Employers should continue to listen to LGBTQ+ employees and strive to create an inclusive and respectful work environment

June 26, 2021

Pride Month is over at the end of June, but the work of employers to promote respect, inclusion and non-discrimination for the LGBTQ+ community needs to continue.

Having an inclusive workplace is important as about 3.5% of adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, which accounts for roughly 9 million Americans, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA Law School. About 0.3% of the population identify as transgender, or about 700,000 Americans, according to the institute.

Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published technical assistance for employers explaining the relevance of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2020 where the high court determined that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identification.

Employers should update their workplace policies to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

Being gay in the workplace has its challenges, but gay Americans such as John Reid, a news radio host at Richmond-based WRVA, say gay workers just want the same rights and benefits as their co-workers.

His biggest concern has been around stereotypes of what it means to be gay.

Reid, a white conservative, has been in a yearslong committed relationship with a Black male. When he shares information about his life with peers (as people do at work), some seem overly curious or surprised by his relationship, as though it doesn’t fit the mold.

Too often people try to stereotype what it means to be gay. People need to realize that being gay is just one aspect of who he is and it doesn’t define him, Reid said.

In the early days, he worried his personal life would turn into a scandal. Over the years, he has been told flat out that he was denied jobs because he was on the wrong side of politics to be gay.

Townley Goldsmith-Ray, executive director of Greater Richmond SHRM, a chapter of the national Society for Human Resource Management, has been married to her wife for 16 years.

She values the opportunity she has to influence how businesses develop inclusive environments for members of the LGBTQ+ community through her affiliation with the Greater Richmond SHRM.

For too many LGBTQ+ employees, discrimination is a way of life and has a real human cost.

It leaves people feeling afraid to be who they are, being wary of their co-workers, having to tolerate bullying or offensive jokes, and experiencing higher levels of stress and other detrimental effects on their physical and mental health, Goldsmith-Ray said.

For her own experience, Goldsmith-Ray has thrived in workplaces where she has been able to bring her full authentic self.

Being able to share what was happening in her life (without having to remove pronouns or use vague references) in a way that her other colleagues naturally shared led to deeper relationships with co-workers and more loyalty to organizations.

And by simply living her life, Goldsmith-Ray hopes that her representation as a member of the LGBTQ+ community positively impacts the people — both young and old — that she meets and gets to know along the way.

Companies can do simple things, like updating their language on communications such as “parent or guardian” versus “mother or father.” They also can present images of same-sex couples in their marketing and internal communications.

The EEOC’s guidance reminds employers that customer preference is not a basis to engage in employment discrimination.

Employers also cannot discriminate against an employee due to gender stereotypes, including discriminating against employees because they do or do not conform to sex-based stereotypes about feminine or masculine behavior. An employer is also prohibited from requiring a transgender employee from dressing in accordance with the employee’s sex assigned at birth.

On the issue of bathrooms, the EEOC takes the position that employers may not deny an employee equal access to a bathroom, locker room or shower that corresponds to the employee’s gender identity.

Although accidental misuse of a transgender employee’s preferred name or pronoun will not likely violate Title VII, the EEOC stated that “intentionally and repeatedly using the wrong name and pronouns to refer to a transgender employee could contribute to an unlawful hostile work environment.”

Employers should continue to listen to the voices of LGBTQ+ employees and consistently strive to create an inclusive and respectful environment for all employees.