Brooks: Why every part of HR needs to step up for LGBTQ employees
Happy LGBTQ Pride Month! Each June, we celebrate both the historical struggle for equal rights and the rainbow that is the big tent of the LGBTQ community. For me, working in HR and being LGBTQ are closely linked, as I don’t think I ever would have joined the ranks of human resources if I were not already an out gay professional. In just my second week at my dream job in management consulting in New York City, I was in a meeting when one of the partners called me a “fag.” He actually didn’t even know I was gay, but the experience was a crucible moment for me, and shortly afterward, a few of my colleagues and I would band together to co-found the firm’s first global employee resource group for LGBTQ colleagues and their allies.
It was my diversity and inclusion work that wound up being my on-ramp into HR and eventually to becoming an SVP at a Fortune 250 firm. Throughout that time, the country (and world) have made rapid progress in leveling the playing field and making workplaces more welcoming to LGBTQ people. However, I also worry that we’ve hit a plateau in these efforts and that we are, as a function, a bit blind to just how much more work remains.
If you log onto LinkedIn, you’ll see countless corporate logos with a rainbow overlay this month. I have mixed feelings about this, as I generally like how it is normalizing support—but at the same time, is it the ultimate hollow virtue signal? Some LGBTQ activists call this “pinkwashing”—using the community and the movement for commercial gain by providing only token support to the cause. Much like my Black brothers and sisters felt last summer when they saw all of the black boxes posted on Instagram—a figurative, feel-good checking-of-the-“ally” box without much really behind it.
Thankfully, most organizations are investing in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in order to address all aspects of diversity. LGBTQ is a bit unique in this field, as it is a demographic that isn’t always visible—and, for many members of the community, is even a second or third minority identity (e.g. being female, Asian and a lesbian). This intersectionality is complex, and at the same time presents an opportunity to impact people and culture for anyone who is in a minority demographic, not just LGBTQ. However, if we leave it up to a select few DEI staff or consultants, then HR will fail. This truly will take a village, and each HR center of expertise and business partner has a part to play.
Much like in a personal relationship—whether it be romantic, friendship or family—expressing affection and care is a demonstrable act: more “show” than “tell.” If you’re not already an ally member or sponsor of your firm’s LGBTQ employee resource group, then join! And start participating in the Corporate Equality Index annual benchmarking, which is a wonderful framework for tapping into the competitive spirit of the C-suite so as not to be laggards in your industry.
HR tech has a big part to play, from investing in community management for internal collaboration tools like Slack to being inclusive, or ensuring that your HR systems of record enable LGBTQ self-identification. This can unlock meaningful proof around not just representation, but also pay equity, promotion rates, retention and much more. While I was at Oliver Wyman, our ERG created a lock-step partnership with HR and together we were pioneers in leveraging LGBTQ demographic data in our engagement surveys, including how out colleagues were at work, illustrating stark contrasts that had our CEO literally jump out of his chair and ask, “How do we get everyone to come out to their manager, as that clearly moves the needle!?” Data is the language of many executives, so if we want DEI to be the conversation, we must bring the data to catalyze it.
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Benefits managers can make sure policies ensure that domestic partners or married same-sex people have equal access to benefits, including parental leave for adoption or surrogacy. When reviewing medical benefits with insurance brokers, dig into the details in order to ensure that transgender staff will have access to the mental health, prescription and specialist procedures they may require, and that HIV prevention such as PrEP is also fully covered and easy to access.
Recruiting has a huge role in not only requiring diverse slates, but also in ensuring that the employment branding and candidate experience explicitly signal that you welcome LGBTQ talent. Leveraging ERG members in “sell” efforts for diverse candidates can work to both seal the deal and accelerate inclusion and onboarding.
Learning and development often help secure speakers, consultants and instructional content that can be more representative, sophisticated, current and inclusive. Educating employees on how to share their pronouns is both a quick win and a great way to signal a thoughtful and welcoming culture. Leveraging some L&D budget to attend events like the Out & Equal summit can supercharge implementing best practices—particularly when senior executives and straight allies join LGBTQ employees in attendance—as can offering career development to cultivate early career diverse talent internally.
Staffing and talent deployment, in particular at multinational organizations, should be mindful of the safety and lifestyle implications of geographic assignments. Avoid what happened in my consulting days, when a closeted gay colleague with a domestic partner was sent to the Middle East for years, resulting in a divorce. Your outside services and technology budgets can be invested into NGLCC-certified LGBTQ-owned businesses, or promising start-ups that StartOut incubates, as small businesses often provide better service and more innovation.
Ensuring that promising LGBTQ future leaders have mentors and sponsors is another way to foster internal talent pipelines and plan for succession below the executive team. Additionally, reverse mentoring programs can be a wonderful way to help executives become more comfortable and fluent in the challenges that LGBTQ people face, thus making them more relevant and effective as leaders. In my own experience participating in such conversations, we were able to create a safe space for them to ask questions, particularly around the many components of the transgender experience. There is a silent majority of people who want to do the right thing, but fear making a mistake, offending others or otherwise facing backlash—tap into this pool of reluctant support.
Corporate social responsibility can help by ensuring employee giving programs, volunteer days, pro bono strategies and foundation giving include LGBTQ-related causes and constituents. Internal communications can also play a hugely impactful role in publicly recognizing LGBTQ staff, ensuring that communications use inclusive images/language/references, educating and equipping the entire employee base about LGBTQ issues, and shaping a culture that actively celebrates LGBTQ people bringing their full selves to work.
As you can see, there is a multitude of ways in which HR can walk the walk of allyship and inclusion of LGBTQ colleagues. All organizations have more work to do in this area, and with that in mind, we must stop pretending that the progress of the last two decades is “mission accomplished.” Don’t settle for empty-calorie company statements, buying a table at a gala, token donations or rainbow logos. Doing the real work is deeply meaningful, makes our organizations more effective and competitive, and can provide vulnerable LGBTQ people with something that many of us need more than anything in life—a home where we can be appreciated for who we are, and where we can feel like we belong.