How to Be More LGBTQ+-Inclusive at Work

One in 10 LGBTQ+ employees have experienced discrimination at work over the past year. Here's what you can do to facilitate a more inclusive workplace.

desk with pride flag
Photo: Simarik/Getty Images

In 2020, the Supreme Court made a watershed decision to bar discrimination against LGBTQ+ workers, easing a longstanding fear of retribution in the workplace. Employees who are LGBTQ+ now have equal protection under the law and can no longer be fired simply because of who they are or who they love. Most major companies also have non-discrimination policies that also prohibit targeting employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

What's more, a growing number of employers have more affirmatively supported and celebrated the diversity of their employees, including LGBTQ+ individuals, by implementing inclusive training and educational programs, expanding benefits and health care to support gender diverse employees and family planning, enabling employee resource groups (ERGs) for LGBTQ+ employees and allies to create a deeper sense of community at work, and more.

"Being dedicated and taking action to create equitable and safe work environments for LGBTQ+ staff is foundational in advancing equality and plays a significant role in creating companies that allow their employees to thrive as their authentic self," said Keisha Williams, equality director at Human Rights Campaign.

Despite the gains made, it can still feel marginalizing to be LGBTQ+ in the workplace, and allies and members of the community alike can take simple steps to create an even more LGBTQ+-inclusive environment at work.

Check your assumptions (and pronouns)

One of the best ways to support LGBTQ+ coworkers is to use inclusive language and be mindful of your own assumptions and biases. For instance, many people default to assuming people are straight and ask about their colleague's opposite-sex spouse or else assign a gender identity that presumes heterosexuality (e.g., assuming a male colleague must have a female partner, etc.) Approach each encounter with a coworker as a blank slate, stripping preconceived notions about how they might identify. Refrain from any assumptive language and labels you might have previously used to greet the person or during the course of a candid conversation.

Introducing yourself with your pronouns is a great way to signal to an LGBTQ+ colleague that you are an ally. It's also a sure way to not accidentally say the wrong thing and misgender a colleague, or call someone the wrong pronouns. "The experience of being misgendered can be hurtful, angering, and even distracting. The experience of accidentally misgendering someone can be embarrassing for both parties, creating tension and leading to communication breakdowns across teams and with customers," according to the Human Rights Campaign's "Why We Ask Each Other Our Pronouns" guide. Including your pronoun(s) in your email signature or Slack profile is another great way to signal that you are an ally.

Be an active ally

Being an ally can sometimes sound like a passive sport. Maybe you know you are supportive but aren't sure how to actually demonstrate that outwardly. Maybe you accompany your LGBTQ+ friend to a pride march or happy hour. Be an active ally, which means speak up when you hear something being said or done that might be harmful to your LGBTQ+ colleagues. Be the voice in the room even if—especially if—an LGBTQ+ person isn't there to point out concerning language or behaviors.

Join the company's employee resource group (ERG) as an ally and offer to help with something—running events, communications, membership support, or marketing—and be an active listener and participant, attending training and educational sessions and helping to disseminate that information more broadly. Help push for more inclusive policies and benefits and help educate those who may not be members of the ERG, or who may not have interactions with LGBTQ+ people as regularly.

"LGBTQ+ inclusion initiatives send a powerful signal about the company's overall culture," said Fabrice Houdart, managing director of global equality initiatives at Out Leadership, the oldest and largest global LGBTQ+ business organization focused on driving LGBTQ+ equality forward.

Access resources like Out and Equal Workplace Advocate's "Global Toolkit for Change: Assessing LGBTQI+ Inclusion in Your Workplace," and help guide your colleagues and company towards greater LGBTQ+ equity.

Mind your (or others') microaggressions

According to data collected in May 2021 by the Williams Institute, one in 10 LGBTQ+ employees have experienced discrimination at work over the past year, and nearly half report experiencing unfair treatment at work because of their identity. Less easy to measure, according to the same study, many LGBTQ+ employees reported turning to "covering" behaviors (which might include changing their physical appearance, changing their bathroom use at work, avoiding talking about their social lives, etc.) for safety reasons in order to avoid harassment or discrimination at work.

Microaggressions—verbal or nonverbal slights or insults, which may be intentional or unintentional, but which convey hostility towards someone based on who they are—can create undue harm to LGBTQ+ employees in the workplace.

You may not be the one committing the microaggression, but perhaps you observe someone else in the workplace doing it. Saying "You're so sensitive" to a gay man, for instance, or inviting all the straight people on the team out with their plus-ones for happy hour, but not including the LGBTQ+ people's significant others. Even things like defaulting to calling an LGBTQ+ person's significant other a partner, assuming it's still 1980 and they couldn't possibly be married, can be considered a microaggression. Imagine if you were relegated to some lesser category simply because of who you are?

It may feel like one person's actions can't make a difference, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. If one person offers up support or asks a thoughtful and inclusive question, speaks up to correct a wrong on behalf of their LGBTQ+ colleagues, or shows up in solidarity, that may be the very thing that helps an LGBTQ+ coworker feel supported rather than misunderstood, included rather than isolated. One person at a time, one act of allyship at a time, that is how we build an LGBTQ+-inclusive workplace.

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