Put Your Policy Where Your Pride Is: Inclusivity at Work for LGBTQ+ Employees
Put Your Policy Where Your Pride Is: Inclusivity at Work for LGBTQ+ Employees
As Pride Month draws close, it's a valuable time to reflect on the workplace you've created for your LGBTQ+ employees. Even if you've already made efforts, you may be contemplating further enhancing inclusivity.
Gender identity, sexual orientation, and company culture are complex issues in and of themselves, so there’s a lot to consider when addressing this kind of equity at work. And though we may feel like we’ve made progress, the reality is that many LGBTQ+ employees don’t even report workplace incidents to HR because they feel nothing will be done, according to the Williams Institute School of Law at UCLA. And to quote more of their statistics:
46% of queer people experience unfair treatment at work at some point in their lives
31% experienced mistreatment in the past 5 years
9% faced discrimination in the past year
50% of queer people aren’t “out” to their bosses
When you consider this reality, there’s a lot of work left to be done to create true inclusivity in the workplace.
Terms to Know
Let’s start with the basics. As an HR manager, you might even be peeking out from under your desk, admitting that you don’t feel updated on the preferred verbiage in the LGBTQ+ community. That’s understandable since “LGBTQ+” encompasses many people who disagree fully on verbiage, too!
With the caveat that it’s a constantly evolving landscape, here are some basic verbal footholds in LGBTQ+ conversations.
Biological sex. This refers to the sex organs present when a child is born – generally, the options are female, male, or intersex. Note that many intersex children’s hybrid sex organ configurations are internal, so they may not realize that they’re intersex until puberty hits, when hormonal differences start to show.
Gender Assigned at Birth. This is the gender that adults decide for you when you were born. They may see a baby with a vagina and call that baby “female,” but that doesn’t mean the person will grow up to identify as female.
Gender Identity. This describes how a person feels on the inside. For instance, a trans woman may have been born as a biological male, but a female gender identity feels authentic to her. A nonbinary person may wish to break with he/she pronouns altogether, feeling more resonance with something outside a female or male identity. Don’t forget that cisgender, or cis, is a gender identity, as well – if you were born female and being called a woman resonates with you, that’s still a distinct gender identity.
Gender Expression. This relates to how a person presents their gender to the world. In a way, it depicts how much a person gravitates toward or bounces away from gender norms. An example of gender norms: ladies wear dresses, have long hair, and paint their fingernails.
A trans woman could choose to present as female, but she could also choose to present in a way that’s more masculine, androgynous, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming. None of those change the fact that she identifies as a trans woman, even if her wardrobe looks like Sporty Spice. You can get into a wide variety of colorful and personalized terms here.
Sexual Orientation. While gender identity involves the individual, orientation describes how a person carries on intimate relationships. The options here have expanded beyond “gay” and “straight” in recent years. You might hear homosexual, bisexual, asexual, demisexual, aromantic, or pansexual. It’s beneficial to meet someone where they are and respect how they want to describe their orientation.
Heteronormativity. This is the assumption that all people are cisgender and straight. American dating, relationship, and family cultures are heavily built on heteronormativity. “Do you have a boyfriend?” One major correction we can make in inclusive HR policy is not assuming anything about a person’s gender identity or orientation – and leveling the playing field. If straight employees are allowed to have pictures of their husband or wife on their desk, non-heterosexual employees should also be allowed to have pictures of their partner on their desk.
What makes a workplace a Safe Space?
The goal with inclusive policy is to make your workplace a safe space for LGBTQ+ employees as much as cis/heterosexual employees.
The lynchpin of that: employees feel like they can bring their whole selves to work. In other words, they don’t feel the need to hide any part of their identity for fear of discrimination, be that losing career advancement opportunities or facing harassment or danger at work.
The way that you handle pronouns at your company is a subtle but effective way to establish an inclusive atmosphere. And it can be accomplished without much hubbub, like encouraging email signatures that include pronouns for all employees, regardless of gender identity – “Warm regards, Candace, she/her.” This can help employees with gender non-conforming identities feel less singled out.
Including pronouns in company communication also normalizes discussing a person’s preferred gender pronouns instead of assuming them. For example, a person who is mid-transition may find themselves forced to bring up their pronouns only after they’ve been misidentified by a coworker. And this exchange may happen multiple times with different coworkers, setting the stage for awkwardness, tension, and fatigue.
Coworkers may feel criticized or nitpicked for being “corrected” about pronouns – “It was an honest mistake!” – and the trans person may feel a range of negative emotions from the exchange: guilt, exhaustion, and “othered,” to name a few.
Imagine how much friction would be reduced if coworkers were advised to ask, “What are your preferred pronouns?” right off the bat.
Another simple way that your company language can be inclusive: use gender neutral pronouns in your documents. Where a contract might’ve said “he/she” in the past, simply use “they” instead. This can become tricky with some grammar constructions, but the culture benefits outweigh the work of lightly editing documentation over time.
Code of Conduct & Education
Like most HR policies, we can’t assume that people “just know” how to behave in certain situations at work. This is not always out of malice, either. Everyone comes from a different background – some coworkers may have little experience with queer people or culture, and they may not know what terms are offensive or how to refer to different aspects of sexual orientation or gender identity.
This is where a particular code of conduct can come in handy. Guidelines could include, “Employees should not comment on the gender appropriateness of other employees’ attire.”
When people have a clear idea of what’s acceptable and unacceptable, it’s easier for them to choose their behavior and words. It also simplifies addressing missteps. Instead of needing to have philosophical conversations around their level of tolerance, acceptance, or embracing of queer culture, you can cite the code of conduct.
This also implicitly states: “Acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community is integral to our company’s values.” A code of conduct that clarifies this could act as a culture filter. If an employee reads it, it doesn’t jive with them, and they choose not to proceed with the role because of that – is that a loss?
Another way to help LGBTQ+ employees feel seen is for them to see other LGBTQ+ people in various roles, especially leadership roles. This conveys that identifying as LGBTQ+ will not hold them back from career growth at your company. It can also provide meaningful opportunities for mentorship with a person who can relate to their work experience more directly.
Even or especially if a large percentage of your employees are cis and heterosexual, fostering a network of allies at work is also paramount. You can do this in invitational rather than mandatory ways so that willing partners show up – for instance, you can have “LGBTQ+ and Allies” social hours at work periodically.
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a version of this, as well. These groups are work-related clubs or meet-ups based on interests, identities, or affinities to help employees bond and support each other over what they have in common. Common themes include parenthood, marital status, race, ethnicity, age/generation, religion – and sexual orientation. Employees voluntarily choose to join them.
It’s an “If you build it, they will come” situation with ERGs. If you create a safe space for LGBTQ+ employees and their allies to congregate, they will find each other and form organic, supportive networks. This positive support can be invaluable for the strength of inclusivity in your company culture.
Workplace diversity and inclusion start with hiring.
Ensure your hiring process feels open to people of non-conforming genders and orientations. This means creating hiring posts with gender-neutral pronouns – and even outright stating your nondiscriminatory and acceptance policies in those job announcements.
It also means equipping your team to conduct interviews in an unbiased way. Ask an interviewee’s pronouns before assuming they’re a “sir” or “ma’am.” If you can alter the restrooms in your building, have gender-neutral restrooms – a welcoming sign for non-conforming folks.
It might seem intrusive to address people’s sexual orientation or gender identity at work, but it’s not as personal as you might think. Heterosexual and cis employees always indicate their orientation and identity without many people batting an eye: wedding photos, family portraits, referencing husbands and children… The goal is to help LGBTQ+ employees feel like they can do the same at the same appropriate level.
This is not about dragging everyone’s personal life to the forefront of their workday, Michael Scott-style. But it is about letting people see that they can live out in the open and still get that promotion, raise, or recognition at work.