Successful LGBT Engagement Means Working from the Inside Out: Part One

Last year over 300 companies earned a perfect 100% score on the Human Rights Campaign’s “Corporate Equality Index” (CEI). In so many respects that’s an amazing achievement for Corporate America and the LGBT community. The CEI measures such things as non-discrimination protections based on orientation and gender identity and expression; benefits parity, Business Resource groups, and the like. As a way to set goals and compare one company’s performance relative to best practice standards and to other companies’ performance, the CEI—and other rankings, like DiversityInc’s—are important tools for managers.

Yet we’re learning that how a company ranks on an index doesn’t necessarily translate into a measure of its LGBT employees’ satisfaction (and, hence, productivity, creativity and loyalty). Neither does it tell us much about a company’s reputation among LGBT consumers, an essential piece of information for successful marketing in LGBT marketplace.

Study after study indicate that more than half of America’s employees are in the closet when they’re on the job. They are “out” to family, friends, and at church, but when they go to work, they hide—and expend a lot of intellectual and emotional energy to do so. While we don’t know the precise cost of closeted employees to the bottom line for any particular company, there is no doubt that the costs are significant enough to warrant correction. The biggest concerns are safety and career advancement. Here are some top line numbers culled from a Harvard Business Review article, “For LGBT Workers, Being ‘Out’ Brings Advantages” to consider:

LGBT people working in unfriendly environments report feeling depressed (34%), distracted (27%) and exhausted (23%), while closeted LGBT employees who feel isolated at work are 73% more likely to leave their companies within three years.

No one with experience managing and leading teams needs to read a PhD dissertation on the impact of these numbers. We can do the math in our heads. The answer is that in any situation numbers like this undermine team performance, profitability and competitiveness.

With regard to LGBT employees, there is a very important nuance to this problem that deserves attention. Based on my own (admittedly unscientific) observations across many companies (and government agencies) there are very few out LGBT professionals among the C-Suite executives in most of our country’s companies. One important result of this is that younger LGBT professionals don’t “see themselves” in upper management, don’t have a role model to look up to and, in the vast majority of cases, conclude “this isn’t a company where I can succeed.” That’s the last thing we want to hear, especially given how hard it is to recruit and retain the best talent in the first place and how much it costs to invest in their growth.

Meeting best practice and peer benchmark standards is an essential first step to correcting this situation. We encourage every client to aspire to win top marks in the CEI and other Diversity and Inclusion measuring tools. But to build a really inclusive workplace where LGBT employees feel secure, respected and inspired to do more, and where they can bring their “whole selves” to work requires a few extra steps:

  1. Initiate strong communications from the top that demonstrate a comfort level with LGBT people and issues. Your CEO doesn’t have to take out full-page ads in support of marriage equality like Howard Shultz, but he or she does need to set an inclusion example that others will follow.
  2. Make sure you’ve done a Diversity and Inclusion education program in the last 12 months, especially for managers. If you do these regularly, they can be short, web-based “booster shots”. Make sure to deal with tricky issues like “unintended bias” which is so often the stealthy culprit nobody knows about.
  3. Develop an HR strategy for recruiting open and out LGBT employees and tracking their advancement within the company. Advancement, after all, is often key for the best employees and when LGBT colleagues are passed over they’ll be turnover risks, contributing to the belief that your company isn’t LGBT-friendly.
  4. Make your Business Resource Group a true partner for senior management, not just a group that recommends sponsorships and organizes social events. Challenge the group to pool talents, resources and networks to make strategic contributions across the company. And when they do, make sure to give them credit.
  5. Develop an LGBT-relevant social responsibility agenda that is strategically tied to core business goals. You don’t have to spend a million dollars to get good geographic and issue coverage. You do want to invest in the best organizations. Once these pieces are in place, your company can be confident that it is positioned well vis-à-vis LGBT stakeholders both internally and externally. We’ll explore what that looks like in Part II of this post.
Once these pieces are in place, your company can be confident that it is positioned well vis-à-vis LGBT stakeholders both internally and externally. We’ll explore what that looks like in Part II of this post. Contact us to discuss how we can help with steps 1-5 in the meantime.