Like other marginalized or under-represented groups, the LGBTQ+ community has had an inconsistent history of representation, understanding, and appreciation in the corporate space. The community brings with it a host of nuances and characteristics, language and terminology, as well as an entire history that must be considered in how businesses strategize, operate, and manage in order to effectively employ and engage the LGBTQ+ community meaningfully.
Only until recently, there was no blanket protection for queer identifying employees against discrimination at the federal level. The protected classes that were explicitly stated were race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information. It wasn’t until the 2020 Supreme Court Case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes vs. EEOC & Aimee Stephens, that the definition of sex in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was officially expanded to include gender identity and sexual orientation. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids”
This ruling was seen as a monumental step for the LGBTQ+ community and how the American government is now seeing us more and more as citizens deserving of equal rights. Now that sexual orientation and gender identity have the protection of Title IV, it begs the question – do corporations need to track their employees’ sexual identity and gender identity? How do they do this while keeping the nuances of the queer community and the safety of their queer identifying employees in mind?
Starting with Education
A corporation committed to engaging all their employees needs to be committed to actively engaging the LGBTQ+ community. To do so in a meaningful level first takes educating the folks that will be involved. At the minimum, leadership and the HR team must educate themselves on the LGBTQ+ community. That might start as simple as terminology around identities or be as complex as concepts like gender expression vs. gender identity. This education is beneficial for everyone at all levels of your company, but leadership and HR teams write and enforce policies so they should be prioritized since they will be the folks interacting the most with queer identifying employees in the firm.
Interactions with LGTBQ+ employees in the right way can promote a culture of psychological safety. The wrong interactions can harm that safety and ultimately undermine productivity. Workplace education is imperative to both signal your corporation is taking this seriously, and also keep the safety of your LGBTQ+ identifying employees a top priority.
One of the most difficult parts of education in this space is the evolving nature of the topic. Language, for example, is constantly changing as our awareness and understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation grows as well. A method of regularly refreshing the education with the most up-to-date terminology needs to be established. These methods should also include language surrounding other under-represented communities and ensuring that the most inclusive language possible is being used. Examples include using people-first language when discussing the disability community or modern and specific language when referring to race or ethnicity.
Reviewing Corporate Policies Through the LGBTQ+ Community Lens
Another crucial step that corporations should take is to examine their corporate structures for potential bias against the LGBTQ+ community. Most corporate policies have been put in place with roots in heteronormative ideas, gender binaries, or typical nuclear family structures – things exclusionary to the queer community.
In order for any company to start truly engaging with the LGBTQ+ community authentically, the policies that are based on these outdated heteronormative standards must evolve with leadership’s intentions and goals to include and empower members of the LGBTQ+ community. A typically low hanging fruit that companies can easily change is gendered language in corporate policies. Gendered language can range from policies using “he/she” as gender neutral pronouns to using gendered words such as “chairman”. For these specific examples, use gender neutral terminology like the singular “they” or “chair” or “chairperson”.
Addressing potentially excluding policies regarding health benefits, while more challenging, would serve to drive even greater positive impact for the LGBTQ+ community. Some examples include adding paternal leave that is equal in time to maternal leave, offering partner benefits, or ideally adding gender affirming surgery to the coverage offered by the health insurance with whom your company partners. These policies are so crucial to the safety, security, and well-being of the LGBTQ+ community.
Building on Trust to Further Advancement
Though this is historically sensitive, when done in combination with the other measures suggested above, companies can feel more secure in interacting with the LGBTQ+ community through employee surveys and engagement tracking. Their queer identifying employees will have been reassured that the companies is doing this with their best interests in mind and the surveys themselves will be tracking accurate data.
When incorporating questions about gender identity or sexual orientation, corporations should apply the most up-to-date terminology available. When asking questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, the two should be separated as they are completely different identities. An example question for sexual orientation could be “Do you currently identify as: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Pansexual, Straight, Other?”. In order to make gender identity more inclusive, the options “non-binary”, “gender fluid”, or “other” should be included with the gender binary options “man” and “woman”. An additional, separate question can be added here for trans folks asking “Do you currently identify as trans?” to allow trans employees to more fully represent themselves if they desire.
Employers can also consider providing the opportunity for employees to disclose their relationship with their own LGBTQ+ identities by asking if folks are open to people only at home or in their personal life, peers in the company, or their managers. From this data, employers can more accurately gauge how comfortable or safe people actually feel to come out and live authentically at their company. If responses to this question trend towards the uncomfortable side, leadership and HR now have a more accurate understanding of the sense of psychological safety in their employees and what they should aim for in improving it.
In order to keep the privacy of LGBTQ+ identifying employees as a top priority, these questions should always be optional. While the point of these questions is inclusion and promoting full representation, employees at your company may not be comfortable sharing these identity details even on an anonymous survey.
Making all of these improvements may seem very daunting, which is why Clarkston suggests a phased approach with incorporating these ideas. We suggest pinpointing areas that would be an easier lift. After some education, your company can start scaling the inclusion of other recommendations. Pinpointing these areas for improvement including the different structures or methods where employee engagement stems from is part of our DE&I-specific Enterprise Destination Mapping Methodology. We also offer change management and program management services to help with this transition period into navigating this new territory.