In & Out: Diverging Views on LGBT+ Inclusion in the Workplace


By Thomas Sasso and Cathy Gallagher-Louisy

Often when we think about diversity, we think about just one dimension of diversity—ethnicity, for example. In many of our organizations, we have HR systems to collect demographic information about our employees, but often only about groups protected under employment equity legislation.  The unintended consequence of these practices is the message that diversity only prioritizes four groups.

Is Gender-Orientation Part of Your Diversity?
A recent report by the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CIDI), in partnership with the University of Guelph, examined the issues of self-identification, inclusion and discrimination in the workplace for LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual trans-identified, and other sexual and gender minorities) employees.  One of the largest studies of its kind, the report summarizes survey responses from over 1,400 Canadians.

The belief that sexuality and gender identity are not part of work experiences is pervasive among many heterosexual and cisgender individuals. (Cisgender indicates someone who identifies with their birth-assigned gender.) Many people believe that sexuality and gender identity are private matters that should not be discussed at work. However, this neglects the complexity of a person’s identity and how heterosexual and cisgender individuals bring their identities to work with them every day without realizing it.

Sexuality Already “Out” in the Workplace
Sexuality is present in the workplace when there is a photograph of a significant other on a desk or when talking about family or what someone did on the weekend with a partner. Many heterosexuals do not realize that they are already “out” with their sexuality by virtue of their ability to discuss these things openly. Furthermore, sexuality is part of the workplace when we think about work-family policies, such as parental leave, partner benefits, and who is invited to social events.

Conversely, gender identity is often not talked about in the workplace at all, because many people have no understanding about what gender identity means. However, discrimination in workplaces towards individuals who do not identify as cis-gender is common. Trans employees may not receive appropriate health benefits, may not have access to a safe space, or freedom to present their identity in a preferred fashion, and others may identify these employees by the wrong pronoun or name.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are important topics within work environments, but most employers, coworkers, and clients are unaware of how to approach these subjects. What are the best practices? How can employers talk about sexual orientation and gender identity without infringing on people’s privacy or making LGBT+ employees feel uncomfortable, in the spotlight, or tokenized?

Here are some of the key findings from the report:

1.   Importance of Being “Out” at Work: There were significant differences between heterosexual/cisgender and LGBT+ employees on the importance of being out at work.  Nearly half of non-LGBT+ respondents indicated it was not important to be out at work.  Conversely, 85 per cent of LGBT+ respondents said it was at least somewhat important to be out at work. For those LGBT+ employees who had disclosed, respondents were more likely to be “out” or public with their sexual orientation than gender identity.

Interestingly, more than two thirds of all respondents felt that employers should provide employees the opportunity to self-identify if they wish.

2.   Misunderstanding and Oversimplification of Gender Identities: Many respondents expressed that gender identity is still a topic that individuals in workplaces do not understand and that there is a lack of awareness or knowledge regarding how it is expressed.

A major theme from respondents is that we tend to oversimplify sexual orientation and gender identities when we put them into a box called “LGBT.”  In addition to the numerous gender identity and sexual orientation options, many respondents provided an “other” identity that was not listed in the survey. There were 22 unique identities provided, which are captured in the word cloud below. The size of the word represents the response frequency.

LGBT+ Wordcloud
3.   Lack of Awareness of Discrimination: The survey revealed a misunderstanding and underestimation by non-LGBT+ people of the experiences of discrimination faced by LGBT+ employees.  More than two-thirds of non-LGBT+ respondents said there is no discrimination against LGBT+ employees. However, 29.1 per cent of LGBT+ employees report having experienced discrimination, and 33.2 per cent of LGBT+ and 21 per cent of non-LGBT+ employees report having witnessed it.

For those who had experienced discrimination, a fifth (19.7 per cent) report it happening a few times a month, eight per cent report it happening a few times a week, and 4.3 per cent report it happening daily.

Recommendations for HR Professionals and Employers

The research brought to the surface multiple recommendations for how employers can improve inclusion for LGBT+ and all employees.

1.  Autonomy in LGBT+ Self-disclosure:
Organizations should provide autonomy in LGBT+ self-disclosure by giving all employees the opportunity to self-identify in HR processes. Disclosures should be voluntary and confidential and employers should communicate the purpose for the data collection and privacy protocols that ensure confidentiality of employees’ personal information.  Furthermore, an organization must build trust with employees before expecting disclosure.

2.  Organizational Culture Change:
Creating an inclusive culture takes time and dedication, but more employers are realizing how important it is. An organization that is not inclusive is likely to have more disengaged employees and higher turnover.
There are a number of things organizations can do to provide an inclusive work environment:

  • Assess policies and procedures to ensure they are not biased,
  • Use gender neutral wording in communications,
  • Provide education to staff about sexual orientation and gender identity,
  • Develop diversity and inclusion strategies and initiatives,
  • Implement diversity councils and/or employee resource groups (aka network groups),
  • Encourage non-LGBT+ people to become allies and support inclusion for all.

3. Look Within:
While there is no definitive research on exactly how many LGBT+ people there are in Canada, if you have a significant number of employees and few or none are “out” at work, employers should ask themselves what about the culture or environment of your workplace is deterring people from disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As HR professionals, it is our responsibility to create inclusive cultures where every employee feels comfortable to be themselves at work.

To read the full report, please go to:

Thomas Sasso is co-founder of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Research Lab at the University of Guelph where he is a PhD candidate in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Cathy Gallagher-Louisy is the Director, Knowledge Services at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.

(PeopleTalk Summer 2015)

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