Why improving inclusivity for LGBT+ workers requires concrete actions

For staff to feel truly included, employers must create a psychologically safe workplace that allows them to be their authentic selves, argues Anita Starzyk

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LGBT+ inclusion in the workplace means that employees who identify as non-heterosexual or non-cisgender have access to the same benefits and opportunities as other colleagues, and feel able to openly be their authentic selves without fear of a negative response.

There is a clear motive for business leaders and managers to strive for inclusivity. Evidence-based management practices consistently demonstrate that reducing antagonism between peer groups in the workplace results in improved corporate performance.

Reducing discrimination in a workplace requires a company to clearly communicate that all employees are valued equally for their unique insights and are able to participate in the decision-making process to the same degree – regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

However, it can be challenging to make LGBT+ workers feel included if you don’t know who they are. Many employees refrain from ‘coming out’ at work unless they trust their co-workers and the firm to accept them. The historical precedent advises LGBT+ employees to be cautious.

To gain the trust of LGBT+ employees, businesses must back up their messages with concrete actions. A good first step is establishing and disseminating organisational non-discrimination policies. These policies must express that prejudicial behaviour on the grounds of gender or sexuality is against corporate values and that employees can access the same benefits and opportunities regardless of their orientation; for example, not differentiating between heterosexual or same-sex partnerships. This should be followed up by ensuring there are tangible consequences for phobic behaviour and support structures for LGBT+ employees, such as paid legal and psychological counselling to help them fight and heal from experiences of discrimination.

Creating opportunities for LGBT+ workers to gather and support each other is also important. One way of doing this is by supporting employees to organise LGBT+-themed workplace events that encourage connection between LGBT+ and heterosexual workers. More importantly, companies should foster the creation of stronger personal bonds between colleagues through informal mentorships, sponsorships, collaborations and meet-ups. They could bring members of different teams together by sponsoring lunch or coffee breaks to allow for small gatherings where employees can connect better personally.

Striving for inclusivity also means listening to the suggestions and concerns of LGBT+ workers. Managerial leaders must deliberately create opportunities for employees to speak out, for example, by encouraging their participation in group meetings or by organising one-on-one catch-ups.

Yet simply hearing their contributions is one thing, ensuring they feel acknowledged and considered in the decision-making process is another. Although managers might not be able to implement LGBT+ employees’ proposals every time, they can use opportunities for dialogue to explain how they factored being inclusive of LGBT+ workers into their final decision.

Managers should also ensure they respond consistently to issues raised by LGBT+ employees so as not to create the impression they are treated differently from their heterosexual colleagues. Seeking to counteract the belief that LGBT+ workers are creating trouble when expressing themselves freely is key to earning their trust.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace means reassuring LGBT+ workers they will not be embarrassed, rejected or punished for being their authentic selves and sharing their unique insights.

However, antagonism between peer groups can emerge in divided corporate cultures – where employees identify strongly with their own clique and show disinterest or hostility towards perceived outsiders. Societal and corporate leaders can prevent such a situation from unfolding, or work towards healing a fragmented workforce, by shifting the narrative focus within the organisation to focus on employees’ commonalities, creating a united corporate image.

When diverse employees feel valued as part of the company, they are more likely to collaborate across boundaries and help their company thrive.

LGBT+ workers have unique insights which, if shared with the wider workforce, can facilitate their peers’ learning and foster creative problem-solving, especially in difficult and uncertain times. Nevertheless, it’s important these employees do not feel they are valued by the company for their identity over and instead of their skills and performance. This could lead to them feeling stereotyped, causing them to feel less psychologically safe.

Managers should take the lead in creating a psychologically safe workplace by modelling how co-workers can share personal information and insights, thus inviting others’ unique contributions, and responding with respect and support.

When all parties can see their wellbeing is an important part of the corporate decision-making process, they feel more valued and find it easier to revise their thinking. Those in leadership positions who promote honest yet civil dialogue and encourage people to ask questions help their employees to find compromises with opposing parties. This is key to conflict resolution and reducing workplace discrimination.

Dr Anita Starzyk is assistant professor in organisational behaviour at NEOMA Business School