Making an Inclusive Workplace for the LGBT Workforce

Making an Inclusive Workplace for the LGBT Workforce

On the whole, it looks like corporate America is becoming an increasingly friendly place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workers. More than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have policies against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and more than 60 percent include gender identity protection in their nondiscrimination policies, according to the “Corporate Equality Index 2014” [PDF], published by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

For those organizations that want to follow in the footsteps of other successful companies in the U.S. by becoming more LGBT-inclusive, a recent webinar from the law firm Littler Mendelson revealed that there are many practical steps to take. In “Building a Diverse Workplace: Best Practices for Making Your Workplace LGBT Inclusive,” Denise Visconti, managing shareholder at the firm’s San Diego office, and Mark Phillis, a shareholder at Littler’s Pittsburgh office, outlined some ways companies can be more inclusive—and what are some of the benefits of doing so.

Phillis explained that making the workplace more inclusive is a matter of protecting one of the company’s most precious assets—its employees. Where there is harassment and discrimination in the workplace, he pointed out, absenteeism and turnover have proved to be greater, and productivity levels lower.

“There is a bottom-line impact on employers, simply by trying to make sure that this is a workplace where people are going to feel comfortable and know that they can come into work, do their work, and be judged on how they do their job rather than who they are or who they associate with,” said Phillis. Being LGBT-friendly, he added, is also a way to gain different perspectives and access new markets—and it can also help attract top hires who may prefer working for organizations that make inclusivity part of the corporate culture.

The legal regime around LGBT rights in the workplace remains varied—some states and municipalities offer more protection for LGBT individuals at work than others do—which can trip up companies that operate in many states or internationally. “I typically refer to it as a patchwork,” said Visconti, “because the requirements arise under a number of different federal, state and local statues and laws, and sometimes they’re difficult to follow because you have to look at a number of sources of legal statutes and standards in order to understand the law that applies to the jurisdiction in which you’re doing business.”

The main federal law in the U.S. regarding workplace discrimination, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibits employment discrimination based on gender, but does not explicitly mention sexual orientation or gender identity. However, it can still apply to people who are LGBT or perceived as such. “Even though the federal law is a little bit all over the place and certainly not explicit,” said Visconti, “the fact that there is no explicit protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression does not necessarily mean that discriminatory treatment against individuals on that basis will not escape federal law and federal standards.”

Many federal courts, according to Visconti, have said that those who experience discrimination because they may not conform to what society perceives as gender norms are protected under Title VII. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has also adopted this legal thinking on gender stereotyping cases and has ruled that Title VII applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status.

Whether it’s the law or company culture that is of concern, there’s plenty that organizations can do to increase inclusivity. As with many workplace issues, part of the solution starts with crafting effective company policies.

“First and foremost is: take a look at your equal employment opportunity policy, your antiharassment policy, your code of conduct,” said Phillis. “Do you include in those provisions sexual orientation, gender identity or expression? Not just in areas of the country where those are required by law, but is that a core value of the company?” He stressed the importance of including examples of behaviors toward LGBT coworkers that are against policy, and providing training to complement the policies and drive home the importance of compliance.

Creating more inclusive policies requires employers to be thoughtful about other areas beyond antiharassment, like relocation policy that could have an impact on the LGBT workforce. For example, said Visconti, if an LGBT employee is going to be relocated for work, the company’s relocation policies should be sensitive to the impact this could have on the employee, who might potentially find that there is less legal and social acceptance and protection for his or her orientation and identity in the new location.

Visconti recommended that companies with rules about dress and appearance remain sensitive to the needs of members of the LGBT community: “You want to make sure that your dress and grooming policies are gender-neutral and they allow for employees to dress consistent with their gender identities.”

The Littler webinar also emphasized that in building a more LGBT-inclusive environment, words matter a great deal. Whether it’s crafting a leave of absence policy that doesn’t assume all employees are in heterosexual relationships, or in allowing employees who are transitioning their gender to be called by a new name if they choose, companies that want to be open and welcome should remain cognizant of how important words can be.

Another step companies can take to show support is setting up an employee resource group (ERG) for LGBT employees and their allies. These groups provide a setting for people to meet, network and support each other. Phillis said it helps when doing this to have the support of a higher-level employee who identifies as LGBT to serve as a role model for those who might be concerned that their orientation or identity will make it harder for them to be successful at the company.

“Particularly when it comes to setting up your ERG, you really want to target people who have risen to a certain level in the company or have a profile, to send the message to employees that this is something the company values, that ‘you can succeed like me’ in the workplace,” said Phillis.

In addition, an ERG can be invaluable in keeping human resources and management apprised of any problems that LGBT employees might be having at work, or any company policies and procedures that seem to be problematic for LGBT individuals. “Your ERG can be a great asset to help you understand the types of issues that are there,” noted Phillis.

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