Why employers’ wellbeing strategies should include creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ employees
To create safer spaces in the workplace, we must first acknowledge that there is still a problem with the way we treat people from marginalised and minority groups. This is a hard pill to swallow, but it is undoubtedly the first step in anyone’s journey to acceptance and allyship – this includes for employers.
So, we wanted to share some of our tips on creating safer spaces for your LGBTQ+ employees to be their authentic selves at work.
Bigotry is still a problem
Pandemic aside, the last 18 months have surfaced growing inequalities in our society, and events have brought to the surface the long-standing and systemic issues with regards to how we treat people based on things like their gender or race.
As a result of Covid-19, there has been a global surge in anti-Asian discrimination. The murder of George Floyd and Sarah Everard drew global attention to the way we often treat black people and women in our society. And while none of these issues are new, they were brought to the forefront of society’s conscience and people were forced to confront their own biases – in lockdown, there was nowhere to escape from news on our timelines. In this way, Covid-19 meant people could no longer turn a blind eye to discrimination.
Specific attention needs to be paid to younger employees; the data say these employees are struggling most by growing up in, and working in, a society that isn’t as accepting as we might think. As a society, particularly in Britain, we like to think much of our part in discrimination sits in the past. However, it’s safe to say that – while certain kinds of discrimination have improved – the broad issues of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia still very much exist.
While I’d love to talk more about how we treat women and black employees at work, and I encourage people to educate themselves on these topics, that is not my lived experience. Instead, I'll be focussing on what has been my experience as an LGBTQ+ employee at work – and why I needed a safe space.
The pervasiveness of hate crimes and physical violence is a constant source of stress for many within the LGBTQ+ communities. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people under the age of 24. LGBTQ+ youth contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of straight young people. Almost half of all transgender adults say they have attempted to take their own life, and 92% say they attempted to do this before the age of 25.
Feeling like you need to have your guard up in the workplace can be exhausting and emotionally taxing. Those who experience even minor homophobia show increased production of the stress hormone cortisol. While the situation has got much better for the LGBTQ+ community, there is still a lot of work to do, and employers have a growing responsibility over the wellbeing of their people to create safer spaces.
According to a new study by Kantar, 92% of people state they are totally or fairly comfortable with a gay or bisexual man, or lesbian or bisexual woman, being their neighbour, manager, GP or Prime Minister. However, among that same sample, four-in-10 say it’s inappropriate for schools to teach a six-year-old that being gay is acceptable. Over one third of people think that gay conversion therapy should remain legal in the UK.
Homophobia in the workplace
McKinsey’s LGBTQ+ voices: Learning from lived experiences (2020) research found that more than one-in-four LGBTQ+ employees say they aren’t out at work. The research reveals that coming out at work is more challenging for women and more junior employees. Around 80% of gay senior leaders say they are out, but this falls to just 58% of women and 32% of junior employees.
Coming out at work has always been something I struggle with. Mostly because the day I came out was just the start of that process, when it should have been the end. Every single week for 20 years or more, I have had to come out. From new colleagues to customer service employees, there is an assumption that I’m straight. Heteronormativity means that the majority of people I speak to assume I am straight – this being the default then puts me in a difficult position. When someone assumes I am married to a woman, it requires extra effort for me to correct them, so I rarely do. This can be psychologically draining for many in the community and more than 60% of LGBTQ+ employees say they have often had to correct colleagues’ assumptions about their personal lives, according to McKinsey’s research. For some, the cognitive and emotional effort involved in constructing and maintaining facades can be draining.
Not to mention, for some people, it can be outright dangerous to come out at all, especially at work. We cannot forget that in 69 countries, it is still illegal to be gay, and many more punish transgender and non-binary people. Only 41% of countries have laws against workplace discrimination based on sexuality. Coming out at work requires the individual to consider the impact it may have not only on their legal rights and personal safety, but the affect it may have on their career progression, and their home life, should the information be passed on.
The way we are treated by our managers at work has a very long-lasting, negative impact on us. Recent research has looked at coach leadership in professional sports – specifically the NBA. Controlling for tenure, salary, team winning percentage, and absence due to injuries, multilevel modelling showed that exposure to abusive leadership influenced both the trajectory of psychological aggression and task performance over players' careers. Those players with an aggressive coach saw this negatively impact the rest of their careers.
The homophobia employees experience at work can have a profoundly negative effect on the rest of their working lives. Fortunately for me, for a decade I’ve worked for an employer that has supported and celebrated my diversity, and it has never once caused me anxiety or stress. So how did Benefex do it?
1. We promoted dialogue and we weren’t afraid of an uncomfortable conversation
Driven by campaigning from Lorelei Bowman, our social media and content writer, we added an option to share your pronouns in your email signature. While it may seem like a small thing, this normalises discussions about gender and challenges the historical view of gender, encouraging people to not assume someone’s gender (and thus pronouns) based on their name or appearance. It’s an important move towards inclusivity and shows that you care about individuals’ preferences.
More than that, it creates a safe space for people to bring their whole selves to work. Our CEO and CPO both made sure they used their pronouns, so the support was seen from the top down. We also emphasised that it was entirely optional, and could be changed at any time, so employees knew they would never be forcefully outed.
We also put together a report called Beyond the Binary, which is an introduction to understanding and celebrating gender diversity at work. Written by Lorelei, this was the first report of its kind to be published in our industry, and has since been used by organisations and charities to inform their DEI strategy and help educate on transgender and non-binary issues at work.
By sharing content like this, and championing gender diversity, we hoped that we would not only inspire other employers to do the same, but show trans and non-binary employees that they were safe and welcome at Benefex.
2. We added diversity to our employer brand and celebrated those diverse humans who work with us, while openly acknowledging their challenges – we showed gratitude for these people
In 2018 we asked every employee anonymously about their experiences as LGBTQ+ employees and their experiences with mental health. We were very surprised at the hidden diversity that existed in our organisation. We had far more members of the LGBTQ+ community than we thought.
We decided that we needed to ensure that not only our employees saw Benefex as a safe space, but that we created an environment which welcomed and encouraged applications from diverse employees. So we launched a very successful social media campaign to show all of our people and potential hires, that we were a safe space.
We asked our LGBTQ+ employees to share their experiences with us. We discovered that we hired bisexual, pansexual and non-binary people, gay men, gay women, transgender women – the process made us realise we were far more diverse than we ever realised. Then we knew we had to use their experiences to educate the rest of our workforce and raise awareness.
We asked them about being LGBTQ+ at work, and those that were happy to, gave us their thoughts which we shared on social media. Today I know that several employees applied for roles at Benefex specifically after seeing these posts, and knowing they would be welcome here.
So, what can you to make sure your organisation is a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ employees?
Embracing and celebrating the diversity within your business is a journey and you won’t always get it right, but here are a few ways we think you can start to make a positive impact:
- Give people permission to be themselves – raise the voices of LGBTQ+ people and promote allyship – especially at the top.
- Think about the language you use – using pronouns frequently in your organisation encourages others to speak up about the ones they would like you to use. Refer to LGBTQ+ relationships the same way you do to straight ones.
- Stop making assumptions – whether it’s the language you use when asking about someone’s partner, or the stock imagery in a benefits brochure, remember that not all relationships, families or individuals look the same.
- Create a physically safe space – barriers faced by transgender employees range from organisational oversights, such as lack of access to appropriate bathroom facilities, to heavily-gendered uniforms. Consider these.
- Policies need to be adjusted to suit a modern family – switch to gender-neutral terms like parental leave, and consider the variations of families your employees make up – which includes a single gay man who might have caregiving responsibilities.
- Offer LGBTQ+ friendly benefits – consider offering trans coverage as part of your private medical scheme, and ensure your providers understand that family and partner benefits need to reflect all families and partners.
- Try reverse mentoring – let people at the top have the opportunity to understand the plight of their LGBTQ+ employees; empower your people with lived experience to speak out.
- Make a public commitment to your LGBTQ+ employees – whatever this looks like.
I’ll leave you with this thought – I am a confident, successful, 6ft4, 18 stone man. I’m not afraid of much. I’ve been out for almost 20 years, and with my partner for the last eight. I have no issue with being gay. I hold a senior position at a company that has embraced and celebrated me for a decade.
But I have never felt comfortable enough to ever dance with my partner in a bar or at a wedding or hold his hand in the street. When I knew I was gay but was too scared or not able to come out, I was able to hide the stress, sadness and anxiety very well. There is very likely someone you know at work today who is feeling that exact same way. They are hiding who they are because they are afraid of what will happen if they come out at work.
In 2020, 40% of LGBTQ+ young people say they have seriously considered suicide because of who they are. Creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ employees should not be a choice, it should be a priority. It can literally save lives.
The author is Gethin Nadin, director, employee wellbeing at Benefex.
This article is provided by Benefex.
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