How can we support LGBTQ+ workers who experience discrimination in the workplace?

29 October 2019

A recent report has found that more than a third of LGBTQ+ workers choose not to ‘come out’ at work, with the biggest concern they face in doing so being the fear of facing discrimination. With reports showing an increase in discriminatory behaviour such as name calling and derogatory jokes – it’s easy to see how a hostile setting can be created and, often, left unaddressed.

Solving the ‘invisible problem’

Discrimination takes many forms, often invisible due to the targeted nature. These problematic behaviours can include bullying, physical violence and even actions of a sexual nature. If you thought that sexual harassment would be an uncommon occurrence in the workplace, there is lots of research that shows otherwise. For example you may be shocked to discover that one in five bisexual people have been sexually assaulted whilst at work. This requires fundamental change.

So, why are these situations often invisible? Victims of discrimination can often feel embarrassed or discouraged to come forward. This links intrinsically to the fear of ‘coming out’ at work. The Financial Times spoke to some LGBTQ+ workers and asked them about their experiences of exactly that. One respondent stated:

“There are situations where the choice is taken from you because it would compromise your safety. It’s not limited to threats to physical wellbeing; it could be psychological and social.”

It’s shocking, and unfortunately, with victims fearing the consequences of coming out, there is not one simple answer to encourage honesty and openness. This is in the same way as there is not a direct route to eradicate discriminatory behaviour. But, one thing is for certain, just having a zero-tolerance policy will not solve the problem on its own.

Nurturing your employees and building an inclusive environment where people feel safe and comfortable to report situations will help to address wider problems. Solutions do exist, routes such as ‘honesty emails’ – a discreet email account that can be moderated by HR – can be a very good start. This is a good addition to traditional and external whistleblowing services, as internal feedback channels can ensure that issues are dealt with faster.

Action should accompany policy. Offering training and awareness workshops on situations such as coming out at work, transphobia and homophobia can be effective. Forward-thinking companies, such as the PwC, are adopting new policies to support specific groups such as a ‘transitioning at work policy’ for transgender people. Implementing these into your company policy shows that the company takes inclusion seriously and will provide staff with a better guide to benchmark their behaviour. Education is vital to improving awareness and consideration.

Consider the implementation of Chief Diversity Officers, whose role it is to educate people and solve discrimination-based conflict in the workplace. In the past year, nearly one in five Fortune 1000 companies have hired Chief Diversity Officers, evidencing the need to place greater emphasis on this essential area holding back businesses.

Consequences run deeper than poor performance

Mental health awareness charity, MIND, have reported that facing discrimination at work can have a detrimental impact on mental health too. With the level of discrimination of LGBTQ+ workers on the rise, businesses need to understand that eliminating unfair treatment can also support the ongoing wellbeing of their team.

Staggeringly, nearly three-quarters of LGBTQ+ people have experienced mental health issues because of work. It’s a very real problem which contributes to the shocking statistics regarding suicide rates within the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ adults have a two-fold excess risk of suicide attempts compared to other adults, with almost half of trans people in Britain having attempted suicide at least once.

In order to approach the problem, many businesses are beginning to take part in mental health first aid awareness training. This training educates the individual on signs, sensitive approaches and methods of effective handling that can aid and support sufferers. Insurance provider Bupa is an example of a company that is putting mental health at the forefront of policy – becoming the first company in the UK to complete this training.

How can businesses resolve conflicts?

Of course, resolving conflicts can be the hard part, but it is absolutely vital to ensure you aren’t encouraging further behaviour of a discriminatory nature. If an incident is reported, no matter the nature, it is to be addressed and dealt with swiftly. If dismissal is required it should be done so professionally and communicated to the team, placing the discretion of the victim at the fore. You should also be aware that some situations may require legal action, but with each situation dealt with on a case-by-case basis, the right approach will be selected organically.

Nurturing diversity of thought, building a safe environment and offering discreet and sensitive communication channels are all-important first steps to take in order to care for, and nurture, your LGBTQ+ employees, as well as create a kinder and more productive environment for all.