form of bullying in the workplace. You can also make employees sign a Code of Conduct. 

  • Encourage victims to speak up about any aggressions they experience while simultaneously building an inclusive environment where non-victims feel confident speaking up and challenging wrong behaviors on behalf of colleagues. 

  • Utilize any opportunity to use work outings or team building sessions to unite your entire workforce, including workers from all backgrounds.  

  • Have regular reviews of the policies, and ensure that all workers understand the rules and the importance of maintaining an environment that offers equality for all. 

This isn’t an issue restricted to America, though. In Australia, 80% of homophobic abuse happens in schools, while 60% of LGBTQIA members have experienced verbal abuse or worse. It shows that communities need to be taught about inclusiveness. Regardless of where your offices are based, you must take it upon yourself to provide this education. 

Your reward? Aside from doing what’s right for your LGBTQIA employees, it goes a long way to building a stronger team. Given that workers are the greatest asset at any company’s disposal, it seems like a no-brainer.  

Identifying & addressing a lack of inclusivity. 

Did you know that 72% of sexual harassment cases in the workplace go unreported? It’s a scary statistic, right? Well, discrimination linked to gender identity is just as problematic. 

Yes, the situation in many places has improved drastically, but same-sex marriages remain prohibited in over 70 countries, while transgender rights are often non-existent in those nations. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to think that the situation in America is perfect. 

Systematic and structural discrimination still exists, both consciously and subconsciously. It’s the reason why almost half of LGBTQIA workers feel that they cannot fully express themselves at work while 1 in 5 has been told (or at least implied) to dress differently. Similarly, in Britain, 12% of gay, lesbian, and bi workers admit they wouldn’t report bullying, while 21% of transgender people feel the same. 

Why would the victims suffer in silence? Because they don’t think anything will be done about it. Even when policies are in place, many companies are guilty of using workplace inclusivity as a vanity project rather than one that is designed to create an equal environment. 

Here’s how you can fix that.  

Make sure you know what bullying really is 

Workplace bullying and harassment don’t have to include physical abuse or shouting obscenities. Microaggressions are the most common forms of bullying, with a reported 83% of workers (not just LGBTQIA) experiencing it at some point.

Some of the signs of bullying are subtle while others are far more obvious, including; 

  • Deceit often followed by rationalization or intimidation. 

  • Exclusion, minimization, and undermining work. 

  • Manipulation and pitting workers against each other. 

  • Mood swings, projection of blame, and inconsistent actions. 

  • Diversion, or taking credit for someone’s work. 

  • Threats and offensive communication like coercion. 

  • Campaigning to oust another person. 

  • Vindictive behaviors, belittlement, and punishment. 

By understanding bullying, you don’t just support LGBTQIA workers. You create an inclusive environment for everyone. 

Identifying LGBTQIA Inequality 

Even with a supportive network, a lot of victims won’t make the first move. That’s just the way things are after generations of systematic inequality. 

Up until changes in 2020, over 52% of the LGBTQIA community lived in states where no laws against gender-specific discrimination were in place. This is an issue that has impacted workers around the globe too. 

For example, a major study into E.U. countries found that while progress is made, further developments are still needed. One of the key findings was that “(LGBTQIA) people also think that ‘positive changes in law and policy’ and ‘support by public figures and civil society’ lower discrimination.” 

Therefore, to spot the signs, it’s vital that you take a proactive approach. Look for symptoms that someone isn’t in the right frame of mind. Use your network of H.R. staff and team leaders to look for common symptoms, such as; 

  • A worker has become indecisive. 

  • An LGBTQIA worker is more reserved and is no longer open about their gender as they previously were. 

  • The worker is unable to cope with tasks despite previously showing their capabilities. 

  • There is a clear lack of alertness or visible exhaustion. 

  • They suffer burnout far too quickly. 

  • An LGBTQIA worker has become irritable, even with supportive colleagues with whom they usually share a good relationship. 

  • They start to take days off, with or without prior warning. 

  • There is reduced efficiency in the workplace, as well as confusion and signs of anxiety. 

  • A previously loud LGBTQIA worker has become more reserved in the way they dress or interact with colleagues. 

  • The worker avoids making their voice heard in team meetings and other settings. 

None of the individual signs necessarily mean that your workers are experiencing homophobia or bullying in the workplace. There are plenty of alternative explanations, and those must also be addressed.  

While it’s not directly linked to work, 40% of LGBTQIA youths contemplate suicide due to a lack of inclusion and a sense of helplessness. A lack of support certainly feeds into this problem, and it continues into adulthood. Even when a worker isn’t at risk of taking such drastic action, feeling alone on their journey can lead to mental health issues. 

How to respond 

As mentioned, LGBTQIA groups seek equality over preferential treatment. So unsurprisingly, many of the responses are no different from workplace inequality of any kind. Nonetheless, half of all workers from this community report moderate to significant psychological impacts, which is why you must respond effectively. 

After putting the right preparations in place, you might have hoped that future situations would be avoided altogether. Sadly, things aren’t quite that easy, and issues may continue to surface from time to time. Here’s how to tackle them. 

  • Always remove blame from the victim to show solidarity. 

  • Conduct a full investigation into the matter, keeping a record of all findings to display your commitment to workplace inclusion. 

  • Implement disciplinary measures, as stated as a part of your workplace inclusion goals against the guilty party. 

  • Invest in a refresher training course for all employees to force home the message of workplace inclusivity for all. 

  • Conduct employee surveys and clear discussions to analyze the current levels of diversity awareness. 

  • If required, seek professional legal advice to ensure that official complaints are handled correctly. 

Ultimately, the key objective is to immediately stamp out workplace bullying while showing LGBTQIA victims that you’re committed to building a better working environment. At the same time, you should let all workers know that inequality will not be tolerated. Since 86% of businesses state that implementing non-discrimination policies cost nothing or next to nothing, there’s no excuse for not acting.  

We’re living in 2022, and employers and H.R. teams must embrace it. The post-pandemic era offers the perfect opportunity to get rid of outdated methods and ideologies that are harming your business or leaving workers feeling excluded. 

Here’s a short summary of the steps that will lead you to success  

  • Take it upon yourself to understand LGBTQIA issues – and not just the legal obligations of an employer. 

  • Lead by example by creating an inclusive workspace for everyone, including LGBTQIA and other underrepresented groups. 

  • Have open discussions with LGBTQIA workers – if they’re happy to, and with their privacy intact. 

  • Invest in company-wide training to build a better understanding of LGBTQIA issues and, where required, increase acceptance. 

  • Be vigilant to examples of discrimination or workplace bullying – and stamp them out as quickly as possible. 

Research shows that 85% of the LGBTQIA community (both consumers and workers) feel that corporations who support them are more important than ever, while most non-LGBTQIA groups would agree. 

Getting it right from the beginning will go a long way in the end.  

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