Company Culture
DEI / LGBTQ / Lifestyle / Policies / Small businesses

How to ensure your workplace is LGBTQ friendly

Successful businesses protect their LGBTQ employees and treat them equitably. Here's how you can, too, even if your company is too small to have its own dedicated D&I staff.

Are you protecting your small biz's LGBTQ employees? (Photo by Kampus Productions from Pexels)
Companies that celebrate diversity among their employees must consider diversity of gender identity and sexual orientation, too.

In June 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the 1964 Civil Rights Act barring sex discrimination in the workplace protects LGBTQ employees from being fired because of their sexual orientation. The ruling was and is a big deal, as more than half of all US states have few or no LGBTQ protections. As many as 27 have none at all on the state level.

Still, not being fired because of sexual orientation is the bare minimum of protection. There are other issues, including clear nondiscrimination and harassment policies and LGBTQ-inclusive healthcare and family leave policies.

“Oftentimes [businesses will] start at the hiring process when we’re talking about recruiting diverse talent, but the reality is that it has to start before that,” said Sarah McBride, former national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and now a Delaware state senator, in an interview with in March 2020. “You can’t go out into the world and recruit diverse talent if you haven’t already taken the internal steps to ensure that they will have the policies, benefits and practices that they need to not just come to work, but to thrive at work”

The HRC releases an annual Corporate Equality Index, considered the national benchmarking tool measuring policies, practices and benefits pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer employees.

The HRC’s workplace standards set forth in the Corporate Equality Index, which celebrates 20 years this year, are not legal requirements that most companies are required to follow, but they can have an impact on hiring, and even the bottom line. Companies that have scored 100% every year for the last 20 years include Apple, JPMorgan Chase and Nike, and more than half (258) of 2022’s Fortune 500 companies have 100% ratings, including 15 of the top 20.

While this index focuses on the large corporations that employ a major segment of the US workforce, any business can implement LGBTQ equality standards, even if it’s a small business that doesn’t have a department for diversity and inclusion.

Where to start? Here are a few tips and resources:

Add a nondiscrimination policy that includes LGBTQ protections

Small businesses don’t always put their policy on workplace discrimination in writing, but, as you grow, they’re a good idea to lay out your expectations, and enforcing them will help prevent discrimination complaints.

This written policy should include a designated person employees can report to with questions and complaints, a statement saying that employees will not be punished for reporting discrimination, and confirmation that their report will be confidential. You may also outline consequences for violating the policy.

A good LGBTQ-friendly nondiscrimination policy should include both sexual orientation and gender identity, which means it should explicitly protect trans people in their own category.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers free resources and advice on creating policies for small businesses.

New Hope, Pennsylvania celebrates Pride. (Photo by A. Sinagoga for Visit Philadelphia)

Implement equitable leave policies

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, aka FMLA, requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child (including adoption), illness, injury, surgical recovery or caretaking of a family member. In some cases, gender-affirming treatment and surgery is covered by FMLA. However, small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from adhering to the policy.

You can create a similar leave policy (with paid leave, if you’re able) that is inclusive of maternity and paternity leave — which benefits fathers regardless of sexual orientation, but is required in only a handful of states — and medical leave that is inclusive of gender-affirming treatments. Strong mental health coverage is also an important benefit to offer employees who live with marginalization.

Respect self-identification

In an LGBTQ-inclusive workplace, identities and pronouns are respected. If an employee changes the way they identify themselves or their pronouns during their employment, all official documents, correspondence and communication should be changed to reflect a change in name and/or gender. Some records, such as payroll and retirement accounts, may require a legal name change first, but a court-ordered name or gender change is not required for an employee to ask to be addressed by the name and pronouns that align with their gender identity.

For some businesses, an employee coming out as LGBTQ may be no big deal, but it still be something that the team will need to talk about, possibly with a DEI professional who specializes in LGBTQ issues. Employees who mock other employees or openly refuse to use proper pronouns after being told should be considered in violation of the nondiscrimination policy, whether that policy is written or verbal.

Remove gender from dress codes

Dress codes are generally less strict for most businesses than they used to be, especially smaller businesses. If you have one, whether it’s a work uniform or an expectation that employees dress in traditional business attire, an employee should be considered in compliance if they follow the dress code according to their gender identity. So, for example, don’t ask an employee to continue wear a suit and tie if she has recently come out as trans because you think a skirt and blouse will be distracting — deal with other employees or customers if they make it into a distraction.

Any written dress code policy should be gender neutral. Requiring a suit for meetings is neutral; requiring pants for men and skirts for women is not. If long hair needs to be pulled into a ponytail for safety reasons, jewelry should be a certain size or sandals are not allowed, there is no reason to tie it to gender.

Respect privacy

Although it seems that fewer people are “in the closet” compared to a couple of decades ago, LGBTQ people have the right to privacy. Employees should have the right to discuss their gender identity or expression openly without backlash, but they also have the right to keep that information private. Only the employee gets to decide if, when, and with whom to share their private information.

Support other LGBTQ-friendly companies

If your company is at least 51% LGBTQ owned, operated, managed and controlled, you can get your company officially certified as a LGBT Business Enterprise with the LGBT Chamber of Commerce. This free certification puts you in a network with LGBTQ companies nationally and locally, making it easier to connect with and support them. If your company doesn’t meet the threshold for certification, you can still support members by using the directory on your nearest local LGBTCoC affiliate site when looking for goods, services and companies to contract with.

You can also check the HRC Corporate Equality Index to avoid doing business with companies that lack robust benefits and protections for LGBTQ employees.

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