Picture this. You are at a meeting, and you have a great idea that you think could help move your company forward. However, you don’t generally speak up at meetings as you are very careful not to give away any clues that you are different from others. You debate with yourself on the merits of speaking up, versus being silent. The fear of being discovered wins and you never offer your suggestion.
This is exactly how many members of the LGBT+ community feel.
Another important dynamic of success at any company is the strength of the relationships that are formed between colleagues. In fact, teamwork is often a core element of an organization. When some colleagues are so on guard about who they are and afraid of being “outed” they retreat from being active team members.
So how does a company create a work environment that is truly inclusive where everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity is accepted?
Well, IBM has been leading the charge on this for several years. As far back as 1984, the company included sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy. In 1995, they established an LGBT executive task force known today as the Global LGBT Council. The company has collected awards for its policy including scoring 100% on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index and has been designated as one of eight “star performers” in Stonewall’s Global Equality Index 2015.
While this activity has resulted in progress being made in the area, there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by the company’s June 9, 2020 report, "Striving for authenticity," conducted with Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and Workplace Pride.”
One of the main take-aways from the study was that despite the tremendous focus on social justice issues this past year, nearly half of lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans interviewed for this study said they believed that their employer discriminates against people of their sexual orientation.
Discrimination of this type will continue to be an issue as more Americans are identifying as LGBT+. In fact, a Gallup poll of February 2021 found that now 5.6% of Americans identify as LGBT+ which is up 60% from a 2012 poll.
And as the number of people speaking up about their orientation has increased, the number of senior-level executives who have spoken up has increased as well. Again, however, there is more work to be done as LGBT+ people continue to be underrepresented on executive teams in the U.S. - only 7% of senior executives are LGBT+.
“It takes time to change the hierarchies of organizations,” says Slade. “And it takes courage for senior leaders to speak out and then be under a very bright spotlight. But for those executives who have come forward at IBM, it serves as an important example to others in the organization who then become motivated to aim for those positions.”
One way to increase the comfort level of those thinking about speaking up is through an organizational structure that has long been part of corporate life – Employee Resource Groups. At IBM there is an LGBT workplace equality group that has over 300 chapters globally to support the community. “These groups have been tremendous advocates within the company and have been a main driver of education, both in the U.S. and across the world,” says Slade. “They are also an excellent resource for recruiting more of this talent."
Following IBM's footsteps in addressing this issue is not difficult and fits within a structure that most companies already have. The report offers four action steps.
Fill the LGBT+ leadership pipeline
To help fill this leadership gap, companies can create mentorship programs. They can also be corporate sponsors at events to both promote awareness and discussion as well as find talent. Companies should be active with educational institutions including colleges, universities and other career programs.
“We work with a lot of organizations across our footprint to make sure we forge partnerships so we have access to both ideas and information, and are able to address the needs at each of our locations,” explains Slade.
Once talent is brought into the organization, the study suggests developing an optional self-identification program for the LGBT+ workforce in order to both understand the needs of this group but also to track professional development and benchmark success.
Set Clear Expectations
Employers must be exact in communicating the business value of belonging in the workplace and the need for respect. They can do this by regularly incorporating education modules on LGBT+ in HR training. Mid-level managers should be trained on the issue of bias in the workplace. And the study goes even further to suggest that in order to build accountability on this issue diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals need to be incorporated into performance reviews.
Using inclusive language, such as gender-neutral pronouns is an important step to raise awareness. A resource on this is: What’s Your Pronoun? Strategies for Inclusion in the Workplace. Other best practices for transgender and non-binary employees, can be found in How to Celebrate Transgender Employees on TDOV and Year-Round and Best Practices for Non-binary Inclusion in the Workplace.
And of course, open communication is key. “Creating safe places to discuss these issues is an effective way to begin the education process,” says Slade. “Hearing others' stories is always the way to connect with the issues that others face. ”
Institute non-discrimination policies and practices
Companies can offer LGBT+-friendly policies and programs. For example, companies can conduct “equity” reviews which could include transgender-inclusive healthcare coverage.
“While most companies have non-discrimination policies it’s important to make sure they cover sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” notes Slade.
Use brand eminence as a tool for positive change.
With a strong brand comes influence. The report encourages the company to use the leverage that brings to support LGBT+ rights around the world. “Be outspoken—your current and future employees will thank you for it,” the authors of the report say.
Advocating can include having government and regulatory affairs teams focus on legislation impacting LGBT+ groups. Companies can also partner with trade associations and NGOs to issue position statements.
“Over many years, IBM has brought a lot of positive change to the world,” notes Slade. “We are always looking for new ways to show up and stand up for marginalized people.”