The start of June kicks off the beginning of Pride Month, a time dedicated to honoring the unshakable spirit of the LGBTQIA+ community: memorializing their struggle for equality—notably the Stonewall Uprising (not ‘riots’), which took place in June of 1969—and commemorating their vibrant culture that encompasses all races, genders, ages, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and professions. Pride Month is a culmination of deserved celebration and warranted activism, ushered in by both parades and marches, parties and protests, and ceremonies and vigils.
Perhaps most recognizably, it is also a time marked by organizations’ ubiquitous transition to colorful brand logos and prismatic external media aesthetics: symbols of support that have become a commonplace marketing strategy, commercializing the month-long observance. But looking past the platitudes, how many of these organizations effectively support their LGBTQIA+ employees and clients? How many of them prioritize the development and maintenance of a safe and inclusive workplace? How many of them have adopted fixed diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) clauses and practices into their organization’s policy?
LGBTQIA+ Workforce: Breakthroughs and Setbacks
Over the last few years, organizations have made great strides toward establishing themselves as benevolent, committed allies to the community. For instance, in July of 2019, a record 206 major organizations signed an amicus brief advocating for LGBTQIA+ workers’ rights ahead of a 2020 Supreme Court decision which ruled that employees are federally protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.1 Just this year, the HRC Foundation’s 2022 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which rates workplaces on equality and inclusion for LGBTQIA+ employees, reported that a record-breaking 842 organizations (of 1,271 organizations surveyed) scored 100 percent—among them 258 of the Fortune 500-ranked organizations—earning the designation as one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality,” representing a growing organizational commitment to support and protect LGBTQIA+ employees.
Still, progress has become stagnant in recent years, as too many organizations have failed to sufficiently cultivate an inclusive and equitable workplace culture. A 2018 study from the HRC Foundation reported that 46 percent of LGBTQIA+ workers say they are closeted at work, down only 4 percent from what the HRC Foundation reported in 2008. The statistics are even worse for transgender employees. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 US Transgender Survey revealed that a startling 77 percent of transgender individuals who held a job in the previous year took steps to avoid mistreatment at work, including delaying their transition, refraining from asking their supervisors and colleagues to use their correct pronouns, or quitting their job. Nearly half also reported that none of their bosses, supervisors, or coworkers knew that they were transgender—indicating that they hid their identity from their colleagues as another step to avoiding mistreatment.
Where’s the Disconnect?
While a growing number of employers vowing to develop a more welcoming workplace is an encouraging step in the right direction, these numbers indicate that not enough is being done to execute and enforce the inclusive spaces being promised. The lack of focus on policy is what Adriana Ognibene, LCSW, a Clinical Team Lead at Workplace Options (WPO), says contributes to this discrepancy. When it comes to creating a safe workspace for LGBTQIA+ employees, Ognibene admits, “It’s not as simple as coming into work and the manager saying, ‘yeah, we’re inclusive and we don’t judge you for your relationship, or who you love, or your gender identity.’ It goes beyond that into being built into the structure of the policies in the workplace that makes a huge difference,” adding, “I think that’s where a lot of organizations really fail.”
In addition to insufficient policy initiatives, Ognibene also cites poor management and regulation of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices—practices including having discussions as a team to normalize different identities, or having a policy or procedure to follow in a situation where an employee feels threatened or is being harassed—as a contributor to these persisting statistics. “In a lot of these organizations, these types of treatments go unchecked. It becomes very hard for people to feel comfortable and share their identities when there are microaggressions and really hurtful things being said,” she says, emphasizing, “If managers and HR are not doing anything about it, that definitely sets the tone for what is going to be accepted in that environment.”
In order to rectify the disconnect between organizations’ pledges of support and employees’ continuing mistreatment, leaders need to take accountability for their role in creating an inclusive, accommodating workplace, and establish and execute robust DEI policies and practices.
What is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)?
The core goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives is to promote representation and participation in the workplace among employees of all different backgrounds and identities; they seek to alleviate tensions caused by cultural differences, and foster unity among the diverse employees of a given organization. In order to implement effective DEI strategies, it is important to have a well-rounded understanding of the root terms so that leaders may be able to properly communicate their meanings and importance to their employees as well as their clients:
- Diversity is the presence or involvement of people of a wide range of different backgrounds, whether social, ethnic, economic, religious, or cultural; different genders; different sexual orientations; different ages; different location; and other different characteristics. With these differences also comes a wide variety of beliefs, skills, personalities, talents, and experiences. Diversity is not inherently inclusive, so it is on organizations to develop strategies to maximize the benefits of diversity while minimizing the challenges that come with it.
- Equity is the insurance that all employees are treated fairly, are protected against bias and discrimination, are free from prejudice, and have equal access to the same treatment, opportunities, and advancement regardless of the characteristics like age, race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion.
- Inclusion is diversity and equity in action. It is the feeling that is promoted amongst employees when an organization takes the necessary steps to promote positive diversity and establish equitable policies and practices; it is the feeling of being accepted, welcomed, and supported in the workplace.
How to Factor Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace
In order to effectively promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, an organization needs to look beyond messages of support and adopt tangible strategies that can establish and manage a workplace culture that not only supports but benefits LGBTQIA+ members. These strategies may include the following:
- Updating current policies and the physical workplace. Before adopting new practices to promote diversity, organizations should first consider how their current policies and workspaces fare in establishing inclusivity. When it comes to updating current aspects of an organization’s policies, facilities, or culture, Ognibene says that no detail is too small. “Starting with something as small as dress codes. A lot of organizations still have gendered dress codes, even though for the last year we’ve been working from home in our pajamas,” she says, adding, “You have that in the office, something very small but that can still have a huge impact. Not having inclusive restrooms, not providing the ability for employees to say, ‘this is my name,’ or ‘these are my pronouns,’ and not respecting that or being open to that can cause tremendous amounts of stress, fear, and anxiety.”
The solution to strive for, according to Ognibene, is ensuring that employees have the autonomy to present themselves in any way they want and the confidence to share that with the team. “It’s being able to have an individual say, ‘this might be my deadname or my birth name, but I’d really prefer to have this name on my work accounts, my pay stubs, my desk,’ and to feel comfortable and safe enough to do that.” She stresses that a simple yet impactful way for organizations to create a safe space for LGBTQIA+ employees—particularly transgender individuals—is to establish restrooms that are accessible to anyone, regardless of gender, emphasizing, “little details like that can make a big difference.” On top of adopting gender neutral dress codes and bathrooms, organizational leaders can be mindful about the language they use in the workplace, and try to adhere to gender neutral language.
- Getting everyone involved. The success of DEI initiatives is dependent on the full-scale involvement of an entire organization, not just HR managers or team leads. A recent Gartner survey found that only 36 percent of DEI leaders currently believe that their organization has been effective at building a diverse workforce with similar numbers for the percent of employees who believe they have the ability to influence inclusion at their organization (33 percent), and who feel their organization informs them of opportunities to promote inclusion at work (27 percent). Ognibene attests to the importance of employee engagement, arguing, “Having that visibility and inclusion means being part of the discussion. A lot of the time organizations take their own initiative and do what they think is best, but they really need to have conversations with their own employees. I think that shows there is a willingness to collaborate and to do what their employees need specifically and target support to them.”
On what organizations can do to foster engagement and promote inclusive workplace behavior, she recommends that organizations establish annual trainings that are focused on DEI topics. These topics may include cultural competency, unconscious bias, workplace discrimination, stereotypes and derogatory language, as well as trainings on LGBTQIA+ identities and how to support employees and clients who are part of the community. A growing strategy for strengthening DEI initiatives is fostering employee resource groups for LGBTQIA+ members so that they have additional opportunities to connect with colleagues and find the comfort and safety to express their true selves while at work.
- Ensuring that benefits are accessible and conducive for LGBTQIA+ employees. While supportive employees and an inclusive workspace are crucial to the success of an organization’s DEI strategy, Ognibene stresses the importance of establishing equitable benefits, arguing that, “organizations might have Pride Month initiatives or open conversations with their employees, but there are still employees who can’t get insurance for their same-sex spouse, or are not able to get additional benefits that I think right now are really important for people,” adding that healthcare benefits in particular are something organizations can improve to support LGBTQIA+ employees.
“Having healthcare that may cover transgender-affirming procedures or treatment is something that is a huge barrier right now for the community,” Ognibene claims, as a 2020 report from the Center of American Progress found that around 3 in 10 LGBTQIA+ Americans had trouble accessing necessary medical care, including more than half of transgender Americans. “The biggest thing, legally, in terms of what organizations can do to help,” she says, “is taking a look at the benefits package that’s built into the organization, what employees have access to.” LGBTQIA+-friendly benefits can include domestic partner coverage, coverage for transgender-affirming procedures, fertility benefits, and inclusive parental paid leave.
- Leading by example. According to the HRC Foundation’s 2018 report, 53 percent of LGBTQIA+ employees still hear harmful jokes or comments, with 1 in 10 reporting to have heard negative comments from their own supervisor. The top reported reason for LGBTQIA+ employees not reporting negative comments is because they do not think anything would be done about it, as 45 percent believe that enforcement of their non-discrimination policy is dependent on their supervisor’s own feelings. As Ognibene previously stated, organizational leaders set the tone for what is going to be accepted in the workplace. That said, if leaders want to effectively foster diversity and inclusion within their organizations, they need to lead the way by exhibiting inclusive behaviors.
According to Ognibene, these behaviors can also include being out and honest about leaders’ own identities. “For other employees to hear that there are people in leadership roles or in the organization that identify that way and are unapologetically living their life I think is something that is so valuable and taken for granted,” she admits, adding, “It is such a huge thing to be able to come to work and have everyone feeling comfortable to share anything about their life, and it starts from the top down, with leaders opening up those conversations.”
Additionally, leaders need to look at how they are conducting themselves externally, and what messages their organizations are sending to their communities—like their Pride marketing strategies. According to Ognibene, another contributor to LGBTQIA+ employees’ lack of trust in their organizations is if their employers are continuing to fund anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians and organizations. In order to promote internal inclusion and to externally commit to the community, leaders should consider cutting ties with these groups and funding politicians and organizations who mirror their commitment to supporting the community.
- Fostering diversity, not forcing it. One of the key ways to promote inclusion for LGBTQIA+ employees is to restore their autonomy in the workplace. This entails allowing them the freedom to decide if they want to be involved in DEI initiatives or not. “At the end of the day it’s all about if people feel comfortable sharing and want to share their identities,” Ognibene says, stressing, “Some people aren’t, some people are. The responsibility of the organization is to show they are inclusive through the different initiatives that they are taking and the policies that they are putting in place. From there, the employees can do with that what they will.”
The most important thing to avoid when implementing DEI strategies is to avoid tokenism, or the hiring or promotion of certain individuals in order to appear diverse. Gartner research suggests that 65 percent of DEI leaders are primarily using people to champion DEI efforts. Not only does this insult the individual being exploited, but it also sends the message to other employees that they are not actually welcomed but are being used to save face. It also inhibits the success of DEI strategies. “There are plenty of employees that are part of the community but don’t really care about doing further initiatives or projects because that is not something they feel the need to do and that’s okay,” Ognibene claims, urging, “It’s about respecting that and finding the people that do want to do those things.”
Regardless of the strategies that an organization uses to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, the key element to keep in mind is representation. Accurate representation will promote cultural awareness and understanding, sufficiently meet the needs of all employees, respect the dignity of all employees, and promote better personal and employee wellbeing. “Just being able to have representation for members of the LGBTQIA+ community in the world and having people be more out and open will help just normalize that we are all people, that there’s not that many differences,” Ognibene urges, adding, “I think that’s how we can move towards more change.”
Adriana Ognibene, LCSW, is a Clinical Team Lead for the United States at WPO and has been with the organization for more than three years. She obtained her MSW at North Carolina State University and is currently working towards a Master’s in Management and Leadership at Western Governors University. With seven years in the field as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, she has experience working in inpatient, outpatient, and wellbeing program settings. She works with individuals, couples, and groups through various issues, but is passionate about supporting individuals within the LGBTQIA+ community and has facilitated trainings and seminars on working with transgender individuals and their families.