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The challenges of being LGBTQ+ in today’s workplace

Discrimination against the LBGTQ+ community is still common — and it needs to stop.

Allie Nawrat


LGBTQ+ flag
Photo by Cecilie Johnsen on Unsplash

In honor of Pride Month, we sat down with five individuals who identify as LGBTQ+. Unleash Your People

Unfortunately, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination are still worryingly common in some countries and workplaces. This is not OK.

In honor of Pride Month, UNLEASH met with five individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ to find out how what challenges they are facing at work, what companies and leaders can do better, and why, despite some of the hardships, there’s still much room for celebration.

Here’s what they had to say.

LGBTQ+ Recruitment

Research by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) found that one in five LGBTQ+ Americans had faced discrimination when applying for jobs — and 59% of those surveyed said they believed that, where they lived, LGBTQ+ people had fewer employment opportunities because of their sexuality and gender identity.

The UK LGBTQ + charity Stonewall – named after the 1969 riots of the same name – identified a similar situation in the UK in its 2018 Work Report. The study found that 18% of LGBTQ+ people who were looking for work were discriminated against for their sexual orientation or gender identity while trying to get a job.

Katie Neeves, photographer and trans ambassador Cool2BTrans, a trans awareness training organization, explains that the situation is even more acute for trans people. She explains that often trans people don’t get jobs because their voice “doesn’t match the expectation that the employers have”.

This is particularly a problem with telephone interviews – which are often used by employers as the first interview stage of a job application.

She says many of her trans friends have struggled to get work simply because employers have a lack of awareness and education about what having a trans employee means, and therefore, “people are scared of us”.

However, ultimately trans people are just “ordinary people who want to be happy” and be able to be their true selves alongside their colleagues and friends.

Hostility and bullying in the workplace

Getting past the recruitment barrier is unfortunately not the end of problems for LGBTQ+ individuals.

Tragically LGBTQ+ staff often face bulling and harassment – both physical and verbal – in the workplace.

Stonewall’s report found that 18% of people had been the target of negative comments or conduct from their colleagues, and that one in eight trans people had been physically assaulted by either customers or colleagues in the workplace. A lot of this behavior goes unreported to higher management.

Neeves explains that discrimination is often “passed off as just banter” — but bullying LGBTQ+ colleagues, deliberately misgendering trans and non-binary employees, and physical assault is not a laughing matter. It’s unacceptable behavior both inside and outside the workplace.  

[Read more: More than a tickbox: how to create genuinely trans-inclusive workplaces]

coming out on a weekly basis

The abuse and discrimination, and the fact that studies show that being LGBTQ+ can affect pay and promotion opportunities, Stonewall’s research showed that over a third of LGBTQ+ employees have hidden their sexual orientation and gender identity at work.

In 2020, research by McKinsey, in collaboration with The Alliance, found that 18% of LGBTQ+ employees were not broadly out at work. This increased to 78% for junior workers.

Psychologist, author, and director of employee wellbeing at Benefex Gethin Nadin notes that his experiences as a gay man in the workplace “have probably been very different compared to most people in the community” because he doesn’t fit most gay male stereotypes, making it easy to hide his sexuality if he so desires.

“The challenge that I’ve had through my entire life is dealing with the assumption that I am a straight man with a wife or girlfriend and that has put me in some pretty difficult situations [in terms] of business relationships,” explains Nadin.

This means that “almost every day for 20 years, I’ve had to come out to people” and “it is exhausting and emotionally taxing battling assumptions and having to correct people all the time”.

Learning consultant at NIIT Limited Lior Locher, who identifies as non-binary, sympathizes with Nadin’s experience. They found that often people assume that a team is all female if it made up of all women and them, and that never gets questioned.

“I am not okay with being assumed it is an all-female team if I’m in it,” notes Locher.

“Do I open the box during what’s mean to be a casual introduction and derail the next half an hour, or do I put up with being misgendered?” they said.

McKinsey found that, unfortunately, this is a very common situation. Nearly 50% of LGBTQ+ survey respondents noted they had to come out at work at least once a week, with one in 10 having to come out on a daily basis.

In addition, 60% said they had to correct colleagues’ assumptions about their personal lives – they also had to face hearing derogatory comments or jokes about them or others in the LGBTQ+ community at work.  

a spokesperson for the entire LGBTQ+ community

The emotional burden goes well beyond having to come out to different individuals at work.

Having to act as a default spokesperson for the entire community is taxing too, says Kyle Lagunas, General Motors’ head of talent attraction, sourcing, and insight.

Lagunas says LGBTQ+ people just want to be recognized at work for their contributions, not for who they love or how they identify.

Lagunas adds that he believes there is an oxymoron when it comes to being your best self at work and others assuming that you are willing to become a spokesperson for an entire, diverse community.

“I’m openly gay and very proud of who I am, but that’s not something I want to attach to my career,” notes Lagunas. However, he explains that refusal to step up often leads to a negative reaction and can become a point of conflict.

Sourcing leader and talent acquisition strategist Balazs Paroczay, who also identifies as a gay man, disagrees. He believes that it is the responsibility of LGBTQ+ individuals in leadership to come out proudly and stand up for other employees.

“I would love see an HR director being transparently gay,” notes Paroczay.

“[Across the world] people are being tortured and killed. It is our job to be really loud and transparent” and ensure people don’t feel alone.

Nadin says he is on a similar page to Lagunas when it comes to the responsibility of representing such a large community when his experiences are not representative of everyone else’s: “I can’t possibly speak on behalf of the community when I haven’t had those experiences.”

However, he says he has recently started doing more Pride events and is taking the view that “I should really try to be the person I would have liked to have seen when I was 23”, which was when Nadin came out as gay.

“I could have understood that you can be successful, you can be on the board of a business and you won’t be held back [by being gay].”

He sees what he does as “subtle” activism and gives the example that he put something out on Twitter about being gay and that it has never held him back at Benefex. As a result, “people have applied for jobs, been successful and felt safe enough to come out” at the company.

The company has always had the view, according to Nadin, that “if you’re good at your job, we’re not going to make a big deal if you’re gay, trans, or non-binary”. By doing that “we’ve created an environment that I personally would have been more comfortable with”, notes Nadin.

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