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LGBTQIA+ Inclusion in the Workplace

Vanderbilt’s Gabrielle Lopiano on how business leaders can foster LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace, not just in Pride Month

By Lacie Blankenship

Creating and maintaining LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace is not only the morally right thing to do, but it’s also a game-changer for business productivity. With June being Pride Month, the LGBTQIA+ community is a hot topic for many organizational leaders. It’s important to note that the LGBTQIA+ community should be considered in business all year, not just in June. 

Gabrielle Lopiano, Vanderbilt Assistant Professor of Management

Gabrielle Lopiano

Below we walk through the basics of LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace and answer a few questions with the help of Gabrielle Lopiano, Assistant Professor of Management, an expert in stigma, identity management, workplace diversity, discrimination, and social hierarchy.

What does LGBTQIA+ stand for? 

LGBTQIA+, formerly LGBTQ, stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, and plus; it is an umbrella term that originated to encompass several sexualities and gender identities. As society’s understanding of gender and sexuality has developed and grown, so has the acronym

What is an inclusive workplace? 

An inclusive work environment welcomes all and intentionally integrates employees’ differences into all areas of the workplace. It’s not a new conversation that business leaders must consider that different employees have different workstyles, but how does sexuality play into work productivity? 

“The research is very clear. When LGBTQIA+ people feel they need to conceal their identities at work, it takes up a lot of their mental and emotional capacities, which can harm their productivity,” says Lopiano. “An inclusive workplace removes that burden and allows LGBTQIA+ employees to fully immerse themselves in their work.”

What does LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace look like? 

LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace is when employees of all gender and sexual identities feel safe, welcome, supported, and unified. A workplace that is truly inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community is proactive with inclusion efforts and opens the door for feedback.  

How can companies prioritize LGBTQIA+ inclusion? 

Company policies lay the legal foundation for employee and employer expectations. A natural beginning step to LGBTQIA+ in the workplace is to adapt policies with inclusion in mind.  Commonly, these formalities feature non-inclusive language. One example is the use of ‘maternity’ and ‘paternity’ leave. Company leadership can improve this by changing gendered terms (i.e., maternal/paternal leave) to nonbinary (i.e., parental/family leave). Another example is spousal benefits. Companies should ensure that employees in same-sex relationships have the same protections and benefits that non-LGBTQIA+ employees do.

Corporate leadership can also improve company policies by reevaluating the formal dress code. These policies often mention that men should wear a collared shirt and dress pants, and women should wear skirts, dresses, styled hair, etc. These guidelines are harmful to multiple marginalized groups because they set a biased standard of what professionalism looks like.

“I think that removing gendered language from formal policies is a really good first step,” says Lopiano. “Professionals should be mindful of the language they are using and what sort of gender norms they formally perpetuate in policies like written benefits packages and formal dress codes.” 

How can managers support LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace? 

In addition to formal inclusion, managers should encourage informal and interpersonal inclusion. There’s a line between sharing and prying. Some people may not be comfortable sharing many personal details at work, and others may be thrilled to share more. It is never appropriate to assume anything (pronouns, sexuality, identity, etc.) or pry. However, there is a balance that fosters inclusion.

Matching personal dialogues is a good way to approach this. As a general guideline, if someone shares about their significant other and refers to them with a specific noun, that’s how you can refer to them. Avoid walking on eggshells and match these dialogues; if someone tells you about their ‘wife,’ then it’s okay for you to ask about their wife. 

“Steering away from asking personal questions is a form of bias,” says Lopiano. “Make sure that LGBTQIA+ colleagues are just as included in personal conversations at work. Ask them about their weekends!” 

How can all employees support LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace?

All employees can join the effort to normalize the sharing of preferred pronouns, a powerful implementation for fostering an LGBTQIA+ inclusive environment. From onboarding onward, many opportunities exist (i.e., employee directories, name tags, email signatures, Zoom titles, etc.).

“It’s nice to see non-LGBTQIA+ people disclosing their pronouns because it’s a signal that the organization as a whole is inclusive,” says Lopiano. 

What else can companies do? 

One of the most valuable efforts in inclusion is the willingness to listen and accept feedback. Inclusion isn’t something that can happen overnight; it takes time. There is vast room for improvement regarding LGBTQIA+ inclusivity in the business world. A key aspect of becoming more inclusive is to stay open-minded, listen to others, and welcome feedback. True leaders will proactively look for ways to include everyone and take action when new perspectives are presented. 

“I think it’s important to note that no one is looking for special treatment. The only agenda is to ensure that LGBTQIA+ employees receive equal treatment as their non-LGBTQIA+ peers,” says Lopiano.

What should companies not do? 

Performative allyship is unacceptable; internal and external inclusion efforts must be aligned. Companies that adapt their logos for June but don’t take active measures for LGBTQIA+ inclusivity are not authentic allies. Authentic allyship looks like supporting LGBTQIA+ communities, advocating for equality and acceptance, changing policies, and reevaluating norms. LGBTQIA+-focused inclusion training and employee resource groups are additional ways to build workplace inclusion internally.

“A rainbow logo means very little if it isn’t backed by inclusive values and action. Failing to speak out against anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation – or worse, actively supporting it – says a lot more about a company’s values than sponsoring a Pride event,” says Lopiano.

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