Why we all need LGBTQ+ inclusive workplaces
Employers have a responsibility to curate a psychologically safe environment for LGBTQ+ employees and their families
By Alicia Spanswick, Program Manager, frogTX
As a bisexual woman who has often been called a “tomboy,” I’ve recognized that my oldest child was neither heterosexual nor cisgender since they were very small. So when they officially “came out” as nonbinary and bisexual, it was not at all shocking. Inside our home, the transition was relatively smooth — adjusting to a new name and pronouns was only challenging in the habitual sense. Harder, though, was how it prompted me to grapple with the ways my own sexual identity is unlike that of many other LGBTQ+ women. I am a cisgender, white woman and I am married to a cisgender, white man. From the outside we look like any other family headed by a heterosexual couple. Once my child came out to us, I realized I had been using this fact to avoid fully owning my sexuality. That realization was horrible, but it helped me understand that if I want my child to feel secure in their sexuality, it is imperative to model that same openness and security myself.
The hardest part of all this was sharing our new reality with the various circles of community that extend beyond our home, since sharing opens the door to potential harm. It’s terrifying. One of the most surprisingly complex circles to share with was my employer and colleagues. On the one hand, my child’s sexuality and gender presentation are none of their concern; on the other, I felt tired of being inauthentic. I couldn’t misgender my child, even to people who might never meet them. I also realized that as an employee, it mattered to me how my colleagues and managers would approach this subject. I needed to feel safe at my job in order to be fully engaged with my team and my work. My family’s journey helped me understand that if employers want to encourage authenticity and openness, they must ensure that their culture is defined by safety and inclusion.
According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is pivotal in creating effective and collaborative teams. At first glance, “safety” may feel like an odd word choice to some people. It evokes images of neon vests and crossing guards, movie ratings and content warnings, seatbelts and speed limits. While all these things help keep us safe from physical and emotional harm, the kind of safety Edmondson and I have in mind is more subtle and elusive. In the workplace, psychological safety means trusting that your coworkers won’t make bigoted comments or homophobic jokes. It means the ability to have open and honest conversations about racism, sexism and systemic change. It’s having a nursing room in the office even though there aren’t that many nursing parents around. It’s having an LGBTQ+ club that is promoted by the leadership. It’s seeing leaders support minority communities with their words and, more importantly, with their actions.
Because psychological safety involves both interpersonal and cultural norms, its cultivation in the workplace must start at the top. Whatever written policies might say, it’s often the behavior of leaders that set cultural norms and boundaries. For example, when a CEO or other leader makes inappropriate or offensive jokes, it signals to the rest of the organization that such behavior is acceptable. When leaders discourage discussions about identity and discrimination, or voice support for anti-LGBTQ+ policies and organizations, they’re making a statement about the people and priorities that matter in their organization. All of this demonstrates to LGBTQ+ employees that they are unsafe and should hide their authentic selves. But when leaders model acceptance and inclusivity, they make an equally powerful statement. By prioritizing the wellbeing of all employees equally, by removing barriers to equity and inclusion, by promoting discussions and policies that increase diversity and understanding, they communicate to everyone in the organization that they are safe and supported, even when conflicts and misunderstandings occur.
My own workplace experiences speak to the power of leadership to shape culture and belonging. In some of my past jobs I constantly felt the threatening discomfort of knowing my organization respected and valued heteronormativity more than inclusivity. Even if my leaders and coworkers weren’t openly anti-LGBTQ+, I understood that it would not be safe for me to be my truest self in those spaces. That didn’t necessarily keep me from working hard, but it definitely prevented me from pursuing anything more than superficial relationships with colleagues, which was deeply isolating. It also made me less interested in staying with those organizations any longer than I needed to.
It wasn’t until I joined frog that I realized how much the lack of psychological safety had been limiting me. In a workplace culture defined by curiosity, acceptance and inclusion, I’m not afraid to share my true identity or my child’s growing awareness of their own sexuality and gender expression. The removal of that psychological weight has allowed me to develop deeper, more trusting relationships with my colleagues and to be my most honest and confident self. Unfortunately, however, my experience at frog is far from the norm for many others in the LGBTQ+ community.
Just as organizational leaders are responsible for shaping their individual workplace culture, our laws and politics are responsible for shaping our collective workplace values and culture. Up until June 2020, it was entirely legal in the United States for employers to discriminate against employees and prospective employees on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. That meant LGBTQ+ people could be legally fired because of their identity and that they were not necessarily entitled to legal protections in workplace disputes. Even with the Supreme Court’s extension of the Civil Rights Act to LGBTQ+ employees, LGBTQ+ people still report high levels of workplace discrimination. According to the Center for American Progress, about one-third of LGBTQ+ Americans reported experiencing harassment or discrimination in 2020, with 36% of all incidents occurring in the workplace. 35% of respondents also said that fear of discrimination shaped their decisions about where to work. Across the board, the statistics for trans, nonbinary and non-white LGBTQ+ people are even worse. These numbers align uncomfortably well with recent employment data, proving that LGBTQ+ workers’ fears about their treatment in the workplace aren’t unfounded: during the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ+ workers were 36% more likely to experience layoffs and hour reductions than the general population.
While we work toward comprehensive legislative protections for the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace, employers can act independently by codifying such protections into their employee handbooks and their employment or union contracts. Many existing policies can be rewritten more equitably, such as parental leave and dress code policies that invalidate the experience of many of our trans coworkers. Employment policies must actively discourage potential harassment by prohibiting jokes and intentionally harmful language targeted at specific groups or identities, while outlining clear organizational responses and procedures for harassment. Steps like incorporating pronouns into company email signature templates and creating gender-neutral restrooms can also help reduce fears for our gender-non-conforming coworkers. Finally, many organizations have created safe-space programs or implemented professional education aimed at building a culture that celebrates diversity, recognizes individual contributions, promotes openness and trust, rewards risk-taking and puts compassion at its center.
There are so many ways we can increase psychological safety in the workplace, not only for our LGBTQ+ teammates, but for everybody. When we ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and that everyone’s experience matters, we all thrive. When we call out or stand up against bigotry, discrimination and ignorance, we’re not just helping to build a more inclusive workplace for ourselves and our current colleagues — we are doing our part to make our larger culture more inclusive. I know firsthand that being in a psychologically safe workspace has been invaluable to me and my family. I can’t explain how good it feels to know I can be my authentic self, that I can share my life with my team without fear or hesitation. I hope that everyone in the LGBTQ+ community will know that feeling someday soon.
After 8 years in the Colorado Army National Guard, Alicia worked in several industries including anthropology, early childhood education, healthcare and financial services. Since moving to Austin with her family, she has worked in product development, starting at frog in March 2021. She has two teenagers, two dogs, two cats, one loving partner, and a whole bunch of hobbies. But most of the time you can find her avoiding the dishes in the sink.