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How HR can create inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ+ employees

Discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals is still common, especially in the workplace.

Allie Nawrat


Pride Flag
Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash

This is not okay – but what can HR leaders do to support LGBTQ+ employees? Unleash Your People

  • UNLEASH sat down with five individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ to find out how employers can create truly inclusive workplaces.
  • Hear from Kyle Lagunas, head of talent attraction, sourcing, and insight at General Motors and other HR leaders about why organizations need to go well beyond celebrating Pride Month or changing their logo.

Despite all the progress we’ve made as a society, identifying as LGBTQ+ can still be challenging in the modern workplace.

LGBTQ+ individuals often face discrimination throughout the recruitment process, and once in a job, they may have to endure verbal abuse and bullying due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

[Read more: The challenges of being LGBTQ+ in today’s workplace]

Many organizations are rightly talking about the need for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E,&) but the discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals persists. So, what can employers do to ensure their D,E, and I priorities go well beyond virtual signaling?

UNLEASH sat down with five individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ to find out how employers can create truly inclusive workplaces. Here’s what you need to know.

Pride Month should only be a starting point

Kyle Lagunas, head of talent attraction, sourcing, and insight at General Motors, says we shouldn’t collectively dismiss Pride Month as a virtual signaling event with little impact.

He says those working behind company’s Pride campaigns “really care and are working really hard to get their company to support Pride in a way that’s meaningful to them and the communities they serve”. This may be the only time when those people have the opportunities to stand out and sit at the top table – and therefore it is crucial that their efforts are celebrated.

However, at the same time as celebrating what individuals and companies are doing, “we should fight and ask for more, ask for better,” Lagunas adds.

“We’ve made so much progress. Let’s rally around that, then challenge and build on top of it,” he concludes.

Psychologist, author, and director of employee wellbeing at Benefex Gethin Nadin is a little more cynical about companies’ genuine commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusivity during Pride Month; particularly regarding companies changing their logos on social media to a rainbow, but not doing so in countries where homosexuality is illegal.

This, he believes, suggests “they put private money and profit over people”. He does, however, note that Pride campaigns can bring hope, particularly to those living in fear because of their sexuality or gender identity.

He agrees that Pride Month campaigns, and particularly the rainbow logos “have got to be the start of a journey [but] it can’t be the only thing that somebody does” with regard to LGBTQ+ workplace inclusivity.

Compulsory training and better communication

Katie Neeves, photographer and trans ambassador at Cool2BTrans,  a trans awareness training organization, agrees that many companies are doing more than box-ticking during Pride Month. “I think we’ve got to give them a little more credit than that” and acknowledge they are on a journey too.

She is particularly pleased that many organizations don’t hire her to give just one talk during Pride Month — they often “follow it up with awareness training” later on in the year.

However, Neeves says companies should go even further. The problem with this training at the moment is that it is voluntary, meaning that often she’s “preaching to the converted” aka the LGBTQ+ allies who are already in agreement about the need for more LGBTQ+ inclusivity.

Instead, the training needs to be mandatory in order to make a real difference. “Don’t just have them as standalone events for Pride networks, have them at mainstream events where the whole company will be there,” says Neeves.

She adds that “you’ve got to get buy in from the top – right from the C suite”, which sourcing leader and talent acquisition strategist Balazs Paroczay agrees with.

He argues that HR teams need to “help the CEO become responsible for the entire topic” of LGBTQ+ inclusion at work.

Neeves says a lot of her training sessions are eye-opening up for some because “most people have never knowingly met a trans person” and they really engage with someone telling them their personal story, “especially if you make them laugh” as it often helps with recall.

Learning consultant at NIIT Limited Lior Locher, who identifies as non-binary, agrees that storytelling and communication is crucial to more inclusive workplaces.

But instead of assuming that you might offend, and therefore avoid the conversation altogether, Locher believes HR leaders and managers need to take the initiative.

Their advice is “be brave and have conversations as commonsensical adults” about things like pronouns and people changing their names. These things, they note, may seem trivial, but they are not.

More inclusive LGBTQ+ benefits

However, conversations and training only get you so far. Another thing employers can do be genuinely inclusive is to re-consider their family policies.

Lagunas explains that in the US “you’re lucky to have maternity leave, but if there is parental leave for a man, it is usually a week or two.”

“As a gay man about to start my own family, a week or two with my new family is not enough” and taking holiday or unpaid leave is a real burden for many.  He explains that his employer – General Motors – has introduced a 12-week family leave policy for all employees.

Another aspect of family leave that is often overlooked is that, while lesbian and heterosexual couples have access to IVF and other fertility treatments, using a surrogate is not often covered by insurance.

So Lagunas tells HR leaders: “Look at your family policies.”

He specifically recommends introducing fertility benefits for a third party and maybe even covering adoption; examples of companies that cover surrogacy and adoption include Pinterest and Johnson & Johnson.

[Read more: Why tech startup Fertifa is disrupting workplace fertility benefits]  

“It is a really easy one to offer” and it would save employees a lot of money if they didn’t have to pay for surrogacy or adoption out of pocket.” However, this is a major “blind spot” for companies – Lagunas argues they are not being unsupportive, they just haven’t thought about the different needs of non-heterosexual families.

A similar argument is made for companies offering specific healthcare benefits and policies for trans individuals going through a transition in the workplace.  

In order to refocus on creating great, inclusive experiences Nadin argues companies need to embrace empathy by design:

“You’ve got to walk in their shoes and try to understand what their experience is like […] Whatever your diversity policy is, you should be holding that in one hand while you do everything else in your business.”

Whether thinking about surrogacy coverage for gay male couples or health insurance for employees going through a transition, he explains that companies are starting to go back to insurance providers and getting them to change their language if it isn’t inclusive.

Doing this really sends out a message to LGBTQ+ employees (and candidates) if you say to providers: either make your language more inclusive or we will no longer do business with you.

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