It was 10:30 PM in the middle of the workweek when I sat on my boss’s living room couch and told her that I’m a lesbian. I had called my boss out of desperation. My discovery was not a welcomed one, and I had reached a point that I needed to talk to someone about it.
My boss became the first person I would “out” myself to.
We were a small organization, and we were all very close, so when I called her and told her that I needed to speak to someone, she didn’t hesitate to invite me over. Even though our organization was rural, we were very inclusive. We had supportive policies and procedures, regular trainings on diversity that included education on LGBTQIA+ issues, and a director who insisted on having a safe space for employees.
I was lucky, and I knew it.
Of course, not all bosses can invite their employees over for a sit-down to discuss their sexual orientation or gender identity. But if you are a boss or supervisor, there is still a lot that you can do to create an environment that supports LGBTQIA+ people in the workplace.
It can’t be overstated how much this can make a difference in the lives of LGBTQIA+ people. Research shows that people who are forced to be in the closet are less productive in the workplace.
This is understandable when you consider the fear and anxiety people experience while trying to hide such a fundamental part of their lives. In a society where many LGBTQIA+ people can be terminated due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, these feelings are far from unfounded.
Hopefully this article will give you some ideas, regardless of your level of management, of how you can make the workplace safer for your LGBTQIA+ employees.
Step 1: Start with a Vision
Ask yourself: What are your reasons for having an LGBTQIA+ friendly workplace, and how do you see it developing? Make sure that you know the answers to these questions as they will guide your leadership. This is important whether you’re a boss that identifies as LGBTQIA+ or if you’re a straight ally.
Along the way, you may need to make adjustments to your plan, but having a vision gives you a place to start.
Step 2: Stick with That Vision
Building an LGBTQIA+ friendly workplace is not for the faint-of-heart boss. It takes courage and the ability to inspire and persuade. It requires a boss who can self-reflect and can make the commitment to go all the way.
By “all the way,” I’m talking about two things: sticking with the decision even if you experience push-back and being fully committed to each individual group and their specific needs. If you can’t make that commitment, self-reflect and rethink your motives and capabilities.
For example, the boss that improves conditions for gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees, but then rejects the specific needs of transgender people is not going all the way, because they have failed to commit to each group.
Pushback is something you should probably expect when you decide to transform your workplace. And it can just as easily come from the inside of your business as it can from the outside.
Significant internal changes may have to take place in order to develop an LGBTQIA+ friendly work environment, and this may not be welcomed by all of your employees. People you do business with may put pressure on you if they have concerns about your new vision.
And this is where your courage and ability to inspire and persuade comes into play.
As the boss, it will be your responsibility to convince others that these changes will not only benefit the business, but they will honor the most valuable resource you have – your human resource.
If employees or business associates are unable to accept your vision, then as the boss you will have to decide if the business relationship is still feasible.
Step 3: Cultivate a Positive Team
I have never heard a great leader talk about their success without mentioning the people they work with.
Having the right team is always important, but it’s absolutely essential when you decide to make major cultural changes within the workplace.
Much of your time may be spent gaining the support of your management team, and they may require significant education in order to implement new changes. Their input and talent will be critical to the success of your goal to have an LGBTQIA+ friendly workplace.
One way to gain the support of others is to share with them the financial benefits of creating such a workplace.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), it was projected that the total buying power of LGBT adults in 2013 was around $830 billion. About 23% of LGBT adults have reported that they have changed services or products because they learned that the business didn’t support LGBT people.
So not only does being LGBTQIA+ friendly reduce stigma and improve the lives of your employees, but it also makes good business sense.
Step 4: Weave Inclusivity into Your Business Practices
Now to put all this preparation into practice! Here are eight practices that will improve the inclusivity of your workplace.
1. Start with a Common Language
Not everyone knows what LGBTQIA+ means, even people who fall within one of those categories.
Companies can use different variations of this acronym, but the important thing is to be inclusive and make sure your employees know the meaning and that it is reflected in your policies and procedures.
2. Revisit Harassment Policies
Speaking of policies and procedures, one section that should be revisited is the grievance procedures and non-discrimination and harassment policies.
They should include specific language that protects LGBTQIA+ people and clearly defines their rights.
3. Offer Same-Sex Partner Health Care Benefits
Some companies are going even further in their support and offering health insurance that includes hormone therapy and surgical procedures for people who are transgender.
4. Create an Inclusive Physical Space
Take a look around the physical environment of your business. Is there anything that implies to LGBTQIA+ people that this environment is not inclusive?
An example may be gender binary restrooms and signage that send the message that the people in this company must be one gender or the other. If you don’t know, there is such a thing as gender-inclusive restroom signage.
As the boss, it is important to look for new ways to create a work environment that makes your employees feel safe and able to excel.
5. Consider How You Advertise
One of the ways that businesses are attempting to demonstrate their inclusivity is through their advertising. These advertisements are encouraging, but they usually include lesbian or gay couples and not necessarily people who are transgender, intersex, or asexual.
That’s something that you can consider and perhaps improve.
6. Change the Language Around Family Talk
Many companies invite “spouses and children” to company outings. That’s great, except the language leaves no room for people with partners or those who don’t have the freedom to marry.
This can send the message that your business is not welcoming and is even clueless about the issues facing LGBTQIA+ people.
7. Support Your Employees
Showing your support to LGBTQIA+ employees as they confront legal and social battles is an excellent way to demonstrate that you stand with them, whether society gets it right or not. Think about what you can do to support your employees.
Some companies have been outspoken supporters of same-sex marriage rights and legal protection in the workplace. Many companies are actively involved in events like National Coming Out Day or Gay Pride; this can express to employees that your company is a safe space to come out. Some companies, such as AT&T, have supported the development of an LGBT resource group within the company.
Now, your business may not be as big as AT&T, but if you are creative you can find ways to show your support for your LGBTQIA+ employees. This will not only gain their loyalty, but can also attract other talented people.
8. Hold Your Business — And Yourself — Accountable
Diversity training that specifically addresses the LGBTQIA+ populations is critical, and part of the training should discuss the company’s vision and expectation of having a safe workplace for all employees.
Anytime you pledge to make changes in your business, you have to have a way to measure if change is actually taking place and if the change is what you expected.
Hundreds of major businesses regularly participate in the annual Corporate Equality Index survey published by the HRC. The businesses are rated based on several factors to determine if they are inclusive and good places to work for LGBT people.
Your organization doesn’t have to participate in something this formal, but you can rate your own business based on similar criteria. There are several resources that you can use to help you make your workplace more inclusive. Outandequal.org and Catalyst.org provide many ideas, and there are a number of books that also cover this topic in detail.
Being a boss who establishes a safe and inclusive work environment can mean providing someone an ally before they even know they need one. A person may still be coming to terms with their gender identity or sexual orientation while they are employed at your business.
By holding the door wide open for your LGBTQIA+ employees, you can provide them the assurance that they need in order to be their authentic selves. You can also help them avoid the suffocating fear of being outed at work.
There is no way that you will do everything perfectly as you work toward building an LGBTQIA+ friendly workplace. Some changes may take place over time.
But the important thing is that you remain committed and courageous while steadily improving the work environment for LGBTQIA+ employees. That makes all the difference.
Dr. Robin Landwehr is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism She’s a mental health counselor and an unapologetic feminist. She holds a Doctor of Behavioral Health degree from Arizona State University, a M.S. degree in Mental Health Counseling from Capella University, and is a licensed counselor in North Dakota and Florida. She is a National Certified Counselor through the National Board for Certified Counselors. Robin has worked in several areas of human services including: domestic and sexual violence, substance abuse, homelessness, child abuse and neglect, mental health disorders, and health concerns that are affected by our behaviors. You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinLandwehr1 or visit her sometimes neglected personal blog at the Hippie in Me Blog.