What Target’s controversial Pride Month dustup tells HR about ‘rainbow washing’ 

In a blink of an eye, Target’s deep commitment to the LGBTQ community took a hit as it pulled some of its Pride Month merchandise off its shelves. The move came amid threats and disruptions at some of its stores over opposition to the merchandise.

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This action may have been particularly painful to the large LGBTQ employee resource group at Target, as the retail giant has long been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights and has earned a 100% rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for 10 consecutive years. The report scores corporations on their LGBTQ-inclusive policies, practices and benefits.

Pulling back on the public showing of support could have some employees accusing the company of “rainbow washing“—a risk for employers that could ultimately impact recruitment and retention.

What is rainbow washing? It’s when a company offers public displays of support for the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ employees, yet takes little action of substance during the remainder of the year.

It’s a a particular concern as Pride Month kicks off June 1, says Cathy Renna, communications director for the National LGBTQ Task Force.

“The best example of rainbow washing is when companies literally dust off the rainbow flag in June and plop it out there, but they don’t invest in the community or are using it as a marketing ploy,” Renna says. “Rainbow washing is essentially being inauthentic.”

Showing support only during Pride Month can hurt

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Your employees are likely well aware if your support for the LGBTQ community tends to show up only during Pride Month. And with this awareness, your LGBTQ employees are likely to be hurt, Renna says, and that could affect their engagement and long-term investment in the company.

“If you’re an employee, you’ll only feel like you can bring your full self to work only one month out of the year,” says Renna. “That doesn’t feel good.”

Employers engaging in rainbow washing are apt to be called out by their employees, as well as outside organizations, for a lack of authentic support.

The same can also happen to even companies that offer year-round support to the LGBTQ community. For example, an organization can commit to an inclusive work environment in its mission statement and support LGBTQ employees with inclusive medical benefits, but at the same time it makes political campaign contributions to politicians who support anti-LGBTQ legislation.

The dustup at Target is another example of the impact employer actions can have on perceptions of LGBTQ inclusiveness among employees and prospective candidates.

The corporation offers LGBTQ-inclusive employee benefits, commits to national and local corporate investments into the community and relies on year-round use of fashion designers like TomboyX, who are part of the LGBTQ community. However, it still drew sharp criticism when it pulled some of its Pride products out of stores in May after protesters knocked down some of the displays and threatened workers, as well as put threatening posts on social media.

“For more than a decade, Target has offered an assortment of products aimed at celebrating Pride Month. Since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work,” Target says in a statement. “Given these volatile circumstances, we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior. Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year.”

Although the National LGBTQ Task Force has not been in direct contact with Target’s large LGBTQ employee resource group, Renna has personally seen a few privately shared internal messages from the company’s LGBTQ employees, she says.

“They are very upset and disappointed,” Renna says. “They basically said, ‘This has always been a safe workplace for me and now it’s just infuriating and disappointing.’ ”

She notes it will take time for Target’s LGBTQ employees to rebound from their employer removing Pride merchandise under the threat of “bullies.”

Scott Dobroski, career trend expert and member of Indeed’s iPride employee resource group, says smart employers are aware that leaning into and supporting the LGBTQ community is good for an employer’s business.

“Employers know they need to be authentic or the younger generations will see it as performative,” he adds. “It’s all about actions, policies and programs that support your mission and values.”

How employers can keep their rainbows from fading 

However, most employers have room to be more visibly supportive of the LGBTQ community: On Indeed, less than 25% of U.S. job postings that mention equal opportunity statements also include a mention of the LGBTQ community, Dobroski says.

“It’s important to remember LGBTQ employees need company support 365 days a year, not just in June,” says Dobroski.

Here are three ways to offer meaningful, year-round support for your LGBTQ workforce, according to Dobroski and Renna:

  1. Listen to employees and proactively seek feedback, then act on that feedback.
  2. Launch lasting LGBTQ initiatives like benefits that cover same-sex partners and inclusive family leave policies, and update company handbooks and internal documents to include pronouns, along with dress codes to allow for more forms of gender expression and inclusion.
  3. Create an LGBTQ employee resource group for employees to support each other. It can serve as an advisory group to the company and also guide the employer’s relationship with the community.

“A lot of folks, when they’re looking for a job, do their homework,” Renna says. “And what they’re looking for is not just about benefits, although benefits are a huge one. They want to feel safe and represented—year-round.”

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.