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As we enter Pride Month, I’ve been thinking about how nonlinear and messy social progress is, and how tenuous gains for LGBTQ+ folks feel in the current moment.
LGBTQ+ people have consistently had to fight for the right to exist in public life, to live openly at work, and to express themselves in ways that don’t always align with social norms around gender and sexuality. That fight is far from over.
The ACLU is currently tracking 490 anti-LGBTQ+ legislative bills in the United States. Extremist groups are planning on making their presence felt during Pride Month, causing activists and pride event organizers to worry about violence.
The director of an agency that tracks online terrorist threats notes that they saw record levels of hate directed at LGBTQ+ groups during the last Pride Month. They recently said that “LGBTQ+ hate has become a mass-obsession, and we are preparing for what we fear will be an even more troubling environment during Pride Month 2023.”
As is the case with all forms of social progress, we are facing a backlash right now to the progress that LGBTQ+ people have attained. Progress is not a settled question. Our right to exist openly and as a visible part of public life is being threatened.
With that context in mind, I've also been reflecting on the ebbs and flows of social progress, and how changing social norms are experienced by marginalized communities in terms of physical and psychological safety.
In the midst of these back-and-forth dynamics—progress and backlash, acceptance and violence—how are LGBTQ+ people doing in the most common public space, at work?
Safety at work
June is a perfect opportunity for us to come together and celebrate Pride in the workplace. Bring on the rainbow-themed logos and merch. Those celebrations can be cathartic and fun for trans, queer, and straight people alike.
But there's deeper work to be done. Many LGBTQ+ employees still don’t feel physically or psychologically safe at work. So while Pride Month can be a time of celebration, it should also be a time of stepping back and taking stock of how LGBTQ+ employees are faring in your workplace.
We can simultaneously acknowledge that major progress has been made for queer, trans, and gender non-normative people while at the same time recognizing that, again, progress isn’t neat or linear. There is still work to be done.
Federal and state worker protections
In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that workers can't be terminated for identifying as trans, gay, non-binary or bisexual. However, these protections only apply to companies with over 15 employees, leaving some workers with zero recourse if they’re discriminated against or harassed.
Before the 2020 ruling, it was legal in about half of the states to fire employees for being gay, trans, bisexual, or non-binary. Even today, it remains legal in 19 states if the business has less than 15 employees.
As I write this, there are pending lawsuits aimed at bypassing the ruling and making it functionally legal again to fire LGBTQ+ employees.
The lived reality of workplace discrimination
Just over a year after the Supreme Court ruling, researchers at the UCLA School of Law found that workplace-related discrimination against the more than 8 million U.S. based LGBTQ+ workers continues to be a prevalent and enduring issue.
These issues persist despite the implementation of non-discrimination policies by many companies. These policies reveal gaps between their intended purpose and the actual lived experiences of LGBTQ+ employees.
The Center for American Progress highlights that within the past five years, half of surveyed LGBTQ+ workers reported instances of discrimination and harassment at work, with respondents of color reporting higher incidence, including verbal, sexual, and physical harassment.
These acts of harassment have severe consequences for recipients, such as termination, denial of promotions, or reduced working hours. Rates of harassment were even higher for transgender employees, with 70% of respondents reporting harassment or discrimination.
As a result, nearly four in five LGBTQ+ adults took action to avoid discrimination by either concealing personal relationships or changing how they presented themselves. The calculus of living authentically versus safely is a terrible choice to have to make.
Fear and concerns clearly still persist in the day-to-day experiences of LGBTQ+ workers.
Fear deeply affects the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ employees
In a previous blog, I detailed how a friend of mine was sent flowers at work for her and her partner’s anniversary and panicked. She hid the flowers before any of her coworkers saw them because she wasn't out at work, and knew she could be fired or harassed.
My friend is not alone in her fears. According to a recent Linkedin survey, 24% of professionals are not open about their identity at work, with 26% also expressing concerns about differential treatment by coworkers. Additionally, almost half of the survey respondents believe being open about their identity would hurt their job searches and negatively impact their careers.
Alarmingly, nearly a third say they’ve faced blatant discrimination and/or microaggressions at work, while a quarter say they've left a job due to a lack of acceptance in the workplace.
Unsurprisingly, those who are open at work report strengthened connections in the workplace, and are able to foster deeper relationships with their coworkers.
Over half of the people surveyed in the Center for American Progress report state that the recent backlash to LGBTQ+ people, including pending state legislation, moderately or significantly affected their mental health or made them feel less safe. This also proved true for more than eight in ten transgender and nonbinary people.
Workplace leaders shouldn’t assume that because there are now federal protections for LGBTQ+ employees or their company has a non-discrimination policy, that LGBTQ+ are safe at their company or organization.
Recommendations for workplace leaders
Over half of the Linkedin survey respondents say they want companies to have clearly defined policies to protect LGBTQ+ workers. Around half say they want hiring practices to support LGBTQ+ applicants.
Just under half say they'd like to see their employers create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ employees, such as enterprise resource groups (ERGs).
Spreading awareness and implementing DEI training is important and part of the equation, but companies should back these efforts with concrete policy.
First of all, don't assume that the workplace is safe. Do the work to find out, through anonymous surveys, by inviting employees to talk to HR about their experiences and/or by getting input from ERGs.
Formalize anti-discrimination policies
Federal legislation against discrimination is a powerful tool for making workplaces safe for LBGTQ+ employees. However, employees’ work lives are more affected at the local level—the level of workplace culture and policy. Employees are much more likely to interact with HR and workplace policies than federal protections.
Many large companies have existing non-discrimination policies. But research and surveys clearly show a vast disconnect between these policies and the actual, lived experiences of LGBTQ+ employees. Even for companies with a policy, it’s likely time to revisit it.
It’s essential for workplace leaders to take the time to get input from LGBTQ+ employees (anonymously) to shape how their policy is constructed or update it to reflect the experiences of their workforce. They can get input from LGBTQ+ led organizations around best practices, and merge those best practices with the issues specific to their company and workers.
Workplace policy also needs to go beyond a non-discrimination statement. For example, make it clear that your workplace or organization will not police the gender expression or sexual identity expression of its employees.
Lastly, it’s important for employees to feel comfortable wearing clothes that fit their gender expression or bringing their partner to a company event. Gendered dress codes harm DEI efforts and contribute to a culture of exclusion.
Strong enforcement is a must
Part of the failure of so many companies having non-discrimination policies while LGBTQ+ workers continue to experience high rates of harassment and discrimination is that there are no robust reporting or enforcement mechanisms in place.
It is so important to have a strong system in place for addressing complaints. The primary burden of enforcing non-discrimination policies must not be on employees.
Without enforcement mechanisms, non-discrimination policies are essentially meaningless. They are certainly not enough to create a sense of cultural safety for LGBTQ+ employees in the workplace.
HR leaders must also be educated about LGBTQ+ issues to properly address dynamics related to discrimination and harassment.
Make LGBTQ+ employee safety a priority this Pride Month
All employees need physical and psychological safety at work. This is both a moral issue and essential for attracting and retaining the best employees.
Everyone wins when the workplace is a space where marginalized groups can be safe and do their work without fear of harassment or discrimination. This creates a safer environment for everyone.
It will take time to change a company culture where employees don't feel safe living authentically, but every workplace culture is evolving daily. Inputting systemic changes now will change the culture over time. That is how social progress works.
Companies have the opportunity to be strong allies to their LGBTQ+ employees year-round. Safe workplaces are within the range of possible futures, but it takes more than just a Pride Month rainbow logo.
Here are a few more ways to become a truly inclusive workplace for all employees, while supporting mental well-being.