What every organization can do today – internally and externally – to support queer employees.
I came out almost 30 years ago. Today I am a VP at Great Place to Work® — and it really is one.
I’ve been married for over two decades to a kind and beautiful woman with whom I share two great kids. I live in a place where it is the norm for school principals, religious leaders, doctors and civic leaders to be queer.
But you’re wrong if you think that my days of coming out are behind me and I don’t need workplace support.
Coming out isn’t a one-time thing people do and put behind them. Every time there’s a new hire, new boss, or collaboration with a new department, your people have to make choices about whether to foster true connections and honesty with teammates (“What does your husband do?” “What did you do this weekend?”) — or hide.
And anyone who creates great workplaces knows that trust and connection are essential components of innovative and high-performing teams. But even at the very best workplaces in the country, LGBTQIA+ employees lag their colleagues in key areas, including well-being and psychological support in the workplace.
Workplaces are not the same for LGBTQIA+ employees
In a study of nearly half a million people, Great Place to Work found that the biggest discrepancy between LGBTQIA+ and straight employees’ experiences at work is their psychological safety. Even at great workplaces, LGBTQIA+ employees are 7% less likely to have a psychologically and emotionally healthy work environment compared with their straight coworkers.
Asian and Pacific Islander (API) LGBTQIA+ employees are particularly at risk. Twenty percent of API LGBTQIA+ people have had a depression diagnosis, compared with just 7% of cisgender, heterosexual API adults. Great Place to Work data also reveals that in the workplace, even among the top companies in the nation, being LGBTQIA+ puts Asian employees at an 11% higher risk for retention than straight Asian colleagues. And 14% fewer find their work meaningful.
Company efforts to address these gaps must overcome a specific set of pressures. When analyzing employee comments about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) initiatives, we’ve observed unique pushback on various DEIB programs.
- Programs focused on race and ethnicity receive pushback challenging the perceived merit of underrepresented minorities.
- People who object to LGBTQIA+ programs urge their companies to avoid the very mention of LGBTQIA+ initiatives and attack the visibility of LGBTQIA+ employees.
But denial is not a realistic strategy. The percent of people identifying as LGBTQIA+ has roughly doubled in each generation from traditionalists (born before 1946) to Gen Z. Today, 11% of millennials are LGBTQIA+ and 21% of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQIA+. Companies must do better to support the one out of five employees who are part of this talent pool.
5 powerful ways to support LGBTQIA+ employees at work
Gender identity and sexual orientation should never lead to job loss or other workplace discrimination.
With human decency and sound business decisions as the baseline, here are five key things your company can do better to support LGBTQIA+ employees.
1. Make a point to counteract the pressure to be silent and “say gay” — in ways big and small
If this is something your company isn’t used to, you might feel awkward at first. That means you’re doing something right – the discomfort you take on should make the workplace more welcoming for LGBTQIA+ employees.
“Saying gay” at work can look like:
- Publicly celebrating Pride and telling stories of how your business interacts with and supports the LGBTQIA+ community.
- Auditing employee benefits and communications to evaluate how every line applies to LGBTQIA+ people —LGBTQIA+ employees must often read between the lines to find their places in family leave, fertility benefits, and even holiday invitations.
- Funding volunteer activities.
- Sponsoring an ERG group and soliciting ways the group would like company support.
If you have leaders who are out, ask if they’d be willing to tell their story publicly so others know they can be themselves and be promoted, too. Leaders should ask queer employees the same questions about spouses and partners that they do straight employees — how they met, what they do for work, their weekend plans — to show none of this is taboo.
Silence is not neutral. Proactive inclusion – like including everyone’s pronouns on Zoom profiles – signal that LGBTQIA+ employees are safe and respected in your workplace. Companies should also reflect on differences in what they say and do in public versus internal spaces.
Do you only talk about LGBTQIA+ people when you make your logo a rainbow on social media during Pride month? Do you rely on and appreciate your LGBTQIA+ teammates, but are too scared of brand risk to make that support publicly visible?
Any disconnect stands out as hypocrisy and renders even positive actions untrustworthy.
2. Invest in employee well-being initiatives
Many companies are investing in employee well-being programs and enjoying benefits like three-fold improvement in retention and recruitment. But well-being initiatives only have a chance at rectifying the discrepancy in straight and LGBTQIA+ people’s experiences if you also “say gay.”
Otherwise, they’ll just call the Employee Assistance Program or use daily meditation and exercise to deal with the distress of being in a workplace where the stakes are too high to let their guard down.
3. Pay special attention to API employees
Given the increased workplace risks for API LGBTQIA+ employees, consider initiatives that specifically support this group.
Reach out to experts in API mental health to ensure your programs address unique needs for this community.
At Great Place to Work, our API ERG and Health & Wellness committee co-sponsored a workshop for all employees about “Building Resiliency and Promoting Self-Care within the API Community.”
K and B Therapy and Sweet Mango Therapy provided context and insights about issues like elevated suicide risk, cultural prohibitions against self-care or mental health access, desire for Eastern medicine approaches and access to services in one’s native language.
The session encouraged preventative care and made space for all employees to better support themselves, their colleagues and direct reports.
Providing time and funds for API and LGBTQIA+ ERGs to collaborate is also effective.
For example, at Great Place to Work, our ERGs are co-sponsoring author Malinda Lo to come speak to us about her New York Times bestselling book. Interested employees participated in a book club during API month in May – API Heritage Month – to discuss Lo’s story about a Chinese-American girl discovering she’s a lesbian in the 1950s.
And we’ll learn from Lo in June – Pride month – about her experiences as a queer Chinese immigrant and how that’s affected her career. This intersectionality of experience enriches both ERGs’ support of our whole community.
You can also find ways to incorporate this community into existing events and activities. For example, since LGBTQIA+ youth are at significantly higher risk for being without housing, consider hosting your next company volunteer day at a teen homeless shelter in an Asian community in your area.
If you “adopt-a-family” during the holidays, work with community partners to find an Asian LGBTQIA+ family. Consider the needs of this community in your pro bono work. All employees can feel proud of these contributions, and they will have a profound impact on the support and meaning Asian and LGBTQIA+ employees feel in their workplace.
4. Invest in this work knowing that you might not be aware of everyone who will benefit
Don’t make the mistake of assuming you know how many or which people in your organization would be supported by an ERG or feel included through your DEIB efforts.
Nearly 60% of LGBTQIA+ people are bisexual and 10% are transgender. More than one out of four LGBTQIA+ employees are not out at work.
I can’t tell you how many times a company, such as a religious organization or a small town business – has told me that they don’t have LGBTQIA+ people in their organization, industry or community — and how many times the data has proven they’re wrong.
Take the time to send a gender-neutral plus-one invite to the holiday party, create an inclusive benefits package, wear a name tag with your pronouns — and you might be surprised by who feels your care.
5. Be an ally here and now
Meet with your ERG to learn more about people’s lives and how your company can support the LGBTQIA+ community. Acknowledge the pressure that they’re under in the current zeitgeist. Be visible and unapologetic in your internal and public actions.
The impending overturn of Roe v. Wade will set a precedent for marriage equality and potentially decimate civil rights in this country. This threat isn’t just about a marriage certificate.
It’s about where in the country it’s safe to live or to travel. It’s about the legal safety of our children, access to hospital visitation and medical benefits, keeping the house if your spouse dies, having a path to “adopt” your own children, and a myriad of financial and other benefits.
Being an ally is about fundamentally sending a signal that LGBTQIA+ relationships matter and LGBTQIA+ people are full citizens of this country — even as our community continues to face disproportionate job loss and fatal violence.
Leaders need to understand the level of attack their people are under, take strong public stands against these threats, and do everything they can to preserve their people’s safety.
While “saying gay” is a necessary signal, supporting LGBTQIA+ rights is the necessary action.
Measure equity and inclusion in your workplace
For more information or help on your DEIB journey, contact us about how to measure and improve belonging in your workplace with our employee experience survey and analysis tool.