Dr Enya Doyle shares her top 10 insights into how organisations can create a more inclusive workplace for their LGBTQ+ employees. Challenging some common assumptions, she explores key things your LGBTQ+ employees want you to know but may not feel comfortable telling you.
In 2021, the census of England and Wales requested census data on sexual orientation for the first time. It found that more than 1.3 million people in England and Wales identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual with a further 165,000 people identifying as “other” sexual orientations including 28,000 people who declared themselves to be asexual.
Given that at least 3.5% of the UK population falls under some part of the LGBTQ+ umbrella, you likely work alongside LGBTQ+ employees and colleagues. However, it is important to remember some may choose not to share that information at work or to not use specific labels for their sexuality or gender identity.
So, how can organisations create a more inclusive workplace for their LGBTQ+ employees? Here I share ten key pieces of advice that will help you and your colleagues to support your LGBTQ+ employees and colleagues, whether they are ‘out’ or not. At the end of each section, you will also find a useful resource where you can learn more. At the very bottom, you’ll find an accountability list that will help your organisation turn this knowledge into action.
1. LGBTQ+ is a vast acronym, our experiences are not all the same
In the same way that we have rightly moved away from using homogenous acronyms to describe the hugely varied experiences of people who are Black, Asian or from another minoritised ethnic group, LGBTQ+ covers a vast array of sexuality and gender. By always using a one-size-fits-all acronym we offer a disservice to our LGBTQ+ employees and colleagues with regards to the varying barriers and stigmas that they each face.
2. LGBTQ+ people are still not safe in UK society today
According to the Human Dignity Trust, 66 jurisdictions worldwide criminalise private, consensual, same-sex sexual activity. Almost half of them are Commonwealth jurisdictions. Some of our colleagues may believe that homophobia is a thing of the past or something that does not happen ‘here’. However, Rainbow Europe now ranks the United Kingdom 17th out of 49 across the continent for achieved LGBT rights. Nine years ago, it was ranked 1st. Recent news coverage has included a knife attack on a gay couple in Clapham, South London, and repeated punching of another gay couple in nearby Brixton less than a week later (August 2023).
According to the latest statistics from the UK Government (published 5 October 2023), there were over 24,000 sexual orientation hate crimes reported in England and Wales last year. This represents a 70% increase on hate crimes of this kind since 2018-19. Transgender hate crimes have increased by 11% since last year and by 110% since 2018-2019. Indeed, reported hate crimes based on transgender identity is at its highest number since the time series began in 2011-2012, with 4,732 cases being reported to the police in England and Wales throughout 2022-2023.
3. Not all LGBTQ+ employees will ‘come out’ at work
With the above risk of violence and stigma, it is perhaps unsurprising that some of our LGBTQ+ employees and colleagues choose to never ‘come out’ at work. According to a Monster Poll (2023), approximately 15% of the LGBTQ+ workforce is not ‘out’ at work. That is their call, and as company leaders, we should work to ensure that the culture of the company is not the main barrier.
Some LGBTQ+ employees may declare their identity in anonymous company surveys, or their HR forms/applications but choose to never discuss it face-to-face. Some may come out to a line manager but not to the rest of the company. Mental health charity Mind puts it brilliantly:
“Deciding to come out takes courage. But after thinking about it you may decide not to come out, or not to come to everyone. That’s OK too. Whatever you decide, nobody should make that choice apart from you.”
4. ‘Coming out’ is not just a young person’s game
Tim Cook came out in his 50s during his tenure as CEO of Apple becoming the first openly gay Fortune 500 CEO. Caroline Farberger transitioned aged 49 during her tenure as CEO of Swedish insurance company ICA. Learning about the history of LGBTQ+ rights including Section 28 and the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS can help us to better understand why some of our older colleagues may not come out at work. Being aware can also help you to respond appropriately to a colleague who chooses to share their identity with you.
Check out Opening Doors, a UK charity providing events, activities, information, and advice services specifically for LGBT+ people aged 50 and above. It’s free to sign up to become a member.
5. LGBTQ+ employees deserve robust processes
Ensuring that LGBTQ+ employees have safe channels for reporting unfair treatment, harassment, and degradation relating to their sexual orientation or gender identity cannot be understated.
Robust, accessible, and well-communicated processes must accompany corporate zero-tolerance policy statements. If your LGBTQ+ employees fear retribution or think their concerns will be dismissed or downplayed, your processes are not working. Collaborate with LGBTQ+ colleagues to design confidential or anonymous reporting tools too.
6. The language in our policies for caregivers feels exclusionary
We all know that lots of policies get updated annually but retain the core message from when they were first written. Policies which cover pregnancy, IVF and adoption tend to reference heterosexual couples, directly or indirectly, through shoehorning same-sex couples into references to paternity leave or IVF, for example.
Review your policies as though you were seeking this information as a lesbian or transgender/non-binary employee, for example, and consider whether the policy works well for them. Even better, and involve your LGBTQ+ affinity group in policy review to create meaningful change.
7. Recognise calendar events, but not in meaningless ways
Pride month, Bi Visibility Day, IDAHOBIT, National Coming Out Day and others routinely form part of company calendars now. These dates provide a great opportunity to acknowledge the variety, success and lives of LGBTQ+ people and spread awareness of the additional barriers that we face. If you are honouring these dates, ask the following question: is what we’ve organised meaningful for these communities? It’s important too that, of course, allies are a crucial part of marking these days, but they should not be the central focus.
8. Give your LGBTQ+ affinity group access to the CEO
Unfortunately, the manifold, tangible benefits of affinity groups and employee resource groups for LGBTQ+ employees are often overshadowed by a lack of impact because they are treated as siloed solutions to larger systemic problems in the company. If your LGBTQ+ network does not have direct access to your CEO or policymakers in your company, doesn’t have a budget, and your senior leaders don’t attend open events organised by this group, why is that?
9. Diversify your representation of LGBTQ+ leaders
Referencing back to #1, if you have two gay, white men in their late 30s on your leadership team, they are not (and should not be!) representatives of the broad spectrum of what it means to be LGBTQ+ today. Indeed, other gay, white men in their 30s may not feel adequately represented either.
10. Representation of different kinds of LGBTQ+ people should be a given
If, during your recognition or celebration of LGBTQ+ identities outside of your company, make sure that you are showing the diversity of who can be LGBTQ+ too.
It should be commonplace to showcase LGBTQ+ people with disabilities e.g. these Coming Out Stories from Deaf Rainbow UK, the work and lives of asexual people such as journalist Angela Chen, author of Ace, or Yasmin Benoit, and organisations and support communities for people who have faith e.g. Sarbat for LGBTQ+ Sikhs, or KeshetUK for Jewish people and of course LGBTQ+ people who are from minoritised ethnic groups such as Reeta Loi or Rev’d Jide Macaulay. This matters whether you knowingly have colleagues with these identities in your company or not.
Take time today to learn more about the organisations and people mentioned above.
Turning knowledge into action
Knowing what your employees might be thinking is great. Knowing what to do with that information is even better. The above list should be a starting point for your next steps, and we recommend seeking the opinions of your colleagues and LGBTQ+ employees to better understand their unique, individual perspectives too.
- Ensure that when we are discussing sexuality or gender, we choose our language wisely and in a way that acknowledges that LGBTQ+ people are not one homogenous community.
- Continue to educate ourselves regularly about the injustices, persecution, and harassment that LGBTQ+ people in our community and further afield have faced and are facing today.
- When meeting colleagues of any demographic, we will not assume their sexual orientation or gender identity. We are all aware that sexuality can change at any point in a person’s life and career.
- We will continue to be careful to let people have control over sharing their sexuality and gender identity with us. This includes not speculating with others or sharing confidential information without that person’s express consent.
- We will work to ensure that responding to harassment and violence against LGBTQ+ employees is covered adequately in our policy documents, that reporting avenues are accessible and well-publicised, and that the processes for investigating and sanctioning, where necessary, do not cause further harm.
- We will work with LGBTQ+ colleagues and inclusion specialists to ensure that our policies are reflective and inclusive of LGBTQ+ experiences – good and bad.
- We will collaborate with our LGBTQ+ colleagues to establish which calendar events we will prioritise and how. We will allocate adequate resources e.g. budget, staff, and space. We will be clear on the involvement of allies.
- We will seek to have a broad spectrum of LGBTQ+ representation across the company, especially in our leadership.
- Our LGBTQ+ employee resource/affinity group will have regular access to the CEO, not solely the Head of Inclusion/ People Director.
- Where we represent LGBTQ+ people we will continue to expand on the differences within these groups, showcasing talent and stories which go beyond the ‘single lens’ of who can be LGBTQ+.
So, now you have ten key pieces of advice that will help you and your colleagues to support your LGBTQ+ employees and colleagues, whether they are ‘out’ or not. Using your accountability checklist, you should feel ready to create a more inclusive workplace for your LGBTQ+ employees, turning knowledge into action. Of course, if you would like some more specialist support, or help with the culture for LGBTQ+ employees in your setting, then get in touch with our team to discuss further.