Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of federal protections for gay and transgender employees in instances of workplace discrimination. This was an incredible victory for the LGBTQ movement. Prior to this ruling, it was legal in more than half of U.S. states to fire employees for being gay, bisexual or transgender. And as a result, many queer employees—roughly 46%— were too scared to come out to their colleagues or discuss their sexual orientation in the workplace.
While the ruling was a positive step forward for gay and transgender rights in the workplace, there’s still a lot to be done. Between 11 and 28% of queer workers have reported losing a promotion simply because of their sexual orientation. Meanwhile, transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals have an unemployment rate of 15%—a number that’s three times higher than the general US population and points to the biases that clearly still exist in the hiring process.
Lasting change will require company-wide adjustments—everything from hiring processes and performance appraisals to leadership pipelines and talent pools will have to be reexamined and revised. But besides these long-term changes, there are ways companies can make their workplaces more inclusive for queer employees today. Here are a few small but impactful steps for employers to consider:
Recognizing and Avoiding Microaggressions
Microaggressions, or subtle acts or comments that demonstrate a person’s implicit bias, are covert but have the power to make queer co-workers feel like they don’t belong. These comments are typically minute—like an offhand homophobic remark from a coworker or a colleague’s refusal to use a person’s preferred pronouns. Other times, microagressions are more nuanced: for example, expecting queer employees to be experts on all things LGBTQ-related or asking them to educate co-workers on an LGBTQ+ issue are both microaggressions.
When gone unchecked, these interactions can be debilitating for queer individuals and result in poor self-esteem, hopelessness, anxiety and other post-traumatic stress symptoms. They are an everyday reminder that their non-conforming gender identity or sexual orientation is less respected—an implication that can be debilitating and even hinder a queer person’s overall job performance.
To prevent microaggressions from occurring at work, companies need to educate employees on what they look and sound like. They can add sessions to their diversity and inclusion programs that are dedicated to explaining microaggressions and teaching employees how to identify them—and, therefore, avoid them—in the workplace.
However, change takes time, and employees might still slip up and commit a microaggression. If and when this occurs, there’s a proper way to react: Don’t be overly apologetic to the affected employee—it could make them feel even more uncomfortable—but do validate their feelings. Ask for sympathy briefly and empathetically, but don’t question their perception of the situation in the process. Just apologize, and thank them for caring enough to correct you.
Discussing Gender Identity
One of the most fundamental ways to support queer employees is through the use of preferred pronouns. Many employees with non-conforming gender identities prefer to use "they" and "them" rather than "he" or "she." Their gender is not determined by their biological sex, and they may not subscribe to traditional constructs of identification like "female" or "male."
The use of non-binary pronouns is becoming more common, but many people are still new to using them. Employers should educate themselves and their workforce about "they" and "them" pronouns and, when asked, make a concerted effort to use them. Companies can also make infrastructural changes. In the recruitment process, make sure applications account for non-conforming titles and genders. For example, if a company’s job application asks for a candidate’s gender, provide three options: male, female or non-binary. Organizations can also promote inclusivity by installing gender-neutral toilet facilities or, for jobs that require uniforms, providing a third, gender-neutral option.
It’s also important for companies to educate their employees on the different orientations within the LGBTQ+ community, such as gender fluid, gender-nonconforming, pansexual and asexual. By defining these terms and discussing their meanings, companies generate awareness and understanding among their employees. However, it’s important that these terms are not presented as cut and dry labels. Queer people should feel free to express their gender identity or sexual orientation individualistically—not in a way that they are expected to.
Creating Inclusive Environments for Transgender Employees
Among the groups in the modern queer community, transgender individuals—especially those who are BIPOC as well as trans—are some of the most stigmatized. They have experienced more discrimination in the workplace than gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals. A lack of trans-specific practices can lead to higher turnover and even litigation, but today’s companies have started adopting policies to address this void.
Companies should use a transgender employee’s preferred name in all internal and external communications and exercise confidentiality frequently. Some trans employees may not want their gender identity disclosed at work, and, in some professions, doing so without their consent is illegal.
Encourage conversations about gender norms at work as well, and add heteronormative bias training to D&I programs. Companies can also create employee resource groups (ERGs): These committees act as support systems and can provide guidance for companies looking to enhance career development for minorities in their workforce and move them into positions of leadership.
Trans-inclusive workplaces also have policies in place to support transitioning employees. Some may undergo gender-confirmation surgery, while others will make gradual physical changes. Whatever route individuals take, employers need to develop a comprehensive approach for supporting their transition—one that cultivates a work environment conducive to the transition process. This requires effective leadership. Studies have found that without the support of senior leaders and frontline managers, trans people feel less confident inquiring about these benefits and, in some cases, are less likely to transition.
Truly diverse and inclusive workplaces understand the importance of intersectionality. Put simply, they understand the interconnected nature of social categorizations and examine them holistically to identify injustices.
Historically, companies have used certain social categorizations, such as racial and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender identity and religion, to build their diversity and inclusion programs. These distinctions are important in identifying minority groups and offering them equal opportunities—but when they aren’t analyzed from an intersectionality point of view, they can have negative impacts.
For instance, African American LGBTQ women consistently experience more discrimination than do white LGBTQ men in the workplace. Mistreatment is compounded for individuals who hold more than one stigmatized identity. And if this trend is not acknowledged, it will persist.
That’s why companies should examine existing D&I initiatives to ensure intersectionality. Not only will it make programs more comprehensive, but this perspective can also force employees to view one another more broadly so that they’re less likely to stereotype or tokenize others as representatives of a particular group. Instead, they will be encouraged to view one another as respected, equal members of a workforce.
Creating true inclusivity in the workplace for LGBTQ+ employees will require a mix of actions—some aimed at creating diversity and others focused on fostering inclusivity. For instance, companies can become more diverse by making changes to their recruitment strategies, policies and leadership pipelines. Inclusivity, on the other hand, requires knowledge sharing and highlighting previously unheard voices. By taking steps to strengthen both diversity and inclusion, employers can build a work environment in which colleagues are constantly learning how to be better allies to their LGBTQ+ coworkers.