How to support an employee coming out as LGBTQ – and what to avoid

Article by Alasdair James Scott, a senior consultant at PDT Global – which provides diversity and inclusion training for large multinationals around the world.

In a world where one in five LGBTQI+ employees has received negative comments at work and 91% have had to cover an element of who they are, there’s still much to do to improve our working environments. If we believe the workplace should be a space where everyone – including the LGBTQ+ community – can succeed, perform and deliver on an equal playing field, then these statistics should make us all sit up and take notice. Here are my top three tips for supporting LGBTQ+ colleagues at work – and three pitfalls to avoid.

Tip 1: Better anticipate the LGBTQ+ community

Taking time to understand what matters to the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace can go a long way towards creating a safe and accepting environment. And converting this understanding into visible and impactful actions can be a real game changer for colleagues who may still be hiding parts of their identity at work. Start by ensuring that your provisions for employees are built through an LGBTQ+ lens and actively promoted from day one.

When it comes to parental leave, for example, not all parents will be heterosexual, not all women want children, some fathers of any sexual orientation are keen to be primary caregivers and people of all persuasions may prefer to adopt. The various scenarios should be anticipated and a policy/procedure built and communicated. Reach out to those concerned to gauge what might be relevant.

Tip 2: Engage and measure the disengaged

It’s easy to find natural advocates and supporters of LGBTQ+ colleagues – but preaching to the converted is not going to drastically change the lived experience of LGBTQ+ colleagues. To make a change means everybody taking responsibility for it, adjusting behaviour and consistently challenging themselves to lean into an identity that may feel unnatural or uncomfortable.

Organisations need to be braver in their journey towards a more accepting and inclusive culture. This can start with keeping employees accountable for inclusive behaviour by aligning it to the things that matter – salary, bonus and promotions. To be engaged and supportive of inclusion, which includes LGBTQ+ colleagues, means to be promoted and successful at work when it’s seen as an essential hallmark of performance.

Tip 3: Require active allies

Simply calling yourself an ally or supporter of a particular group does not an ally make. An ally is not inactive and does not simply provide soundbites – they’re proactive in their support and defence of individuals in an oppressed group. To be a true ally means taking on the struggle of an oppressed group as your own, carrying the weight felt by those in a marginalised group and never putting it down. Ally-ship means valuing people with experiences different from our own, learning about privileges and natural prejudices, and working to make the workplace more equitable in spite of them.

Pitfall 1: Tick boxing

The sad reality is that, for a number of LGBTQ+ people in organisations today, current efforts just aren’t making the difference needed and instead feel short-term and fleeting. Pride, LGBT History Month and the presence of a network are all great ways to raise the community’s profile. But all too often this appears to be where an organisation’s commitment stops. In other cases, companies receive awards for the presence of initiatives and policies that still run flat amongst the very people they’re designed to support whilst going entirely unnoticed by those who need to adhere to them the most. Without commitment from across the organisation (including leaders), explicit behavioural expectations and mechanisms to keep that behaviour accountable, any effort to include the LGBTQ+ community feels like one very big and rainbow-clad tick box!

Pitfall 2: Lazy language

A number of organisations have historically referred to employees coming out as something to “handle” or an incident that can be “managed”. But coming out should not be an exercise in minimising risk – it’s something human that requires trust, understanding and empathy. Language is key because words like “handle” suggest LGBTQ “otherism”. You don’t handle people being straight or women revealing they are pregnant – but for some reason it seems to be legitimate to talk about LGBTQ identity as something that needs to be managed. This is lazy and tone deaf, and the optics suggest that those with LGBTQ+ identity are just a problem that needs to be solved.

Pitfall 3: Avoiding the conversation

Too many times employees stick their heads in the sand when it comes to perceived difficult issues or talking about identities they feel they have no right to talk about. Yes, it can feel overwhelming to enter into a conversation that you have little grounding in – but remember, it’s OK to start small. Be vulnerable and admit that you don’t know everything, learn from those who know more than you, do your homework and educate yourself on key issues so that the topic feels less daunting.

Author: Editorial Team

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