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A Williams Institute study in 2018 found that 4.5% of the U.S. population self-reported identifying as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender). The real number is probably much higher, as diversity and inclusion expert Stephanie Huckel’s work suggests as many as 46% of LGBTQ professionals feel compelled to hide who they truly are in the workplace, which means any formal study probably skews quite low in terms of representation.

Any successful HR professional or C-suite executive knows that no team member, no matter how intelligent, focused, and driven can truly do their best work in an environment where they don’t feel safe to be themselves. Maximizing productivity and buy-in from LGBTQ employees and their allies requires creating an environment where people are valued and protected in a way that’s both inclusive and transcendent of their sexuality or gender identity.

Moving forward, we’ll explore:
• The unique legal position of LGBTQ professionals
• Why LGBTQ-inclusive policies build a stronger, better organization
• Some general guidance for creating LGBTQ-inclusive practices

Addressing the Additional Stress on LGBTQ Professionals

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender professionals have disproportionately felt the pain of discrimination in hiring, firing, and promotion scenarios and continue to deal with explicit or exclusionary workplace harassment, even as it has universally unacceptable to target other protected groups in similar ways.

Some HR leaders and organizations find it hard to understand why their policies and procedures need to contain explicit language about LGBTQ non-discrimination or contain specific guidance about potential issues like homophobic harassment or gender transition procedures. The unfortunate current state of affairs is that LGBTQ professionals receive only patchy, implied federal protections, which means that unless their employers take a strong, proactive, supportive stance, their employment status can feel extremely vulnerable.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects individuals from gender or sex discrimination, but only conventional interpretation extends those protections beyond the definitions of “sex” and “gender” that were understood in 1964, when the law was written. While there have been efforts to expand the language of Title VII to create explicit protections for LGBTQ individuals, that work is currently stalled.

Those prevailing interpretations mean that LGBTQ professionals can file harassment or discrimination claims with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission), but that is a long, expensive process that often draws out the agony of harassment and can potentially negatively impact the victim’s future career prospects.

That inconsistent or just-implied federal support leaves an incredible spectrum of different professionals feeling like they have less agency and recourse in the workplace than their non-LGBTQ peers. With that said, almost half the states in the country have created laws that protect against gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination for both public and private workers.

Western States with LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination Protections: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico

Midwestern States with LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination Protections: Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois

Eastern States with LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination Protections: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C.

Businesses operating within any of those states are held to a reasonably high standard for LGBTQ inclusion, with a framework in place for wronged individuals to gain the protection of the court system and punish businesses for discriminatory practices or creating a culture of normalized harassment.

With that said, even in those states, the existence of a legal framework for recourse does not mean the non-existence of harassment or discrimination. Preventing those initial hurtful episodes still falls to each individual employer or workplace, and the businesses who master creating a fully-inclusive workplace will win over the trust and gain the ability to leverage the incredible skills of the LGBTQ workforce.

On the other hand, for LGBTQ citizens of the other 29 states, there is incredible need for either public or private protections. Some counties or cities have passed local non-discrimination laws to provide protections for their LGBTQ workforce and residents, but that means job hunting for many involves using a map of potential landing places that looks like Swiss cheese.

In areas where no public protections exist, LGBTQ professionals must rely on their employers to create, maintain, and enforce their own policies and procedures to prevent harassment and eliminate discrimination. Given both the historic struggles of the LGBTQ community and the historic struggles between employers and workers, it’s easy to see why many feel extremely cynical or insecure in that position.

With that said, businesses in those areas with no public protections who forge meaningful, inclusive policies that invite LGBTQ workers to be themselves, feel comfortable in their work space, and get powerful back-up from their employer have the opportunity to get first pick at an incredible pool of business-driving talent.

Why Proactively LGBTQ-Inclusive Policies Benefit Everyone

From an organizational perspective, LGBTQ inclusion is much bigger than the basic decency of protecting employees from discrimination and harassment. It’s about creating an environment where assessments of someone’s proficiency, abilities, and strengths or weaknesses are made based on performance data and demonstrated results, not assumptions. It’s about fostering a community where everybody’s insights, perspectives, and strengths are leveraged to the maximum through positive interdependence, shared goals, and empathy.

When businesses do that right, they set themselves up to win big in a few different ways. Let’s pause to explore how LGBTQ-inclusion is a matter of best practice.

It’s the Right Thing to Do
Profit has historically been valued above “doing the right thing” for businesses, especially large ones, but that’s starting to change culturally. In the current atmosphere, it’s more important than ever to consumers (and therefore the bottom line) that businesses operate in an inclusive manner.

Directly aligning a business or brand with strong, progressive values is no longer seen as a boat-shaking move that could scare off customers; on the contrary, numerous large businesses have seen themselves called out by consumers and advocacy groups in recent years for failing to articulate inclusive policies.

By being proactive about LGBTQ inclusion, a business shows their employees, prospective employees, investors, competitors, consumers, and the market in general that they’re concerned with talent, not exclusion.

Building Authentic Buy-In from Workers
Given the high percentage of LGBTQ workers who do not feel comfortable sharing their status in the workplace and the number of employees who do not report incidents in which they’re made to feel uncomfortable, it’s impossible to truly quantify how much productivity, innovation, and morale are lost each year due to inclusion gaps. With that said, any number is too high.

By creating a strong, supportive environment where inclusion feels like a true value and not just a legal concern, organizations can invite workers to feel both more invested and safer in a way that leads to better work and a healthier environment. When employers feel like allies and not just bosses, there’s more incentive to invest in the work and succeed together.

Equipping Leadership with the Tools to Solve Problems
When businesses aren’t proactive about policy, they often find themselves dealing with problems they don’t really have the tools to solve. On the other hand, proactive planning means that when a negative scenario (such as a problematic employee) does present itself, there is a procedure in place by which the problem can be handled and removed in a way that is richly-documented and will hold up in court.

Staying Ahead of Regulation
Depending on the outcomes of upcoming elections, significant increases in federal and local protections for LGBTQ professionals could be on the horizon. Businesses that have already articulated internal policies and created a strong, inclusive environment will be able to transition smoothly into whatever new framework might be created, while organizations that lagged behind get into dragged into accountability and regulation leave themselves vulnerable to potentially costly and reputation-damaging disasters.

In the world of business, it’s always important to be perceived as an innovator on the cutting edge. In the new talent marketplace and culture, being a human rights innovator is just as important as being a financial innovator. Inclusion is just one more way that a business can be ahead of the game in the quest to connect with talent and maximize organizational reputation.

Guidelines for Creating an LGBTQ-Inclusive Environment

Building a company that wins through inclusion requires long-term commitment, vision, and strategy, but here are a few tips to help guide organizations looking to articulate LGBTQ inclusion policies and procedures:

Policy creation
• Nomenclature: It’s important everybody in the workplace uses appropriate, professional terminology. Company policies should spell out acceptable and unacceptable terms and establish clear guidelines for workplace conversations. Furthermore, guidelines for appropriate pronoun use should be created and enforced for transgender and non-binary workers.
• Clearly articulated harassment/discrimination guidelines: As we said before, in order to create a strong, inclusive environment, businesses need to give themselves the tools to enforce the culture of inclusion and weed out bad apples in a richly documented, legally appropriate way.
-Reporting process – It’s not enough to say, “discrimination and harassment are bad;” it’s essential to have a well-organized, transparent, and trustworthy system that employees know how to use to report issues.
-Staffing for support – Policies need to be backed up by human faces who are dedicated to inclusion, equality, and building the best possible workplace culture. Working with a trusted HR partner such as Launchways can connect your team with actionable equality policies while mitigating the need for your business to hire an in-house support person.
• Ensuring there are no employee benefits gaps for LGBTQ professionals
-Comprehensive healthcare coverage that connects transgender, non-binary, or intersex professionals with the doctors they need is essential to keep the workforce healthy and provide equality.
-Transition support programs for transgender individuals must be available.
-Life insurance and other policies that account for non-binary identities and non-heteronormative concepts of family must be available.

Employee Training
• New Employee Orientation must introduce LGBTQ inclusion policies and hold hires accountable for knowing them.
• Allow for an evolving world by having a dedicated HR professional stay up to date on emerging themes and issues of LGBTQ inclusion and providing on-going professional development or training as needs are identified.
• Authenticity is required for employee education to really work. Meaningful role play and powerful, relevant speakers are required to make laggards take these issues seriously.
• Documentation of training creates a strong framework for accountability.

Fostering an Inclusive Culture
• Show organizational dedication to LGBTQ inclusion by adopting a relevant cause, raising money for a relevant charity, or raising awareness of LGBTQ issues in your local community.
• Create a welcoming, positive environment where people are treated as human beings with dignity and valuable assets with potential and skills.
• Make HR a driving force in pushing both leadership and rank-and-file workers to make inclusion, diversity, and LGBTQ rights key values.


LGBTQ inclusion is one of the most important issues facing businesses in the current climate. In order to connect with and retain great talent, organizations must demonstrate their commitment to fully supporting each individual worker in their professional journey, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. With potentially increased regulation looming, the businesses that are proactive will be the ones who articulate the best policies and align their corporate cultures with the winds of change.

Key Takeaways:

• LGBTQ professionals current receive patchy federal and state protection from workplace discrimination
-This can make the workplace a place of increased stress and anxiety, which means workers can’t be their best selves
• Regardless of local laws, businesses who proactively adopt LGBTQ-inclusive policies set themselves up to win with talent and build a future-facing organization
• Policies must be articulated clearly and explicitly designed with the needs, challenges, and support of LGBTQ professionals in mind in order to truly make a difference

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