Welcoming LGBTQ Employees in Your Workplace

By June 18, 2018 No Comments

June is Pride month in the United States. It is celebrated in honor of the Stonewall riots in June of 1969. Since that time we have seen increased legal protections and public support for the LGBTQ community. Certainly the laws have been inconsistent, and not everyone supports LGBTQ rights. As an employer, you are required to comply with anti-discrimination laws regardless of your political or religious beliefs. It can be a costly mistake to discriminate against your employees and customers and their much broader community of allies. This Pride month, consider how you can make your workplace more LGBTQ friendly.

What does LGBTQ stand for?

Let’s start with the basics. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning. Not everyone in the community falls neatly into any of these categories. Much like gender, sexual orientation is a spectrum. Sexual orientation is an emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to other people. Gender identity is a concept of oneself as male, female, a blend of male and female, or neither.

What do the laws protect?

Despite over a decade of legislative efforts, no federal law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Moreover, state laws vary considerably: in 28 states, you can be fired just for being lesbian, bisexual, or gay, and in 30 states you can be fired for being a transgender person. Despite these bleak numbers, this means that most states have anti-discrimination employment protections in place, and substantially more counties and municipalities have similar protections. Furthermore, the absence of a federal law does not mean that employers are free to discriminate against LGBTQ employees. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency “interprets and enforces Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination as forbidding any employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. These protections apply regardless of any contrary state or local laws.”

According to the EEOC, it is illegal for an employer to deny employment opportunities or permit harassment because:

  • An employee dresses or talks in a manner associated with a different sex than assigned;
  • An employee dates or marries a person of the same sex; or
  • An employee transitions from female to male or male to female.

How does LGBTQ discrimination cost your business?

Discriminatory employment practices are costly – $64 billion a year to be exact. According to the Center for American Progress, “That amount represents the annual estimated cost of losing and replacing more than 2 million American workers who leave their jobs each year due to unfairness and discrimination.” This figure does not include the cost of lawsuits.

Many states and the EEOC are taking action investigating and prosecuting charges of discrimination. The EEOC has seen a nearly 500% increase in monetary benefits for LGBT-based sex discrimination charges in the past five years. Furthermore, when legislatures have passed discriminatory laws they have seen an expensive backlash. North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” for example, cost the state at least $3.7 billion dollars. Clearly, discrimination doesn’t pay.

How do I make my workplace LGBTQ friendly?

The main principle of any anti-discrimination policy is equity. Of course, you can’t discriminate against a person because of their protected class, such as race, religion, color, national origin, sex, etc. We are not all the same, but we should all be treated equally. Equity means treating all employees and customers fairly, according to their respective needs.

Equitable policies are easier to write than to actually implement. That’s because we all have implicit biases – stereotypes that unconsciously affect our actions and decisions. To treat everyone with the same level of respect and dignity requires employers to take intentional steps to mitigate the impact of these implicit biases. It also means being sensitive to an employee’s name preferences, gender pronouns, or decision to remain “ in the closet.” In fact, 53% of LGBTQ employees are not open to colleagues about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Here are some ways that you can demonstrate that you treat your LGBTQ employees and customers equitably:

  • Don’t make assumptions. You don’t know your employees’ sexual orientation or gender identity. Seemingly innocuous questions can have unintentional consequences. For example, instead of asking a man if he has a wife, ask whether he has a significant other. If you are unsure of an employee’s preferred pronoun, ask, “What is your preferred pronoun?” in a private, respectful way.


  • Family medical leave policies. Implement gender neutral leave policies. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recommends, “When defining the family members for which an employee is eligible to take leave, employers should make sure such definitions include same-sex partners as well as the children of a same-sex partner, regardless of biological or adoptive status.” With respect to transgender employees, the HRC suggests including “Gender Identity Disorder and procedures relating to gender transition as a qualifying condition for employer granted medical leave for both the employee and their partners.”


  • Create an inclusive work culture. Biases of customers or coworkers are not a valid reason for discrimination. This includes permitting transgender employees and customers to use a bathroom consistent with their gender identify irrespective of anyone’s objections. It also includes welcoming all families and partners to things like company family events.

There continues to be a large gap between what the law requires and what employers can do to improve their policies and practices. The U.S. has changed significantly in the 49 years since the Stonewall riots. Pride month is an opportunity to reflect upon LGBTQ history – how laws and public opinion have evolved. It is also a time when businesses should reflect on how their workplace culture affects their LGBTQ employees and customers.

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