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Helping non-LGBT+ people understand their privilege

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

Imagine a world in which you had to censor every conversation you were going to have, in your head, before you opened your mouth.

Imagine if you couldn’t talk about the great girl or guy you had met at the weekend and your excitement of a new relationship with your friends at work because then they would know that you were gay.

Imagine if you couldn’t celebrate milestone life events, engagement, new homes, weddings, even deaths of in-laws, because you couldn’t be open about who you are in your workplace.

This is the day to day experience of thousands of people globally who are LGBT+, at home, at work, in public. Now imagine how exhausting and disconnecting and often, scary, that must feel.

In this pivotal report the Human Rights Campaign Foundation studied the national picture of LGBT+ workers’ experiences of inclusion at work, versus their non-LGBT+ colleagues. The study reveals that despite a changing social and legal landscape for LGBT+ people, still over half (53%) of LGBT+ workers hide who they are at work. The result is not just a personal cost, but is also to the detriment of an organisation’s culture, inclusivity and employee engagement and retention.

What is privilege?

Privilege is invisible to those who hold it, which means that if you are cisgender and heterosexual you never have to edit your conversations to hide elements of yourself and your identity based on the audience. You never have to think “Is this a safe space for me as a woman to talk about my weekend plans with my girlfriend?” or holiday plans or upcoming nuptials or house moves? All huge milestones which should be celebrated with our work colleagues to help to build a sense of belongings. There are too many, regular reminders that while we might like to think that attitudes towards the LGBT+ community have become more positive as a whole, there are still spaces, local and internationally, where this self-censorship is still required, not least in the 114 countries in the world that do not legally protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

According to this report from LSE, there are two types of privilege that directly impact LGBT+ people in the workplace: heteronormativity and cisnormativity. These norms mean that we assume that heterosexuality and cis-gendered identities are the default unless we are told otherwise.

The result of this requirement to self-censor has people leaving jobs because they are made to feel unwelcome for simply being who they are, nearly 10% of LGBT people report leaving a job specifically because they were made to feel this way.

How unconscious bias shapes the workplace for LGBT+ workers

Everyone reveals aspects of who they are in the workplace, whether that’s through conversations about the weekend through to photos of loved ones on desks. To not do so can isolate a person and erode valuable rapport with co-workers and managers.

When asked the reasons why an LGBT+ person would not be open at work, 64% of respondents answered “Because it is nobody’s business”. But the problem with this is that statistical analysis reveals the highest correlation between this key response and workplace experiences of harassment, anti-LGBT+ jokes and comments made on a frequent basis, along with other demeaning behaviour from colleagues.

Even though openness is seen as a good thing at work, the double standards are laid bare in the responses to the survey questions where less than half of people would feel comfortable hearing an LGBT+ colleague talk about their social lives, dating or related subjects. Over 70% agree that “it is unprofessional” to talk about your sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace. Non-LGBT+ workers often don’t recognise that they too have both a sexual orientation and gender identity and that they make casual references to these aspects of themselves constantly.

How we can make workplaces more inclusive

Non LGBT+ people can start to make a difference to their workplaces by recognising the ways in which they have privileges, and then using those advantages to help promote equitable outcomes for others.

Verywellmind suggests the following ways to pave the way to social change:

  1. Self reflection: Self-reflection is a great way to understand privilege because it fosters critical thinking to connect individual lived experiences to larger systemic realities

  2. Acknowledge your privilege: By acknowledging your privilege, you limit the possibility of invalidating another person's life experiences or silencing them altogether. It shows self-awareness, empathy, and compassion to those who are marginalized.

This study from LSE then applies those principles to actionable strategies for the workplace, through:

  1. Awareness: Awareness can be spread by starting the conversation around heterosexual and cis-gendered privilege in the workplace and would be most effective if the message comes from upper management. This can occur informally or in a workshop setting, as long as the message is received and understood by all employees.

  2. Workplace policies: Past research shows that an organisation’s internal policies can influence how LGBT+ friendly a work environment is. e.g. allowing same-sex partners to attend company social events

  3. Culture change through language: a large component of workplace culture is the language used (Park, 2020). This includes using all individuals’ preferred pronouns, and ensuring gendered language is not offensive. Encouraging all employees to state their pronouns can make it easier for LGBT+ individuals to feel comfortable sharing theirs.

  4. Measurement: In addition to gathering data on LGBT+ status, tools should be developed to assess the experiences of LGBT+ individuals in the workplace. For example, a microaggression scale was just recently developed by Resnick & Galupo (2019). By gathering more data on the unique experiences of LGBT+ individuals at work, we can paint a clearer picture of the injustices faced and work towards inclusion for all people in the workplace.

Why inclusive organisations are good for business

There have been many well documented studies now proving a demonstrable link between an organisation’s approach to inclusivity and boardroom success. Benefits can include higher job satisfaction among staff, lower staff turnover, higher productivity, improved morale and increased creativity and innovation.

26% of LGBT+ employees stayed in a job because the environment was accepting, with the opposite being true if work environments are unwelcoming. In these cases, employee engagement suffers by up to 30% due to unfavourable environments.

To make strides into truly diverse and inclusive work cultures, a key first step is to create awareness of the role of unearned privileges. “Employers need to engage both their LGBT+ and non-LGBT+ employees to evaluate their own workplace environments, improve existing gaps and fortify strengths that can promote inclusion, retention and productivity” (The Cost of the Closet).

Such investment can pave the way towards dismantling oppressive systems and attitudes, to the benefit of all workers and organisational success.


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