In my travels to visit clients across the country, I’ve had the chance to observe a lot of reception areas, and, knowing what I know about bias, it’s easy to allow these first impressions to form immediate assumptions about the folks you’ll be meeting and working with that day. Some are noisy, some are quiet. Some are modern, some are retro, and some – I won’t name names here – are just, well…old.
This month, I’ve seen several of these reception areas festooned with rainbow flags – popping out of little candy dishes or draped around the receptionist’s desk. One of these lobbies featured an enormous rainbow flag that took up the entire wall of a glass-enclosed conference room. “Wow,” I thought, “this place is gayer than I am”.
I’ll admit, it felt good, warm, and very inclusive. I wondered how it might feel to cis*/straight people, particularly those who struggle with accepting their LGBT neighbors or family members, to be confronted with a literal WALL OF GAY every time they came to work. The story I quickly made up is that anyone who works for an office that is this rainbow-friendly has either dealt with their own homophobia or knows to keep it under wraps when they’re at work. The other story is that this must be a pretty great place to work if you’re LGBT.
Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong; a big, showy celebration of Pride Month means a lot, particularly for LGBT employees. But office décor does not equal inclusion and an organization that proudly dons a rainbow in June and doesn’t do much else for their LGBT employees between July and the following May might be making matters worse, not better.
If you want to honor, include, and engage your LGBT employee base all year, there are additional steps you need to take.
Get your policies straight…er, aligned. This is easier than it used to be, post-marriage equality. Whereas companies used to bend over backward to ensure that same-sex partners were treated as opposite-sex husbands and wives, it’s now appropriate to offer spousal benefits for all legally married spouses, regardless of gender.
But there are some policies that you can create specifically for the LGBT employee base. Are sexual orientation and gender identity included in your non-discrimination policies? If you sponsor employee resource groups for women or ethnic communities, do you also have one for LGBT employees? Does your company specifically state that transgender employees can use facilities aligned to their gender expression? Are the costs of a gender transition covered under your medical benefit plan? For a complete list of all the policies you might consider, the HRC Corporate Equality Index is a great tool.
Encourage leaders to come out…like, all the way out. Obviously, you can’t ask a leader in your organization to be open about belonging to the LGBT community unless you actually have a leader who is a member of the LGBT community. So, if you don’t, that’s an important piece of data to consider. Why not? What barriers might exist in your organization to promoting LGBT employees to leadership positions?
But if those leaders exist, it’s important that they are open about who they are. Married LGBT leaders should be encouraged to mention their husbands or wives with the same frequency as their heterosexual peers might. LGBT leaders should take opportunities to say things like, “As a gay man, my reaction to this advertising campaign might be…” or “As a trans woman, this is why a discussion around pronouns might be relevant here…” These small ways of continuing the coming out process daily might be difficult for leaders at first. After all, they might be battling a lifetime of learning that it’s impolite to mention this aspect of their identity. Many will report an uneasiness with “flaunting” their sexual orientation or gender identity. But such actions do much to normalize these characteristics, and are a benefit to all employees – and evidence of real inclusion to LGBT staff who might reasonably wonder if any barriers to promotion exist for them.
Get intersectional. Oftentimes, when people conjure images of LGBT individuals, the pictures they imagine tend to be fairly, well…white, and middle-to-upper class. It’s important to remember that LGBT people, as their rainbow flag suggests, includes people from all walks of life: people of color and white people, the rich and the poor, the able-bodied and those with disabilities, the urban, suburban, and rural dwellers, the old and the young, the religious and the secular, the fat and the thin, the single, the married, those for whom “it’s complicated”, and much more.
Oftentimes, the most outspoken advocates for LGBT inclusion are white and more affluent than the community at large, but true inclusion should meet the needs of the entire community, not simply those with the loudest voices. Someone who is LGBT and Hispanic might have needs that neither white LGBT people or cis/straight Hispanics would feel. Intersectionality is complex, but so are people – so it’s important to get this right.
Do it because it’s worth it. The goal of inclusion serves individuals and organizations in a myriad of ways. It allows access to talent that could otherwise go to work for your top competitors. It allocates the energy people spend to build and maintain a closeted existence to creating and innovating on behalf of your company. It fosters loyalty by offering everyone a sense of inherent dignity and belonging.
The diversity calendar, which (in the U.S.) typically includes Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, Asian-Pacific American History Month in May, and Hispanic Heritage Month in September/October, is a great way to make a big public display of inclusion. But the display is meaningless if it’s not backed up by a culture that truly values and includes everyone. So, by all means, fly those rainbow flags all month long, but make your commitment to do the work all year long.
*Cisgender is defined as a gender identity that conforms to the gender one was assigned at birth; in other words, it’s the opposite of “transgender.”
Eric Peterson is a Senior Consultant with Cook Ross. He holds a Master of Science in organization development. Eric has been a diversity and inclusion educator for almost 20 years and an out gay man a little longer than that.