Making your LGBTQIA+ people feel valued

As Pride Month 2022 draws to a close Jess Sandham explores addressing gender inclusion and diversity in the workplace

Feeling welcome, included, and able to be yourself in the workplace is an important aspect of working life. The sad fact is that this is not always the case for many LGBTQIA+ employees.

Research has highlighted that more than a third (35%) of LGBTQIA+ employees have hidden their identity at work for fear of discrimination. The reasons for not being ‘out’ in the workplace are numerous, with many relating to feelings of personal and psychological safety.

A recent report highlighted that, 40% of LGBTQ+ workers have experienced work-based conflict in the last year, rising to 55% among trans workers, highlighting the stigma and hostility people face for being ‘out.’ The impact of this stigma is that conflict linked to gender or sexual orientation all too often goes unchallenged and unreported, meaning organisations don’t always recognise the scale of the issues that exist within their own walls.

In Britain nearly one in five LGBTQIA+ individuals has experienced a hate crime. Yet despite this staggering figure, four in five of these crimes or incidents are not reported and, according to research by YouGov, younger LGBTQIA+ victims are particularly reluctant to go to the police.

The worry and fear this can cause has serious repercussions on the mental health and wellbeing of staff and can drastically impact workplace relations.

So, in a world that seems more ‘out and proud’ than ever before, what can be done to support our LGBTQIA+ colleagues, improve psychological safety, and address the issue of gender inclusion and diversity in the workplace?

Good people management should not be viewed as ‘a nice to have’ but critical in ensuring the wellbeing and safety of all

Identifying the problem
Part of the reason we are seeing so many LGBTQIA+ employees hiding aspects of their identity at work is down to a few different reasons linked to processes and culture.

Firstly, poor reporting structures and processes can deter staff from highlighting conflict or discrimination. The impact of this is that the behaviour goes unchallenged, the situation is unresolved, and the organisation is unaware of these issues. If you are asking employees to first ‘talk to their line manager’ about these kinds of issues and bearing in mind people’s concerns about being out in the workplace, there is a good chance you’ll never hear about the challenges people face in your organisation.

Also, if the reporting process is unclear, complicated, or buried in a HR policy or a page on the company intranet, then it’s equally unlikely that inappropriate behaviour towards LGBTQIA+ employees will be reported. Establishing easily accessible channels in which people feel safe to report discrimination or harassment, with the option to report anonymously, is critical for progress on inclusion.

Another frequent barrier is company culture. When there is an accepted level of banter in an organisation that makes people the target of the jokes, it is almost undoubtedly going to create some friction or toxicity. Maybe it’s accepted by the vocal majority, but for the targeted minority this kind of culture can make it incredibly challenging to speak up.

It is also important to consider levels of trust in the organisation, between employees and their managers, with senior management, and between employees and the organisation overall. The absence of transparency and honesty in an organisation, whether real or perceived, can create communication barriers that lead to challenges in the organisation’s culture.

If people are worried about negative repercussions and feel they must hide business-related issues from their managers or cover up poor performance, rather than have an honest conversation focussed on problem-solving, it’s very unlikely they’ll feel comfortable discussing more personal issues. A lack of trust is one of the biggest barriers to inclusion.

Growing gender inclusion
Although change must generally be led from the top, employees will need to be educated on key issues. The critical role of managers in supporting their people is frequently overlooked, with a recent study finding that one in four managers in the UK has never received any management training.

Good people management should not be viewed as ‘a nice to have’ but critical in ensuring the wellbeing and safety of all. It’s essential that managers receive regular training and be well informed of the experiences and needs of LGBTQIA+ employees. Simply spending time talking to the team is key for capturing feedback on when things are going well and when things have gone wrong – things that can easily be missed without regular check-ins.

Business and family policy
Many (33%) HR leaders agree that there is insufficient support in employee benefits for the LGBTQIA+ community. Ensuring policies are up to date and inclusive of all is something all businesses to look at, especially those that relate to LGBTQIA+ families and fertility support.

The LGBTQIA+ community faces numerous barriers to starting a family and accessing IVF depending on where they live, with Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) often having the final say on whether LGBTQIA+ people can access NHS funded treatment.

There is a mental health and wellbeing aspect to this journey, which organisations need to better understand. LGBTQIA+ couples often face challenges to be recognised as a legal parent, and the strain of these challenges is compounded when organisations add unnecessary barriers, such as not allowing their employees to access to appropriate parental leave. There have been instances of LGBTQIA+ parents being forced to use annual leave rather than parental leave, with employers citing ‘lifestyle choice’ as their justification – it’s simply not good enough.

As with tackling cultural challenges and unwanted behaviour, we must collaboratively work with all levels of the business to create the right kind of support and policies to make LGBTQIA+ staff feel valued, heard, and represented.

There is no quick fix, the journey needs to involve everyone, will require some brave chats, and should focus on training and developing key staff to create spaces in which everyone feels safe, respected, and valued.

It’s a process of being completely transparent, calling out issues, and celebrating successes towards becoming more inclusive. Despite its complexities, it is a journey every workplace should undertake.

Jess Sandham is head of research, design and transformation at RightTrack Learning

Jess Sandham

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