As an employer, are you actually supporting LGBTQ workers? Experts from Pride at Work and the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce told us how you can make sure. (Credit: Ted Eytan, Flickr)
As an employer, are you actually supporting LGBTQ workers? Experts from Pride at Work and the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce told us how you can make sure. (Credit: Ted Eytan, Flickr)

Pride Month is a celebration for LGBTQ people, and businesses are increasingly marking it in their own ways.

But while companies have become more vocal about their support of the community — and though their merchandise and social media avatars are presently rainbow-themed — LGBTQ workers are still in a precarious situation. At present, more than half of all U.S. states lack laws that would protect these employees from discrimination, and no federal protections exist at all.

That could change with passage of the Equality Act — a bill that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to federally prohibit discrimination in employment (as well as education, housing and other public institutions) based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019, but was not taken up by a then-Republican-led U.S. Senate. Now, however, the bill might finally have its moment.

In the meantime, the workplace is still a fraught place for LGBTQ workers. Beyond the lack of federal protections, a fifth of the LGBTQ community reports experiencing discrimination at work for their identity, in the form of lower pay, skipped promotions and inappropriate jokes, among other aggressions. Yet the LGBTQ community contributes significantly to U.S. and global economies. Collectively, it yields $3.7 trillion in spending power worldwide, and entrepreneurs contribute $1.7 trillion to America’s economy, studies show.

So how can business owners better support this dynamic, diverse, powerful group? We spoke with two experts — Sabrina Kent of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and Jerame Davis of Pride at Work, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBT union members — who offered us their insights. 

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• Pride flags are fine. Inclusive policies are better.

“Really, it boils down to what all workers need in their workplaces – dignity and respect,” Davis says. “There’s no dignity in being deadnamed. There’s no respect in being passed up for a promotion for being too effeminate or masculine for management’s tastes. There’s neither dignity nor respect when jokes at your expense are tolerated.”

So how can an employer create a more welcoming, supportive workplace for employees?

First, any non-discriminatory policies a business owner enacts must address gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation, Kent says. “Are you extending the exact same benefits to a same-sex partner as you would a heterosexual partner? Do you provide protections for transgender folks in the workplace? Do you provide transition-related care?” Additionally, you should include language identifying yourself as an equal opportunity employer in your job ads, and lead by example as a thoughtful supervisor who visibly, vocally rejects displays of ignorance or hate in the office (and beyond).

Such policies and actions make a difference for LGBTQ workers. “Over 30 percent of an LGBTQ employee’s productivity goes out the window when they can’t bring their full selves to work,” she says, making her point with an example. “It’s a typical water cooler conversation: ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ If they don’t feel comfortable sharing, or having a picture of their partner on their desk, for fear of retribution or losing their job … that goes so much further than just loss of productivity.”

And especially if employers fall short, Davis encourages employees to unionize. “People with a voice are much harder to exploit or disrespect. Unions provide protections for LGBTQ working people that go above and beyond any current or proposed law. Putting true power into workers hands is how you level the playing field with employers.”

It’s a critical thing, he adds, because “every working person deserves the basic dignity and respect of being seen first as a human with feelings, emotions, needs, wants and desires.”

• The LGBTQ community is not a homogeneous group. Don’t treat members of it as such — and don’t leave anyone out of the top tiers of your business.

Kent asks employers to look critically at who occupies the top tiers of their companies, who they’re bringing in as field experts, and who is hosting their diversity, equity and inclusion training seminars. “If employees are hearing from the same types of individuals, they’re seeing that a clear mark of success [to their employer] isn’t someone who looks or sounds like them.” Plus, she adds, you lose out on diversity of thought. 

Davis echoed Kent’s words regarding how the identities of the leaders and experts at a given company say more than employers might realize. “They need to look at how the culture of their workplace includes or excludes certain people. Is management — the people making most of the decisions — mostly white and able-bodied? Even if you sprinkle in a few LGBTQ folks, you still won’t have the cultural competency in your management team to fully understand your workers.”

Plus, Davis points out, “discrimination tends to compound,” meaning that a member of the LGBTQ community who is also a person of color, or disabled, experiences bigotry based on all of those facets of their identity. “This stacking effect can be incredibly challenging for workers in many workplaces,” and employers should be especially mindful of these individuals when considering their recruitment, retention and promotion strategies.

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• Make sure your support of LGBTQ people and workers extends well beyond the month of June. 

“Visibility is important, don’t get me wrong,” Davis says. “However, there are far too many companies that slap a rainbow on their logo or offer a Pride milkshake or whatever, and that’s literally the extent of what they do all year.”

Supporting members of the LGBTQ community has to extend beyond small, temporary shows of allyship, both experts stated — especially if those demonstrations ultimately just siphon money from the community, without any actual support offered in the process. “Show me your work in the community before showing me your logo in rainbow colors,” Davis says. “A strong ally demonstrating pride in their workers is not the same as cynically profiteering through the goodwill of LGBTQ customers and employees.”

Kent, meanwhile, is also wondering who you sourced your rainbow-emblazoned merch from. “Our work at the NGLCC is to support LGBTQ business owners — so, did you get your pride shirt from an LGBTQ business?”

She agrees with Davis that “it’s not just what a company is doing during the month of Pride — it’s a 365-day effort.” She rhetorically asks, “Are you supporting the Equality Act? Are you enacting those inclusive policies? Do your employees feel supported? It’s great to go to a restaurant that has a Pride flag hanging, but I want to know how the LGBTQ person in the back is being treated.”

• Be vocal — and be thoughtful about how you speak out.

Authenticity is key, Kent says — “and it’s really important that the people whose job it is to push [messages of support for the LGBTQ community] on social media be intentional and inclusive about that messaging.” 

She doesn’t think this task should fall solely to the resident LGBTQ community member to craft such messaging, especially if it’s not their job. But there should be individuals who are part of the LGBTQ community within the company who can help ensure use of proper, inclusive language. 

Davis agrees. “If you’re making statements about LGBTQ working people, then the crafting of that statement should be done with a diverse group of LGBTQ working people involved, or preferably, leading the way.”

Don’t have any members of the community on your team to turn to? “There’s a sign that maybe you should do some work before touting your supposed bona fides,” Davis adds. In the meantime, Kent points out, you could always hire an LGBTQ-owned marketing business to help you out.

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