How can employers support LGBTQ+ employees?

Need to know:

  • In ensuring that they are supporting employees from within the LGBTQ+ community, employers need to talk to and gain feedback from their employees to establish their needs and identify areas where they feel support is lacking.
  • The inclusion of LGBT+-friendly benefits, such as gender transitioning treatment, fertility and parental benefits, must meet the needs of all populations within the workforce.
  • Establishing LGBTQ+ community forums and networks, including employee resource groups that include ambassadors and sponsors from within all levels of the organisation, is an effective way of increasing connection and engagement between all communities within the workforce.

Events of last year, notably the World Cup hosted in Qatar, focused the spotlight on the issue of diversity and inclusivity and the need for greater support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and other sexual identities (LGBTQ+) communities. Employers are under increasing pressure to ensure that members of these communities are properly supported in the workplace and that the workforce as a whole has the appropriate language and cultural and historical context to understand the nuances of many of the issues facing LGBTQ+ individuals.

Progress is being made as organisations prioritise consistent support of the LGBTQ+ communities, for example, by investing in talent development strategies to provide targeted support for LGBTQ+ employees to progress within their careers. Yet, despite this, many challenges persist.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) should never be considered a once-and-done exercise, says Suki Sandhu, chief executive officer (CEO) and founder of diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy Involve. “Our own research [published in Novmber 2022] revealed that 92% of LGBTQ+ employees think those from the community are being prevented from reaching senior roles, and almost half believe that their company has an LGBT+ pay gap,” he says. “This further highlights the discrimination against the community that still exists within UK workplaces.”

Supporting an LGBTQ+ community is not just putting in place benefits that tick a box, but ensuring the overarching culture is supportive and inclusive, says Rachel Western, principal of health and risk at Aon. “For example, why pay for transitioning surgery if the organisation doesn’t have gender-neutral toilets that a transitioning individual can use?” she says. “These contravene each other as far as inclusivity goes.”

Employer support

There are several things that organisations can do to provide support to their LGBTQ+ community, from providing certain benefits that meet their needs to in-house policies and a culture that supports a be-who-you-are ethos across the organisation. “The first step for employers is to talk to and listen to their employees to find out what they want and need, and to identify where they feel the [organisation] is not supportive enough,” says Western. “However, the onus should never solely be on the LGBTQ+ employees; organisations must educate themselves and learn about the challenges these individuals may face.”

LGBT+-friendly benefits include gender dysphoria benefits, ranging from front-end mental health counselling and support to full pelvic surgery transitioning, and family-forming benefits, both in treatment and support-based services, including fertility, egg freezing, surrogacy support, and adoption support. “These must be carefully considered to ensure that any benefits put in place meet the needs of all populations,” adds Western.

An inclusive approach, validated through in-house policy and strategy about how the organisation supports people in certain areas, demonstrates that it is being led from the top.

In many cases, existing HR systems, contract templates, or other administrative systems need to be adjusted, explains Dr Gabi Helfert, executive director of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

“HR policies must be [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, plus] LGBTQIA+ inclusive, for example, offering parental leave for employees in same-sex partnerships who adopt a child or sick leave in case of medical gender reassignment procedures,” she says. “Offering all-gender bathrooms makes non-binary employees feel welcome and also sends a signal to all stakeholders that the [organisation] fosters diversity and inclusion, and affirms employees’ individual differences.”

Explicitly mentioning LGBTQ+ inclusion in DE&I policies signals the commitment of the leadership both toward LGBTQ+ employees as well as other colleagues and stakeholders, while enabling employees to choose their own pronouns contributes to a sense of inclusion. However, Helfert warns against the dangers of ‘pink-washing’.

“Sponsoring or participating in impact activities, such as pride parades or LGBTQIA+ events, or flying a rainbow flag in your communications during pride month can send a positive signal to employees, external stakeholders, and the general public and be a useful instrument for outreach,” adds Helfert. “However, this should always be paired with substantive policies and action. If [this is] not the case, [employers] risk being accused of window-dressing.”

Educating colleagues and line managers to be supportive, respectful, dignified and understanding of the organisation’s cultural position is key to driving culture through an organisational imperative. Mentoring is an effective way of promoting inclusivity and diversity, by connecting individuals across the organisation who have different backgrounds, views, ideologies, and opinions, and enabling them to exchange knowledge, wisdom and fresh perspectives.

Ed Johnson, CEO of online mentoring platform PushFar, says: “Individuals who feel they are in a minority group could benefit from speaking to someone who has experienced similar challenges in their own career. Speaking about this with an LGBTQ+ professional mentor, from within the same organisation or from elsewhere in the industry, can be a huge help.”

Establishing LGBTQ+ community forums and networks, including named colleague ambassadors within the organisation, that feed back to the employer on any issues or concerns, can also be of value. Paul Sesay, CEO and founder of Inclusive Companies, says: “Having dedicated LGBTQ+ ambassadors to relay messages from employees to senior management and vice versa is vital. Employers must take accountability for how people feel and accept some mediation may be needed over difficult conversations. Building a respectful two-way relationship with their LGBTQ+ ambassadors will help everyone converse with understanding and ensure all voices and views are heard.”

Employers can also facilitate employee resource groups (ERGs) to gather qualitative and quantitative data to build a picture of a workforce as it currently stands, enabling the organisation to focus on advancing inclusivity initiatives where necessary.

The latest Stonewall survey, Take pride, published in June 2022, reveals a growing acceptance towards LGBTQ+ people in the UK, however, a small minority are still holding onto the negative feelings that drive homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, explains Ali Hanan, founder and CEO of DE&I consultancy Creative Equals.

Sign up to our newsletters

Receive news and guidance on a range of HR issues direct to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

“Employers must acknowledge how this negativity and discrimination infiltrates every aspect of the workplace and dedicate time, budget and resources to stamping it out,” she says. “Unconscious bias has a massive impact on hiring and promotion decisions because people naturally gravitate towards people like them. All employees should receive unconscious bias training to recognise how their own implicit bias shows up in all aspects of people management and their own work.”

Inclusivity is not just for large corporates. The 2022/2023 Inclusive top 50 employers list released by Inclusive Companies in December 2022, includes many smaller and public sector organisations that have successfully implemented best practices around inclusion. In doing so, they show that inclusive policies and practices emerge from small, inexpensive changes that can have a big impact.