Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
June 1, 2021

How leaders can be allies to their LGBTQ+ colleagues

As members of the LGBTQ+ community, many of us have encountered a full range of behaviors throughout our careers. While progress has certainly been made and conversations about creating more inclusive work environments are taking place at organizations around the world, there is still room for improvement. 

According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, 46% of LGBTQ workers say they are closeted at work, 53% reported hearing jokes about gay or lesbian people, and 20% say they were told by a coworker or it was implied that they should dress in a more masculine or feminine manner. 

Bringing about substantive and lasting change will require leaders from outside the LGBTQ+ community to be visible allies. Here are a few things you can do:

Know what an ally truly is.
Simply saying “I am an ally” is not enough. Being an ally is active and part of an ongoing process. The Anti-Oppression Network defines allyship as “an active, consistent and arduous practice of unlearning and reevaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.” Leaders should openly and affirmatively denounce discrimination or violence against anyone as a way to support safe spaces for all, including the LGBTQ+ community. It’s important to note that allies come in many forms and everyone in an organization can be one.

Understand that words matter.
Starting a meeting with “Hi guys” or “Good morning ladies” may seem innocuous, but it can feel exclusionary and dismissive of someone’s identity. Be mindful of your language in both formal meetings and casual conversation. Use non-gendered terms, like “everyone” or “team” and “partner” versus “husband” or “wife.” Use your team members’ pronouns (e.g., he/she/they) and indicate your own pronouns in introductions, your email signature and LinkedIn profile to demonstrate public support. 

If you mess up, own it.
Many people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Sometimes you will. If you say something you worry is offensive, check in with your colleague about it and apologize. Or if a colleague approaches you about a problematic comment or behavior, be receptive to their feedback.

Educate yourself.
If your organization has an LGBTQ+ affinity group, employee resource group or intranet community, reach out to the group leader to learn how you can get involved as an ally. You can also seek out events in your local community to gain insight into the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people and the issues they face. Additionally, learn about the diversity within the LGBTQ+ community and the role of intersectionality in our individual experiences. Some helpful resources include HRC’s Coming Out as a Straight Supporter guide and Stonewall’s best practices and toolkits for inclusive workplaces

Confront your own unconscious bias.
In the important area of hiring, when you look at candidates for a role on your team, you may find yourself drawn to people with a similar background to you. This is a natural instinct — research has shown that we are predisposed to trust people who are like us — but it is a bias that must be challenged. Make a deliberate effort to seek out people who are different from you. Consider that people from underrepresented groups have likely worked through bias in their careers — swimming upstream — so their accomplishments may be more impressive in that light. Assess candidates based on capabilities that are explicitly relevant to the role and obtain observations and data points through multiple sources.

Include DE&I metrics as part of measuring performance.
We’ve seen some organizations start to include diversity metrics as part of their evaluations of leaders. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. For example, how many members of the LGBTQ+ community are you mentoring? How many members of the community hold senior leadership roles? Are scores related to inclusivity on employee surveys improving?

Create a culture of openness and inclusion.
As a senior leader, public statements in support of the LGBTQ+ community set the tone from the top. Demonstrate that everyone will be held accountable for their behavior and model inclusivity and allyship yourself. If you learn of or witness behaviors, practices or language that are rooted in homophobia, transphobia or misogyny, acknowledge those wrongs and take immediate action to rectify them. When shaping your culture, representation matters. Seeing members of our community being hired and rising in the ranks of an organization is crucial to building a culture of inclusion. Being LGBTQ+ is not “obvious” or “visible” diversity, so it’s important to make sure our voices are part of broader discussions about diversity. Additionally, ensure that the benefits your organization offers are inclusive, such as insurance coverage for domestic partners, parental leave for adoptions and gender-affirming procedures. 

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With more leaders as allies, your LGBTQ+ colleagues will feel more comfortable bringing their full selves to work. And we all benefit from that.