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Supporting LGBTQI+ workers

There’s far more we could do to allow LGBTQI + employees to freely participate at work


Dr Jonathan Booth, associate professor of organisational behaviour and human resource management at LSE’s department of management, argues that while workplace inclusion programmes are often conceived with the best of intentions, many end up as invasive and risk making LGBTQI+ employees feeling tokenised.


23rd Jun 2022
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Recent research on the extent to which LGBTQI+ employees experience workplace inclusion, shows that while the situation has improved over time, inclusion remains elusive for many.

According to the pressure group Stonewall, more than a third of LGBT workers report having concealed their sexual orientation or gender identity within the past year to avoid discrimination.

Other findings show that nearly one third of transgender workers who identify as nonbinary don’t feel able to wear work clothing that represents their gender expression.

Workplace inclusion programmes are often conceived with the best of intentions, but many end up as invasive and risk making LGBTQI+ employees feeling tokenized.

Nearly one third of trans workers who identify as nonbinary don’t feel able to wear work clothing that represents their gender expression.

Take the example of rainbow lanyards. Many employers distribute these to employees who wish to demonstrate allyship with the LGBTQI+ community. This can help to amplify and normalise such support, but it can also have harmful unintended consequences.

Some employees who wear rainbow lanyards do not embody legitimate allyship behaviours – this then confuses LGBTQI+ employees when it comes to who to approach in the workplace for support.

Such initiatives can also falsely promote the impression that homophobia and transphobia have been erased from the workplace and foster a false sense of security.

Nowadays, organisations too often treat their LGBTQI+ members as ‘model minorities’ – placing additional responsibilities on them. This can be exhausting for employees who may find it challenging to complete their assigned tasks in addition to these extra responsibilities.

Consistently assigning minority employees to these diversity and inclusion roles also reduces the opportunity for majority employees to champion and lead inclusive initiatives.

Discriminatory recruitment

To tackle the issue of inclusion, we need to start before LGBTQI+ individuals are even employed, with many often speaking of limited employment access and career paths that are frequently delayed, hindered, or sabotaged.

Although the attributes that would identify someone as LGBTQI+ are often invisible or undetectable, discrimination can occur during job interviews with candidates not receiving job offers due to being their authentic selves.

Studies have also shown that an anticipation of stigma and discrimination inhibits LGBTQI+ individuals from recognising and pursuing potential job and career opportunities.

Many LGBTQI+ individuals have reported limited employment access, and career paths that are frequently delayed, hindered, or sabotaged.

There are some relatively simple things that employers and recruiters could do, however, to ensure LGBTQI+ individuals can freely and fully participate at work.

One of the easiest ways would be to signal inclusion by using gender-neutral language in recruitment materials. Gender-neutral language speaks to the use of both gendered pronouns and also gender-coded words.

It has long been accepted that the language used in job postings has a cascading effect on the types of people who are drawn to an organisation and, in turn, the extent to which that organisation’s culture is welcoming to others.

One study in 2011, for example, found that crafting job postings with “masculine-coded” words – such as “competitive,” “headstrong,” and “outspoken” – led women to find such postings less appealing.

Recruiters should use gender-neutral descriptors; for example,  the singular “they” or “this person,” rather than “he” or “she”, when describing desirable applicants in job adverts. There is now software available to screen potential job postings and flag gendered language, such as Applied and Gender Decoder.

Using gender-neutral terms throughout the recruitment process can prevent trans and nonbinary candidates from having to out themselves.

Workplaces can also use formal benefit policies to signal their support for non-traditional familial structures. Though same-sex marriage is becoming more commonplace, there remains many places where same-sex relationships are held on unequal footing.

As such, organisations should proactively incorporate same-sex partner benefits to whatever extent their country’s laws allow them to do so. Healthcare benefits should also cover trans-specific healthcare needs, such as hormones or gender-affirming surgeries, which could include voluntary mastectomies.

Another systemic change to support LGBTQI+ employees would be to include fields for legal and preferred names, pronouns, and gender neutral honorifics on hiring documents and benefit enrollment forms.

This would be particularly beneficial for trans and gender non-conforming individuals, who often must perform the onerous task of having to consistently out themselves and educate others as to how they would like to be addressed.

Discussing what it means to be LGBTQI+

Perhaps the most important part of authentically including LGBTQI+ employees at work is to engage in dialogue about what that looks like for the employees at that organisation specifically.

Although leaders may want to demonstrate their support for the community by marching in the local Pride parade, LGBTQI+ employees may not find resonance in doing so.

To go against their wishes – even when it’s meant to demonstrate support – can connote a form of exploitation, whereby it is more important to appear supportive than it is to actually engage with one’s employees.

Too often, cisgender and heterosexual friends and work colleagues may ask LGBTQI+ individuals to educate them about transphobia/homophobia and ask, “what do you think of these phobias?” or “what can I do to help?”.

The onus should not be on marginalised individuals to educate those with majority status.

The onus should not be on the marginalised as this can be cognitively and emotionally depleting. Responsibility lies with cisgender and heterosexual individuals to educate themselves, as well as determine ways in which they can use their privilege and majority status to dismantle transphobia and homophobia.

It is clear that there is far more employers and recruiters could be doing to allow LGBTQI+ to participate fully and freely at work.

When public attitudes shift to intolerance and, in some cases, outright homophobia or transphobia, the workplace may be one of the few – or only – bastions of support that LGBTQI+ employees experience.

Modelling an environment where diversity in sexuality and gender identity expression is not simply tolerated, but respected and valued, shows LGBTQI+ employees and their co-workers a viable way forward in what seem like increasingly troubled times.

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