Workplace Diversity & Inclusion: LGBTQ – Not just letters

By: Dr. Dexter Morse, Director – Industry Risk Management and Insurance, The International Air Transport Association (IATA), Montreal, Canada

DEFINITIONLGBTQ is the acronym commonly used to address the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and queer/questioning community.

Workplace diversity has been in vogue for some time now but many companies are still grappling with defining what this implies for their organization, why communicating diversity is important and how to find ways to consistently and meaningfully include it as a priority in their talent management strategy. 

It is 50 years since the Stonewall riots there has never been a better time to think about LGBTQ diversity in your organization.

LGBT in the Workplace 

Seventy-four countries prohibit discrimination in employment because of sexual orientation, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

In South Africa Section 9 of the Constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, gender or sexual orientation. The Constitutional Court has stated that the section must also be interpreted to cover transgender people. In 2000 Parliament enacted the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEDUDA) which establishes special Equality Courts to address discrimination by private parties. The Employment Equity Act 1998 prohibits discrimination in employment.

In the US there is no federal law protecting employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and there is no state-level protection for sexual orientation or gender identity in 29 of the 50 US states which means employees can be fired for being LGBTQ.

In June 2017, the Canadian government amended the Human Rights Act to outlaw employment discrimination based on gender identity and expression.

In September 2018 India’s Supreme Court struck down section 377 of India’s penal code, a colonial-era law that penalized consensual same-sex relations. 

As of 2018, 93% of Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies in place that include sexual orientation. 85% have non-discrimination policies that include gender identity. Many companies also provide other benefits (49% include domestic partner benefits and 62% include transgender-inclusive benefits).

A growing number of countries now recognise same-sex marriage and civil partnerships. 

Better not tell?

Although substantial strides have been made in recognising LGBTQ issues more than 53% of LGBT workers hide their identity at the workplace. This identity struggle has detrimental impacts on their health, happiness and productivity as well as business talent retention and leadership development.

Research in the US suggests that openly gay job applicants are 40% less likely to receive job interviews. Transgender individuals have an unemployment rate three times higher than the national average. 

LGBTQ employees often face hostility in the workplace. According to research by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 20% of LGBTQ Americans have experienced discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity when applying for jobs. LGBTQ people of color are even more likely to experience this type of discrimination (32%) as opposed to white LGBTQ people (13%). 

Research by the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion found that 30% of LGBTQ employees in Canada report experiencing discrimination in the workplace compared to only 3% of non-LGBTQ employees. 33% of LGBTQ and 21% of non-LGBTQ employees report having witnessed it.

LGBT Americans do not earn as much or progress in their career as quickly as their straight counterparts – 22% have not been paid equally or promoted at the same rate as their straight peers.

This was echoed in 2019 research by LinkedIn in the UK which suggests that the income of average UK LGBT employees is 16% less than their straight counterparts. 57% of respondents to the survey wanted to see greater transparency around their employers’ stance on diversity and inclusion while 55% wanted more supportive environments for coming out at work. 

Transgender workers are especially vulnerable to discrimination. A 2015 US Transgender Survey revealed that 27% of the transgender population said they were not hired, were fired or were not promoted due to their gender identity or expression. 80% of the transgender population who were employed experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job or took steps to avoid it.

Straight colleagues often have a double standard approach to LGBTQ issues in the workplace – a US Human Rights Campaign Foundation report found that 81% of non-LGBTQ respondents indicated that their co-workers “should not have to hide their identity” yet 70% of the same respondents indicated that talking about sexual orientation in the workplace is “unprofessional.” There is a social pressure on all employees to reveal their identity through day-to-day casual conversations with co-workers. Conversations regarding social lives occur on a weekly or daily basis for 84% of respondents with 65% saying the same about conversations on relationships and 36% about sex. Interestingly when LGBTQ people share the same day-to-day anecdotes with their co-workers they are perceived as “over-sharing” or “forcing their lifestyle” upon co-workers. LGBTQ workers’ stories are viewed as “inappropriate” while the same stories told by non-LGBTQ employees are considered innocuous personal facts. Casual conversations are a fundamental part of how workplace relationships are developed and trust is established. This inability to participate can erode valuable rapport with co-workers, managers and would-be mentors.

Fear prevents most LGBTQ workers from being open forcing them to downplay or hide aspects of their true selves such as the nature of their personal relationships (i.e. referring to boyfriend as girlfriend) or changing the way they dress or speak. 46% of LGBTQ workers in the US are closeted in the workplace. Employees report feeling exhausted from spending time and energy concealing their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Similar research in the UK in 2019 found that 58% of young LGBTQ people are not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity at work because they worry about being discriminated against.  31% of LGBTQ people said they went “back into the closet” when they started their first job. 

2019 research reveals that 10% of LGBTQ employees left a job because the work environment did not accept LGBTQ people. On the positive side, 25% of LGBTQ employees report staying in a job due to a LGBTQ-inclusive work environment.

According to a poll conducted by ILGA-RIWI 67% of South Africans agreed that LGB should enjoy the same rights as straight people. 72% agreed that they should be protected from workplace discrimination. For transgender people 72% agreed that they should have the same rights, 74% believed they should be protected from employment discrimination and 64% believed they should be allowed to change their legal gender. 9% of South Africans would try to “change” a male neighbour’s sexual orientation if they discovered he was gay, while 72% would accept and support him. 8% would try to “change” a female neighbour’s sexual orientation, while 76% would accept her as she is.  

Not just banter

Offensive jokes based on sexual orientation or gender identity are a very common form of workplace harassment. Research in the US in 2018 revealed that 53% of LGBTQ employees heard lesbian and gay jokes at work, while 37% heard bisexual jokes and 41% heard transgender jokes. 

In June 2019 an Irish restaurant was ordered to pay GBP 17,000 in compensation to an employee after he was subjected to a consistent barrage of hatred after revealing he was gay. It was also ordered to conduct staff training aimed at preventing harassment for future employees. The case was heard by the Workplace Relations Committee in the Republic of Ireland. The employee in question claimed the company’s two directors made frequent homophobic comments and slurs in and outside of work.

On one occasion the victim returned a scarf he had borrowed from a director and was told: “I hope I don’t catch the gay off the scarf.” Another time he was mocked for ordering “queer drinks” whilst another staff member stated “Happy pride day you big queer” in a works WhatsApp group.    

In October 2019 a Missouri police sergeant was awarded almost $20 million in damages after being told to “tone down the gayness” to get a promotion. A witness testified that one of the plaintiff’s superiors described him as “way too out there with his gayness.” In 2017 he filed a lawsuit against the police after allegedly being passed over for a promotion 23 times despite excellent performance reviews. After making a complaint he was reassigned to work the midnight shift in a station further away from his home. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff that he had been discriminated against and was the victim of retaliation for making a claim. He was awarded $1.9M in actual damages, $10M in punitive damages for discrimination, and $999,000 in actual damages and $7M in punitive damages as a victim of retaliation.  

Research by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in the UK in 2019 reveal that 68% LGBTQ people have reported being sexually harassed at work. 27% of respondents to the study had received unwanted verbal sexual advances. The report found that 66% of sexual harassment victims did not report the incidents to their employer for fears of being “outed” at work. LGBT women were much more likely to experience inappropriate touching such as hands placed on knee, lower back, breasts, buttocks etc. or efforts to kiss them. One in LGBT women reported being seriously sexually assaulted at work. Most shocking was the fact that LGBT Black Asian, minority ethnic women (BAME) as well as people with disabilities experienced even higher rates of harassment and sexual assault. 

Role Models – Come out on top

It is important for young LGBTQ professionals to have people to aspire to. A Survey by LinkedIn in 2019 revealed that 70% of LGBTQ professionals believe they have no senior LGBTQ leaders to look up to and this has an impact on people coming out at work. 28% of professionals who are currently closeted say they are concerned that colleagues will judge them if they come out. 

Research by Vodaphone and Out Now in the UK revealed that 83% of respondents would prefer to work for an employer that has visible LGBTQ leaders and LGBTQ friends, allies and supporters.   

Openly LGBTQ Corporate leaders are rare. Less than 20 board directors in Fortune 500 companies were openly LGBTQ in 2018. In 2018 Beth Ford became the first openly gay woman to run a Fortune 500 company as CEO of Land O’Lakes. Other prominent gay role models include Tim Cook CEO of Apple.

Each year OUTstanding publishes a series of role model lists, supported by Yahoo Finance, celebrating leading LGBTQ Executives and Leaders which is an excellent way of increasing visibility and showing that it is possible for LGBTQ employees to progress in their careers.  

In 2018 James Fitterling, CEO of Dow Chemical Company headed the list. James came out to all employees in 2014 after 30 years with the company. He is chair of Dow’s President’s Inclusion Council which sets the scope and strategy of the company’s inclusion and diversity. 

LGBT leaders in the Insurance industry 

The insurance industry, often regarded as old-fashioned and conservative has some great success story examples. Inga Beale, the first female and openly bisexual CEO of Lloyds of London was instrumental in the launch of Pride@Lloyds, an internal LGBT employee resource group, and supported the LGBT Insurance Network as well as doing much to change the culture at Lloyds. 

AIG UK’s COO, Geoff Godwin is the Executive sponsor of their UK LGBT Employee Network which provides education and support for LGBT employees and allies. He is responsible for the company’s UK induction process which includes two specific sessions on diversity and inclusion. 

Openly lesbian Angela Darlington, Group Chief Risk Officer at Aviva has championed LGBTQ rights by sponsoring Pride events and supporting Stonewall. 

Steve Wardlaw founder and Executive Chairman of Emerald life has made the insurance sector more inclusive. They were the first insurer to allow Mx as a title and to include surrogate children in the definition of “family” for their travel policy and theirs was the first travel policy where those living with HIV no longer must declare that medical condition. He is also a Stonewall ambassador.

The Benefits of an Inclusive Workplace

An organisation with a diverse workforce can draw on the variety of talent and different perspectives employees bring to their jobs. It can improve the company’s adaptability, enhance its ability to provide services to diverse audiences and inspire employees to think beyond their own experiences and push their boundaries.

Speaking in 2019, Chris Cummings, Chief Executive of the Investment Association in the UK said “Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people make an immeasurable contribution to society, the City and Investment Management.”

Companies with inclusive, supportive environments have better reputations and branding, they draw better candidates for open positions and retain top talent longer. People who feel secure in their workplace, supported by policies which promote acceptance and positivity will be more loyal, more focused on their jobs and less distracted and stressed. This ultimately means that the organization will function better across the board, with greater efficiency and increased profits.

Creating an Inclusive Environment

There is no doubt that a diverse and inclusive workplace is a happy, healthy, safe and productive one – it’s a matter of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Here is how you go about it ….

Recruit -Targeted recruitment campaigns should be pursued and job adverts should be clear about welcoming LGBTQ applicants and recruiters should discuss diversity and inclusion at interviews. All new staff should be invited to inclusion and diversity networking talks.  

Engage LGBTQ and allies at all levels of the organization and top-tier management. Establish mentoring programs which match participants across genders, races, ages and sexual identities. To be effective there must be “Buy-in” from the top of the organisation – CEO and Senior Management which will probably be parroted by the rest of the organisation. Some are onboard such as CEO of mobile communication giant Vodafone UK who commented at the launch of its new program to help recruit and retain LGBTQ candidates ”We are encouraging all employees to educate themselves and support LGBTQ colleagues to help create a truly inclusive workplace”. However, not all are as enlightened, research by Boston Consulting Group revealed that less than four in ten LGBTQ employees consider their organisation’s senior leadership team to be committed to diversity and inclusion. 

Spread information and news about LGBTQ issues on social media and the internet as well as through adverts and public displays. Pharmaceutical giant GSK adorned their UK HQ with massive rainbow flags and organised several Pride-focused events at their London office. This included pride stickers on cakes, coffee cups and uniforms, which they shared on social media. They won Stonewall’s Employee Network Group of the Year 2019 for Spectrum – a group with more than 1,000 members incorporating LGBTQ people across GSK’s UK sites. This year they ran a selfie day to mark International day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia as well as mentoring senior leaders across the business. Around the Pride Celebrations many companies display rainbow flags and change their logos to rainbow colours as a sign of solidarity. This is a great way to raise awareness but unfortunately some companies doing so have no diversity and inclusion policies in place so it’s merely window dressing or tokenism rather like putting out carved pumpkins for Halloween.

Promote a zero-tolerance harassment policy and make it clear that employees will be disciplined or fired for wrongdoing. Encourage victims and those who have witnessed inappropriate behaviour to come forward and report it. 

Encourage discussions on diversity by setting up proactive diversity programs which involve the entire organization and which include diversity and inclusion training and advocate more inclusive language. Discuss with employees of various genders, sexualities and gender expressions about what would help them to feel more included.

Conduct a risk assessment to identify priorities for action and highlight where strengths and weaknesses within the organization lie. Review the appropriateness and language of internal policies. Focus on inclusivity to explicitly include non-traditional families, create an inclusive dress code which avoids gender stereotypes and review internal communication for language and imagery which tacitly assumes heterosexual families and relationships as the “norm”.

Toast your successes. Whether it is goals or milestones which have been met, LGBTQ meetings which have taken place or the promotion of LGBTQ business leaders.

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