Advocating for Queer Employees in the Workforce

Over the past Pride Month, many companies have transformed their usual logo to a more colorful rainbow one. And although this is a great way to show support to their own members who may identify as queer (an umbrella term used to speak broadly about individuals with diverse sexual orientation and gender identities), true allyship can be more proactive. It is important to understand and support queer employees year-round by creating a more inclusive environment at work. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report noted that when managers communicated with employees more frequently and provided meaningful feedback, this led to higher engagement and productivity. Therefore, creating a more inclusive environment can lead to higher loyalty from employees and increased productivity. 

What is Pride Month?

Pride Month is not only a time of celebration, but it also has an important historical context that everyone should know about. Pride Month, its celebrations and marches are a way to address and fight for acceptance and equality. During the 1960s it was common for police to raid gay- and trans-friendly bars but, in June 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn refused to stand with the mistreatment of the police. This led to four nights of rioting. The first Pride march was held in New York City in 1970, sparking a movement throughout the nation for equality.

Why does an inclusive environment matter?

Susan Hunter, in her article Taking the Diversity and Inclusion Journey: A Path Forward for Companies, states, “a [work] culture that is not inclusive, puts an emotional tax on racialized people who feel different from peers at work due to gender, race, and/or ethnicity”—which then can lead to a high turnover. Therefore, it is crucial for employers to focus on DEI efforts to advocate for queer employees and remove any emotional tax they may face at work.

According to the 2021 update to the Gallup Poll Social Series, 7.1% of U.S adults (18 +) identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, reflecting a 1.5% increase from 2020 data (5.6%). This percentage may continue to increase, as younger generations are more likely to identify as other than heterosexual. In this same survey, 21% of Gen Z individuals (born after 1996) identified themselves as LGBTQ. This may be because Gen Z individuals are more open to divulging their sexual orientation and are more comfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to someone vocal about the needs of the community. According to Statistics Canada, 4% of the total Canadian population age 15 or older identify as LGBTQ2+.

According to Catalyst, almost half of LGBTQ+ (50.4%) workers in the U.S. are closeted in the workplace; those surveyed report being exhausted from hiding their sexual orientation (17%) and from hiding their gender identity (13%). While in Canada, the Canadian Underwriter reports that 53% of LGBTQ2+ workers hide their identity at their workplace. Can you imagine not being able to fully be yourself at the place you spend 40+ hours a week?

Where do we go from here?

There are a few things employers can do to foster a more inclusive work culture that openly addresses and embraces queer employees, beyond changing their logo for one month. 

  1. Establishing a Pronoun-Affirming Culture
    • Everyone wants to be called by their correct name and, for that matter, be addressed by the correct pronouns. Using the correct pronouns is about respecting and affirming employees’ existence.
    • It is important to keep in mind that not everyone may disclose their pronouns, as they may not want to be outed at work. This is a personal journey, and creating an inclusive environment is about allowing employees to be themselves.
    • Simple ways to explicitly respect and encourage proper user of pronouns include email signatures, name tags/badges, business cards, staff introductions, etc.  
  2. Offering Gender-Neutral Bathrooms
    • Remember the statistics about employees feeling exhausted by not being able to fully be themselves? Forcing queer, transgender and/or nonbinary employees (those who do not identify as male or female) to decide to use the restroom with a gender with which they do not identify enforces the idea that employers are only valuing cisgender individuals.
    • As the workplace demographics continue to shift and more Gen Zs are looking for jobs, gender-neutral bathrooms can attract and retain younger employees. 
    • Use caution when integrating a gender-neutral bathroom in the workplace. Employees who already do not feel comfortable at work may not use a gender-neutral bathroom for fear of being outed.
  3. Benefits!
    • We know that people have different needs and priorities according to where they are in life. The traditional benefits (medical, dental, vacation, sick pay, etc.) may not fit or be enough for your employees. Revisit the benefits offered and ask the following questions: Do we offer benefits for transgender individuals? Do we offer same-sex fertility and/or adoption benefits?
    • In many cases, offering a benefit is not enough. Employers must evaluate their coverage policies. For example, does fertility benefit coverage apply only to spouses in traditional marriages who are not able to have children, or is coverage available to gay couples?
    • Evaluate the workplace policies and language. Employers that want to stand out from others have incorporated nonbinary language in their policies and procedures manual. Remember pronouns? They apply here, too. If someone only sees “she/he” on documents, they may feel excluded.   
    • Ask questions! We will never know what our employees’ needs are unless we ask them. Advocating for queer employees involves asking them questions about how they want to be addressed, what they need to be successful at work, and how the company can truly show their respect and value toward them.

Queer employees want to feel safe, appreciated and protected, just like any other employee. Incorporating new initiatives and transforming a culture is a long-term, and sometimes exhausting, process. But creating an inclusive environment that welcomes every single employee should be a priority and, in the long term, the benefits of having employees who can fully be themselves will lead to productivity and engagement. 

Want to learn more about creating an inclusive environment, tackling biases and correctly addressing DEI in pensions and benefits? Join us at one or more of our upcoming conferences, including the 68th Annual Employee Benefits Conference in Las Vegas, October 23-26, and the 55th Annual Canadian Employee Benefits Conference in New Orleans, November 20-23. And make sure to check out our DEI educational resources.

Eli Argueta

Associate Director, Educational Programs

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