Improving The LGBT Experience Within The Workplace

Some advice on helping to create a better company culture for the LGBT workers.

05/01/2017 05:14 pm ET Updated May 02, 2017

It's 2017. Diversity should be an integral factor of business culture all 365 days in the year, though, April is recognized as the one month to celebrate it. As the month wraps up, I wanted to touch on the current state of LGBT folk in the workplace and offer some bits that may make a significant difference to your LGBT colleagues, both helping them succeed, improving their experience and building up your company culture all at the same time.

A record 7.3% of Millennials now identify as LGBT in the United States and as these individuals enter the workforce each year, you will be working for them, working with them and managing them. You may or may not know about how they identify, however, it is important to create a culture within the workplace that welcomes all, but specifically LGBT, colleagues company-wide and furthermore, maintain meaningful interpersonal communication with them.

According to Fast Company, one in five LGBT Americans say they have been mistreated in the workplace because of their sexual orientation. This means a number of colleagues within your workplace could be struggling with the transparency of their identity every day. This is especially important to acknowledge, given the fact that more than half of the states in the US currently lack laws protecting workers based on sexual orientation and even less protect based on gender identity. (Hint: That is a lot of L’s, G’s, B’s and T’s without protection in the workplace). The Human Right Campaign does a phenomenal job in being a resource for the community in all aspects, but specifically by compiling The Best Places to Work For LGBT Equality each year, showing the top companies in the United States for LGBTs.

LGBT people, along with other minorities in the US, have grown up in a society that marginalized them through all facets of influence—societal norms, media, legislation and entertainment. They may have had a traumatic upbringing with unsupportive parents, guardians or friends causing low self-esteem. Rejection from friends, family and society often forces many LGBT folk to become independent, thick-skinned and/or guarded when it comes to meeting new people or collaborating. A number of factors shape the experience of an LGBT American and no two of these are remotely the same.

I am an openly gay man working in public relations and marketing in a moderately sized city in the Midwest. The industry and culture that I work in is, in my experience, more progressive than many others, though does not at all mean that I have felt comfortable expressing myself at each of my past employers, let alone coming out to my colleagues.

Along with some LGBT peers, I’ve compiled a number of interpersonal gestures, small actions, safe environments and other bits that may help in creating a welcoming environment for your LGBT coworkers, managers, employees, clients and all others you may encounter in the workplace. As mentioned, my experience is not relative to all, but I hope this general advice can assist in creating a better company culture for the LGBT workforce. (Note: these apply outside of the workplace as well!)

1. If you believe you know how they identify—you don’t until they tell you.

This is very important to understand and recognize. In any circumstance, assumptions are no reason to act in a certain manner or treat someone. Though someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not a relevant topic of business in the workplace, people’s identities do play a role in their work life balance. Identities are still personal and until they make them transparent to you, it is very critical to respect them, to not assume and allow them to come to you first. They may take longer to build trust with you and your colleagues because of their past, a fear of unjust treatment, bullying or even being terminated from their job. They may not even be LGBT in the first place. Regardless, leave it up to them to reveal this to you. It's not your story to tell.

This also applies to how you interact with someone. Although you may not mean to be offensive, assuming someone’s identity can lead to harmful microagressions that continue to be detrimental to the LGBT community's experience. Refraining from using gender-specific pronouns or words until you know the identity or preference of a colleague or client is a great way to start. For example, try to use the term “partner” rather than girlfriend or boyfriend until that person makes you aware of their significant other. It is extremely uncomfortable for this person to have to correct you if you assume something that turns out to be incorrect. Creating this environment for LGBT people allows them to open up and form real, meaningful relationships with their team, rather than distancing and building walls from them.

2. They won’t assume you are an ally.

Many of us have been bullied to the point that we teach ourselves to expect the worst of people rather than the best. To this day, I still feel somewhat uncomfortable around heterosexual men when I first meet them whether that is at work, in the supermarket or in an Uber. I still feel that until I make it known that I am gay or I know how they feel about me, there is a rainbow-colored elephant in the room. I can't tell you how relieving it is when people make it known that they are allies without you having to come out to them. It automatically takes that pressure away and allows us to take our guard down. As unnecessary as I wish it were, we need you to let us know that you are an ally. Help us see that you are accepting. You don’t have to wear a sign that says it or tell us that it is “okay” to be LGBT. We know it is okay, but just by mentioning that you went with your friend X and her wife for drinks last night or your brother brought over a new boyfriend to meet the family will at least give us an idea that you are open or supportive of us and our community.

3. Discretion is crucial.

As I mentioned, not everyone wants to be out of the closet to everyone at work. Some have told their friends, but not their family. Maybe they haven’t told anyone. If one of your LGBT coworkers confides in you and comes out to you, remember that this is their identity they have trusted you with. Until they brief you on their situation, whether or not they are completely out, do not want a certain person to know, don’t care if the workplace knows, etc., this is NOT your story to tell. An example of this recently made headlines when a Survivor contestant was outed as being transgender by another contestant on the show, who he had confided in about his identity. Use discretion and respect that they are trusting you with something very personal to them.

4. No LGBT person is the same.

This is relatively straightforward. You may have had an LGBT friend or colleague who didn’t mind talking about personal matters, introduced their partner to you or acted a certain way. It is important to note that although we belong to the same community, we are not the same. I cannot count how many times I have been asked about fashion advice or tapped for interior design direction because of the fact that I am gay. Not all gay men have Clinton’s taste from What Not To Wear. Not all lesbians drive Subarus with eight dogs in the backseat. Stop asking us for advice because you believe we have a particular skill. In any matter, quit stereotyping in general. That goes for all groups of people different than a Cis, heterosexual, white male majority. We are all different and would like to be treated as such.

5. “Treat me as a person, not as a gay person.”

Sexual orientation is important and part of us, but it isn’t what defines us—especially in the workplace. Being LGBT does not matter when we are working on a project together or when we are in a staff meeting. Talk to us and treat us as humans. We want to go to work, build our careers and make our money just like everyone else. You don’t need to overcompensate for anything, especially when you have to tell us about your second cousin’s husband’s sister and every other LGBT person that you’ve ever known. We want to talk about normal things­­…yesterday’s staff meeting, who is running for mayor, whether or not another Fast and the Furious movie needs to be made (it doesn’t).

6. Do some research.

Most, if not all, of these points should be applied to everyone that is different than you, but especially this one. A quick search on what the letters in ‘LGBT’ stands for or about Gay Liberation in the 60s would be a great way to educate yourself on the LGBT community and our history. If you are truly interested in getting to know about our culture, history and influence–I encourage you to do some high-level reading on the internet. Our history and culture is not taught in US history books so if someone were to show they are interested or know a little bit about the history of our community, I guarantee it would make their day.

7. Celebrate diversity—especially during Pride.

LGBT employees should know that management supports them. This can come in many ways, whether that is a conversation that shows support as mentioned above, or could mean celebrating what makes us different and what better time to do that other than Pride. Pride Month (June) is very special to us and is a time to reflect on our history, culture and influence in addition to just being proud of our identity. Organizing a small celebration or acknowledgment of the company’s commitment to diversity, specifically the LGBT community, will make them feel welcomed and appreciated at work. Additionally, this is a great way for your LGBT employees to have the opportunity to see who their allies are within the office, just by seeing who participates. If your company is committed to diversity, celebrate Pride with your LGBT workforce—make it known that you care about them and the value they bring to the workplace.

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