12/16/2014 04:33 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

LGBT Rights: The Fight's Not Over

The recent mid-term elections marked a blazingly clear reversal of fortune for the Democrat and Republican political agendas. What's less obvious is how the reverberations will affect the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender) movement.

The good news first - and there's plenty of it. It's been a momentous year for LGBT rights. Apple CEO Tim Cook proudly outed himself, writing in an essay published by Bloomberg Businessweek, "I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me." Cook's news caps a year of achievements for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community and its supporters: Gay marriage is now legal in 35 states and the District of Columbia; the NFL drafted its first openly gay player; and a trans woman graced the cover of New York magazine as the nation's highest-paid female executive. Even the Pope praised committed gay relationships.

Even as some of the long-time defenders of equality in the House, Senate and governor's offices went down in defeat, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, explained in a recent blog:

There was not a single race where supporting LGBT equality cost an elected official their seat, and the Republicans who were victorious tended to avoid LGBT issues altogether.... Even in an election where the electorate was deeply conservative, the exit polls showed that most voters supported marriage equality -- including a 14-point jump in support among voters under 30 since 2010. That's because, unlike in past elections, more than 200 million Americans live in states with marriage equality -- and that number continues to expand on an almost daily basis.

This may not be our best election, but it is far from our worst.

However, this is no time to sit back and relax.

Workplace discrimination and its ripple effects remain daunting hurdles for many LGBT individuals. Despite advances in workplace acceptance, over half (53 percent) of LGBT workers remain closeted at the office, according to a 2014 Human Rights Campaign survey.

While many companies excel at publicizing pro-LGBT policies and positions externally, there's an ongoing need for company leaders to promote and act on them internally. Equally, if not more, important to the success of LGBT employees is the underlying organizational culture.

Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that allies - people who support or work as LGBT advocates - play a decisive role in creating an inclusive community where individuals are comfortable being themselves. CTI data finds that LGB employees are 1.2 times more likely (47 percent versus 21 percent) to be out at companies where straight senior executives express their support publicly. In fact, 24 percent of LGBT workers surveyed attribute their decision to come out professionally to a strong network of allies.

However, although the ally phenomenon is widespread and growing - 70 percent of men and 83 percent of women consider themselves allies - far fewer people qualify as "active allies," willing to openly support LGBT colleagues in the workplace. Employers have numerous opportunities to help strengthen "the ally effect" by creating networks that invite straight colleagues to support their LGBT co-workers, by sponsoring LGBT individuals and groups, participating in company events, or simply displaying some sort of ally identification on their desk.

Openly-gay senior executives being visibly out at work makes a difference as well. LGBT employees are 85 percent more likely to be out at companies where senior executives are out (24 percent versus 13 percent).

Being able to be out has measurable benefits. Earlier CTI research found that out LGBTs are more satisfied with their rate of career advancement and more engaged at work; conversely, closeted employees who feel isolated at work are 73 percent more likely to say they plan to leave their companies within three years.

LGBT employees aren't the only beneficiaries of an inclusive workplace; employers benefit, too.

With LGBT buying power comprising $830 billion in the U.S. alone, companies bolster their bottom line by building and sustaining connections to this large and expanding market. Inclusive companies find that publicizing their support of LGBT equality boosts their standing among consumers across the board: 71 percent of LGBT adults said they are likely to remain loyal to a brand they believe to be very friendly to the LGBT community even when less-friendly companies may offer lower prices or be more convenient. Further, three-quarters of heterosexuals and 87 percent of LGBTs said they are likely to consider choosing a brand known to provide equal workplace benefits.

LGBT employees are crucial to reaching this market, as CTI's recent research on Innovation, Diversity, and Market Growth reveals. Companies that employ and leverage diverse talent, including employees with LGBT smarts and an understanding of the LGBT global market, better understand their end-users and produce novel solutions for diverse consumer - if there are allies on the team who make that representative feel secure about raising ideas and sharing insights.

The ultimate dividend: the combination of a diverse workforce and leaders who get that diversity makes companies measurably more innovative. Employees at companies with leaders who exhibit two-dimensional (2D) diversity -- a combination of both inherent and acquired diversity -- are 75 percent more likely than employees at non-diverse companies to see their ideas implemented in the marketplace. Publicly traded companies with 2D diversity leaders are 70 percent more likely than non-diverse publicly traded companies to capture new markets.

Tim Cook's announcement signals a fundamental - and welcome - shift in our attitudes toward LGBT. Still, as he points out in his essay, "... there are laws on the books in a majority of states that allow employers to fire people based solely on their sexual orientation. There are many places where landlords can evict tenants for being gay, or where we can be barred from visiting sick partners and sharing in their legacies. Countless people, particularly kids, face fear and abuse every day because of their sexual orientation."

As if we needed a reminder, just a week later, the news about Tim Cook was supplanted by headlines noting that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld bans on gay marriage in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee - the first Federal Circuit Court to do so since the 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

In other words, the fight is not over - not by a long shot.