"What did you do over the weekend?" may seem like a harmless question during a weekly Monday morning office meeting, but it's not.
Chances are, I did nothing unusual; I went to a concert. But if someone happens to ask whom I went with, my answer could strike an uncomfortable chord.
That’s because I attended the concert with my partner. While I have always been out at work, the person who asked me may not know I am gay. Despite the fact that I work for a progressive company, there’s no guarantee how a person may react to my response.
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A study by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) found that most LGBT workers remained closeted on the job. That's because many of their colleagues either want to avoid gay people, or don't understand what their lives are like in a workplace. They may also worry that they will offend or discriminate someone.
But remaining closeted isn't always the best scenario for an employer: LGBT employees who are out and supported at work, it turns out, are between 20 and 30 percent more productive.
It’s also important that people be able to be themselves at work as well as every setting. Otherwise, they will be less likely to speak up and will run the risk of repressing bold ideas that may be crucial to the success of a project. Here are three steps companies can take to foster an LGBT-friendly workplace that thrives.
1. Create an inclusive atmosphere.
Creating a culture that is LGBT-friendly requires more than a 100 percent rating by the HRC or a sincere mission statement on a corporate website. It’s important that LGBT employees feel free to be visible and work among straight colleagues who are openly tolerant or, even better, LGBT advocates.
Companies can create an LGBT group for employees, or take larger steps, like participating in Pride observances and making commitments to LGBT causes throughout the year.
Most importantly, companies must create easy ways for employees to provide feedback and suggestions, and share their experiences.
An inclusive culture will make LGBT employees comfortable to bring their partners to company events, and be role models for fellow employees who have not come out. Straight colleagues can be important allies for creating a culture of inclusivity too. They can speak up when they see a difficult situation arise, or think twice before asking a woman if she has a boyfriend (which they probably shouldn't ask about, anyway). Providing a culture of openness and transparency is key.
2. Inclusivity stems from leadership.
Support for an inclusive workplace starts at the senior level of a company so it reverberates throughout the company’s culture.
Leaders need to step up by creating an ethos that values inclusivity of people, innovation and ideas. Clear messages from management on the importance of diversity and acceptance make the company’s stance transparent and create a culture that is clear on its values, on what words and actions it will tolerate and what resources it will make available to employees.
3. Build diversity into human resource policies.
Diversity cannot be effective if it’s just a buzzword; instead, it should be built into HR policies. Those policies extend from health benefits for same-sex partners to support for sexual-reassignment surgery, something my company recently expanded its coverage to.
Furthermore, companies can foster an LGBT-friendly workplace by recruiting diverse employees. Reach out to university-based LGBT groups for prospective candidates and make the company's values clear across websites and social media. Furthermore, ensure that job descriptions always include a clear statement on a company’s commitment to diversity and equality.
Inclusivity is not just the right thing to do, it’s beneficial for recruiting talent. Nearly 80 percent of LGBT consumers are likely to consider brands known to provide equal workplace benefits for all employees, including LGBT workers. While many of my gay friends are lucky enough to work for companies that accept them, theirs is hardly a universal experience.
In the face of violence, such as what happened in Orlando, or a cascade of discriminatory legislation in certain states, it’s important to be mindful that we have a long road ahead.
Companies that fall short on creating a culture of inclusivity are missing out on attracting and retaining LGBT talent, and in driving innovation throughout their workforce.