A smiling couple embraces in front of a Pride flag

Remote Work 23 min

Understanding and supporting LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace

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Nadia Vatalidis

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How to maximize LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace

It’s Pride month, and if you’re like many companies, you want to celebrate your LGBTQIA+ employees and team members. But how do you do so genuinely?

Among the queer community, some businesses are infamous for “pridewashing” — essentially using a monthlong rainbow rebrand to make money without truly supporting LGBTQIA+ people. Not being one of these businesses is the first step to helping your LGBTQIA+ team members feel like they belong.

Even with good intentions and a commitment to getting it right, though, supporting your staff requires more than a positive attitude. How can you develop practical strategies and programs for queer workers and support them in meaningful ways?

It’s important to remember that inclusion is not the same as diversity. You may have many LGBTQIA+ workers, but to move beyond diversity and into inclusivity, you have to be deliberate in how you support and celebrate your people.

Inclusion can seem particularly daunting in a company with remote workers. When not everyone works in the same place, it can be difficult to provide a great experience for all, especially when that experience is meant to promote inclusivity and acceptance. Despite the novel challenges, however, remote workplaces are ideal spots to foster inclusion for queer team members no matter where they live.

What is LGBTQIA+ inclusion?

LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace means you’ve created a space where your LGBTQIA+ team can feel safe to bring their full selves to work. 

This doesn’t mean all LGBTQIA+ employees will choose to share their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression with the team — nor should you expect that. Put simply, inclusion means you’re not creating an environment that excludes team members. That includes offering the same opportunities to all team members; using language that doesn’t favor hetero or cisgender identities; and adopting a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to homophobic or transphobic languages and behaviors. 

The International Institute for Management Development (IMD) recommends thinking of full LGBTQIA+ inclusion as the needs of the LGBTQIA+ employees being “fully integrated throughout all key systems and processes of the organization internally, visibly represented externally, and when leaders include all aspects of diversity in a transparent manner.” Short of that standard, it’s not real inclusivity.

What does LGBTQ+ mean?

LGBTQ+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. As the US watchdog group GLAAD says, “The Q generally stands for queer when LGBTQ organizations, leaders, and media use the acronym. In settings offering support for youth, it can also stand for questioning.” Adding a + to the end of the acronym acknowledges the limitations of specific labels and welcomes others who may not identify as straight or cisgender.

At Remote, we prefer to use the longer form, LGBTQIA+, which adds intersex and asexual, agender, and aromantic recognition to the term.

Queer, an umbrella term for those who don’t fit into heterosexual or binary identities, is also sometimes used independently of LGBTQIA+, as not all people who identify as queer identify as LGBTQIA+. It is important to note that while the term “queer” has been largely reclaimed by LGBTQIA+ communities, not everyone is comfortable using the term. When in doubt, it’s best to ask people how they identify instead of guessing.

Why is LGBTQIA+ inclusion important?

You cannot have an inclusive workplace unless everyone at your company feels safe and supported to be their full and authentic selves. LGBTQIA+ team members may choose not to come out at work, especially in environments that don’t actively practice inclusion, because of worries about safety, bullying, job loss, and the fear of losing opportunities for advancement. Those fears are, unfortunately, often justified due to the prejudices queer employees face.

Messages from employees' families and cultures may have taught them that the safest thing to do is not to come out to coworkers. The more global the workforce, the more likely it is for some of your employees to live in areas hostile to their identities. According to the Human Dignity Trust, 71 countries criminalize consensual same-sex relationships, while 15 criminalize the gender expression of transgender people. Even in countries without specific laws on the books, cultural forces and norms are often against the LGBTQIA+ community.

In 2013, IBM senior executive Claudia Brind-Woody gave a presentation called “The Cost of Thinking Twice” at a conference in Copenhagen. Brind-Woody, a business leader and lesbian who started working at IBM in 1996, discussed the reluctance to come out that LGBTQIA+ workers often experience in the workplace. 

Staying in the closet at work, however, comes with a steep human cost. Brind-Woody points out that LGBTQIA+ people who are in the closet are constantly doing mental math when it comes to revealing anything about their personal lives. A simple question like, “What did you do this weekend?” can cause a minefield of anxieties. A person who does not feel safe and included must quickly decide how much to mention and how much this colleague already knows about their life.

According to Brind-Woody, the effort of making these constant calculations takes both time and effort, hurting both individual and team morale. Closeted LGBTQIA+ teammates can feel isolated at work. Many avoid places they might see colleagues on their time off. When they are on the clock, some people report being less productive because so much of their energy is spent hiding.

Inclusion efforts are important because they telegraph to employees and job candidates that your workplace is a safe place for them to be themselves.

The business case for LGBTQIA+ inclusion

The more inclusive a company is, the healthier it tends to be. Diverse organizations outperform their competitors on revenue, profits and employee satisfaction. Companies in the top quartile for diversity are 35 percent more likely to be more profitable than other companies in their industries. This is particularly true of companies with diverse leadership: companies in the top quartile of diversity on executive teams are 25 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than peer companies in the fourth quartile.

Why is diversity and inclusion so good for the bottom line? Research supports the notion that customers are more responsive to companies with LGBTQIA+ inclusive cultures. Truly inclusive workplaces also mean happy workers. If an employee doesn’t have to hide their identity at work, energy that used to go toward guarding against potential threats can instead fuel creativity and innovation.

Perhaps the best inclusion case for diversity is simply that diverse teams are better able to discern and serve the needs of a diverse customer base than a homogeneous team can. The world is a diverse place, and companies should reflect that through their teams. 

LGBTQIA+ diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Chances are you’ve heard the term DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Diversity and inclusion are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.

  • Diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting.
  • Equity is the process of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial and fair to provide equal possible outcomes for every individual.
  • Inclusion is the intentional practice of including people in the workplace.

All three of these concepts overlap in one key area: belonging. 

At Remote, we believe in building belonging for every individual. To us, belonging is respecting who they are, what they offer, how they contribute, and why they’ve chosen to work with us. Belonging is the feeling of being part of something and mattering to others — the feeling that a team member is able to bring their authentic and full self to work every day. 

It’s important to note there is a lot of work to do around inclusion, and that failing to do that work carries serious consequences for your business. In one study by McKinsey, 50% of LGBTQIA+ respondents “have decided against pursuing or accepting a position because they believed the organization would not be an inclusive place to work.”

Simply having a diverse staff is not enough for a business to enjoy the full benefits of a diverse team. To do that, companies must make inclusivity a top, continuous priority.

What LGBTQIA+ inclusion is

Inclusion covers a range of practices that ensure LGBTQIA+ workers feel they belong in your organization. The goal of an inclusive workplace is to ensure that all employees feel:

  • They have a voice.
  • They belong.
  • They are treated as a unique individual .
  • They are valued.

For LGBTQIA+ team members, inclusion covers a range of practices, such as providing benefits for partners and spouses, regardless of gender. Inclusivity also includes parental or family leave for all workers. Using inclusive language reaches beyond the gender binary (male/female) and recognizes a range of gender identities. Using your company’s influence to affect policy change that will benefit your LGBTQIA+ workers in their home countries or regions is another example — one people will be sure to investigate if your business puts out a rainbow logo in June.

What LGBTQIA+ inclusion is not

While belonging is an important part of LGBTQIA+ inclusion, other things — like the aforementioned rainbow logo — are not necessarily inclusive on their own.

Joana Viana, senior expert of benefits design and strategy for Remote, groups LGBTQIA+ diversity efforts into two buckets: transactional and transformational. 

  • Transactional actions include actions like using rainbow logos on social media or having a float in a Pride parade as an advertisement.
  • Transformational actions are things that actually create change, like including LGBTQIA+ partners in benefits packages or using your leverage to improve conditions for LGBTQIA+ employees in their countries. 

“I use the question ‘What will effectively change if I do this?’” says Joana. “If the answer is nothing or very little, this is most probably a transactional action. While public support is great and welcomed, we often see corporations using Pride parades or other public events as a means to promote themselves, spending thousands of dollars on floats but not making a single dollar of contribution to an LGBT+ nonprofit, for example.”

This practice is known as “rainbow-washing.” It happens when a company publicly shows support for the LGBTQIA+ community as part of its marketing while privately engaging in business practices that do not support the community or LGBTQIA+ team members. Needless to say, transactional support without transformational support is no support at all.

Is your workplace inclusive of LGBTQIA+ and queer workers? 

LGBTQIA+ employees who do not feel they work for inclusive companies may fear being overlooked for new opportunities and promotions. LGBTQIA+ jobseekers may worry that being out could hurt their job search efforts. In many cases, queer employees who feel unwelcome will quit rather than suffer in silence.

It is essential to ensure you create a truly inclusive environment for your LGBTQIA+ team. So, how can you tell if your workplace is inclusive?

  • Do you actually say “gay?” It’s possible that you feel like your company is inclusive because you’re not discriminating against the LGBTQIA+ community, but if your workplace isn’t actively acknowledging LGBTQIA+ identities, your queer employees may feel like they can’t be themselves at work. Do you ask for and offer pronouns? Do you recognize Pride or Trans Day of Visibility at work? The default is often to ignore the LGBTQIA+ community, but silence does not always mean support. By proactively taking steps to talk about LGBTQIA+ issues at work, your organization can start showing inclusivity. 
  • Take a look at your policies. Do you have DEI policies? What about a diversity and inclusion committee? Are you hiring for diversity? By examining your policies for inclusion, you can start making sure you’re hiring across the LGBTQIA+ community. 
  • Examine your training. Do you offer training addressing LGBTQIA+ issues? Education for heterosexual, cisgender employees is important to raise awareness at work about issues like microaggressions, heterosexism, and transphobia. 
  • What language do you use at work? Is your language inclusive, or do you use binary terms like man/woman, female/male, or husband/wife? If you’re using gendered language, that’s likely to broadcast a non-inclusive atmosphere to LGBTQIA+ employees. 
  • What about pronouns? Do you include pronouns in email signatures, on social media, and in Zoom profiles? When everyone lists pronouns, it makes it easier for LGBTQIA+ employees to list theirs. 
  • Do you offer a community for LGBTQIA+ employees? Setting up a network or employee resource group for LGBTQIA+ team members is important way of creating a space for queer team members to socialize in and outside of work. It’s also a critical piece of inclusion; members of the network can act as advisors when it comes to policies or initiatives to improve DEI. For example, at Remote, our Remoter Culture Connection (RCC) groups serve as communities for various groups of employees. Our Queer RCC group works with company leaders to create resources or improve inclusion efforts.

All of these steps require cultural change. Recognize that building an inclusive workplace culture of any kind can be hard work.

Understanding and supporting LGBTQIA+ employees in a global workplace

The rise of remote work has been a game changer for LGBTQIA+ workers. Take the example of Ali Fazal, a remote worker profiled by CNBC in 2021. Fazal grew up in a small Texas town but had made his home in New York City as an adult and wanted to stay in the city thanks to its large LGBTQIA+ community. When he took a remote vice president job with Grin, an influencer marketing platform, he was able to stay in New York — he didn’t have to choose between the support of his community and a job opportunity. 

Large cities are often oases for the LGBTQIA+ population. The larger queer communities in cities often means more acceptance than in other areas and can sometimes include more progressive laws. Larger cities also offer a larger pool of LGBTQIA+ friends and potential partners. Many large cities have specific neighborhoods specifically friendly for LGBTQIA+ people, such as New York’s Greenwich Village or the Marais in Paris. 

Moving from these enclaves means more than leaving friends and a home; it also can mean braving a new community that might not be as accepting of LGBTQIA+ people. Remote work allows LBGTQ+ workers to remain in (or seek out) welcoming communities and take new jobs. Queer employees in remote work no longer have to choose between being safe and being employed. For companies managing remote workforces, offering this kind of freedom and flexibility is critical to inclusivity.

“Having the possibility to choose where to live is a big help considering that some folks are born in countries where LGBTQAI+ rights aren't recognized,” says Marinica Digennaro, customer experience training manager at Remote.

The flexibility of remote work also allows LGBTQIA+ workers the ability to handle important issues, like gender transition or name changes, without having to take time off work. 

“I've had a number of gender affirming procedures and was able to work from the comfort of my own home while I continued to recover,” says Cas Castrejon, user happiness manager for Remote. “I've also been going through a legal name and gender change. This has involved many meetings with a variety of legal entities during work hours. I feel lucky to have the freedom to hop offline to get name change things squared away.”

Work harder to find out what support and understanding really means

It’s important to understand the LGBTQIA+ community is not a monolith. Talk to your team members and understand what kinds of support they want and need.

Castrejon points out that while it’s important for them to be able to share their pronouns, user identity, and preferred name within the Remote platform, not all workers feel safe identifying outside the gender binary. 

“There are still many places in the world where it's not safe to publicly identify as anything other than how folks are labeled at birth,” says Castrejon. 

This is also where employee resource groups come into play. Employee groups will often advocate for LGBTQIA+ needs in a specific workplace. By understanding the challenges that your specific workers are dealing with, you’ll be a more inclusive workplace. 

Common challenges LGBTQIA+ people face in a remote-first environment

Although remote work is generally helpful for queer workers, the LGBTQIA+ community faces plenty of adversity and challenges in both in-person and remote workplaces. A truly inclusive workplace recognizes there are invisible challenges for these teammates and works to address them. 

Those challenges are similar to those faced in an in-person environment, except there’s an added layer. When you’re remote, parts of your home and family can be visible to your co-workers. That can be worrying if your workplace isn’t inclusive.

“I think the challenge can be trying to figure out just how much of your authentic self you can show in a virtual environment,” says M. Williams, a technical writer and member of the LGBTQIA+ community. “It’s like how you dress on a video meeting. Do I want people to know I have tattoos? Do I want them to see a picture of a family or anything else that may not be considered the cishet norm?”

The distance of a remote environment can also impose burdens on remote LGBTQIA+ workers. Castrejon has found it more difficult to advocate for themselves in a virtual setting than they might in person. 

“For example, being misgendered in a meeting can launch me into feeling dysphoric,” says Castrejon. “I usually have to take it upon myself to reach out to an individual and correct them.”

That kind of emotional burden, while invisible to others, can be exhausting.

Microaggressions to prevent for LGBTQIA+ people

LGBTQIA+ people regularly deal with microaggressions — comments or actions that subtly express prejudice. Microaggressions are subtle and often unintentional but demonstrate an unconscious bias or prejudice. They may be invisible to heterosexual and cisgender teammates and leadership, but they’re a signpost to LGBTQIA+ workers that your company culture is not fully inclusive. 

So what do microaggressions look like? Dr. Kevin L. Nadal, author of That's So Gay!:

Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community, identified eight groups of microaggressions toward the LGBTQIA+ community. Some are subtle, but others are much more obvious: 

  1. Use of heterosexist or transphobic terminology. Using language to put down LGBTQIA+ team members. For example, calling transgender co-workers by the wrong pronouns (misgendering) or names (deadnaming) or using language that associates LGBTQIA+ identities with something negative (“that’s so gay” or “no homo.”)
  2. Endorsement of heteronormative or gender-conforming culture/behaviors. This microaggreassion treats heterosexuality, the gender binary, and gender-conforming behavior as the norm. If your company paperwork only offers the choice of male or female, for example, or if your organization’s website only shows images of heterosexual couples.
  3. Assumption of universal LGBTQIA+ experience. Comments or behaviors that refer to  LGBTQIA+ stereotypes or all LGBTQIA+ people being the same. At work, this might look like by asking a queer team member questions about the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole, as if that person is representative of the entire community. 
  4. Exoticization. Exoticization is the fetishization and objectification of LGBTQIA+ people. Exoticization often takes the form of sexual harassment and should be investigated appropriately.
  5. Discomfort or disapproval of the LGBTQIA+ experience. This veers into blatant homophobia and transphobia, such as telling people in the queer community they’re “going to hell” or being visibly uncomfortable in the presence of a queer couple. 
  6. Denial of reality of heterosexism and transphobia. When a heterosexual or cisgender person tells a member of the LGBTQIA+ community that there’s no such thing as homophobia or that someone has been “too sensitive” to a microaggression. 
  7. Assumption of sexual pathology or abnormality. The assumption that someone is gay, trans, or nonbinary because “something is wrong with them” or the assumption LGBTQIA+ are in some way psychologically dangerous or sexually deviant.
  8. Denial of individual heterosexism or transphobia. This behavior happens when someone becomes defensive about their own heterosexism and claims that what they said or did was not hurtful. 

Microaggression sometimes takes the form of invasive personal questions, such as asking trans workers whether they’ve had surgery, what they were named at birth, or any other deeply personal question related to identity. Another common microaggression is the practice of treating every LGBTQIA+ employee as a learning resource for non-LGBTQIA+ team members. This can happen on an individual level or on an organization-wide level, like expecting every LGBTQIA+ teammate to participate in a DEI council.

“Don't burden queer folks with extra work unless they volunteer to take it on,” says Castrejon. “That means inviting queer folks to provide insight, but don't expect it.”

How to develop inclusive LGBTQIA+ processes

LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace is part of a broader effort: building belonging for all team members. Below is list of practical ways every part of your organization can help build a culture of inclusion for LGBTQIA+ employees: 

  • Leadership: No cultural change can get off the ground without buy-in from your leadership team. Having a C-level champion for LGBTQIA+ issues, or better yet, an organizational leader who is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, is an important first step towards inclusion. 
  • Human Resources: HR will be doing some of the heavy lifting when it comes to creating inclusive LGBTQIA+ processes. This includes using gender neutral language in recruitment efforts and internally, hiring for diversity, and building benefits packages that accommodate LGBTQIA+ workers, such as parental leave for all, healthcare packages that include partners of all genders, and healthcare that covers gender transition and gender affirming care. Counseling is also important, not just for LGBTQIA+ workers, but for all remote workers. These are key components to developing psychological safety.
  • Technology: Every remote environment depends on technology to function, and those tools can also be used to facilitate inclusivity. For example, the Remote platform asks every user to specify their name and pronouns as well as their gender identity. “This allows Remote to talk to our customers in a respectful and inclusive way and also raise awareness with employers who might hire people who prefer to be called or addressed in a way that is different than their legal name,” says Digennaro.
  • Learning and Development: Training is an important piece of inclusion work. Not only does training educate your team about LGBTQIA+ issues, but it also removes the burden of education off the shoulders of LGBTQIA+ employees, who may field uncomfortable or inappropriate questions from heterosexual and cisgender co-workers. 
  • Strategy: Policy work is key when developing an LGBTQIA+ inclusive culture. It’s crucial that LGBTQIA+ team members be involved in the creation of such policies; however, it's also important not to force any queer employee into advocacy or education work outside their regular job — and especially to not expect free labor. “The best case scenario for queer folks taking on extra educational work would be to compensate them for their time,” says Castrejon. 

At Remote, we support our LGBTQIA+ team members in several ways. We practice remote-first recruiting processes to develop a workforce that is representative of the planet’s immense diversity.  We’re looking for culture contribution, not culture fit.

We also have our Remoter LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group, where queer employees have a safe place to communicate with one another. We are very intentional about the language we use, both on the platform and in work, and use automated reminders to keep that language top of mind. Everyone at Remote goes through inclusion training, and all employees also receive access to Modern Health, our mental health partner, which has a variety of LGBTQIA+ services and counselors.

Practical ways to build belonging for LGBTQIA+ employees 

While policy and strategy are critical pieces of building inclusion, they take time. While you’re creating that strategy, there are practical things your organization can do right now to start creating genuine positive change in your remote team.

  • Use inclusive, gender-neutral language: Using gender-neutral terms is a kind, affirming way to include everyone. For example, saying “Hi folks” is more inclusive than “Hi guys.” At Remote, we have a Slackbot that calls out uses of gendered language to remind everyone to stay inclusive.
  • Ask for everyone’s pronouns and preferred names: By asking for pronouns and including your own in email signatures and in social media, you take the burden off trans and nonbinary team members who often spend all day asserting themselves when it comes to their identity.
  • Offer inclusive benefits programs. Does everyone at your organization enjoy the same access to benefits like healthcare? Are people in LGBTQIA+ relationships able to extend their coverage to their partners and families? Be diligent in your selection of plans and providers to ensure you can be truly inclusive with your benefits program.
  • Be a champion: If you notice someone misgendering a deadnaming an out trans or nonbinary team member, correct them. Don’t leave it to the queer team member. 
  • Give all team members space in video calls: Remember that video meetings are a window into workers’ lives and homes. Those who aren’t comfortable coming out may not want to show their homes or families to their workplace. It may help to offer company Zoom backgrounds for all team members to use or to be vocal about allowing people to leave their cameras off.
  • Encourage allyship: Educate non-LGBTQIA+ about what it means to be an ally. You don’t have to develop your own class — this article can act as a helpful starting point for anyone!
  • Celebrate Pride!: Observe Pride as an organization and encourage employees to observe and learn more about Pride.

Supporting your LGBTQIA+ team members

Members of the LGBTQIA+ community often carry an invisible burden. They may not choose to be out. They may worry about how being out will affect them at work or be exhausted by having to continually come out to new coworkers or clients. They may feel they have to educate their whole team about LGBTQIA+ issues or put up with questions from well-intentioned coworkers. 

Creating a culture of inclusion is a way to lessen that burden by taking some of it onto the company. Requiring pronouns for all, hiring a variety of LGBTQIA+ workers, educating the entire team, and representing various kinds of relationships and gender identities are kind and affirming ways to create a culture of inclusion. Offering benefits that help queer employees also takes pressure off workers by giving them the healthcare and PTO they need, as well as allowing LGBTQIA+ families as dependents in your company medical plan.

If you’re wondering what other benefits your queer employees need, the next step is to ask.

“LGBTQIA+ people are people,” says Digennaro. “If your employees recognize themselves as LGBTQIA+, ask them what they need to feel safe and happy at work as you would do with any employee who joins your company.”