Career Looking to Improve Company Culture? Prioritize Inclusivity

by Ari Bendersky | May 21, 2021

A truly inclusive workplace is driven and defined as much by policies as people.

Things like non-discriminatory practices, equitable health benefits, and an atmosphere of tolerance, acceptance and advocacy are among the touchstones of a company culture that makes employees comfortable and proud to be a part of their organization.

Getting there takes work. It takes investment and introspection at levels up and down the corporate ladder. But the work pays off; a safe, inclusive workplace allows staffers to be their best selves, personally and professionally.

Consider that one-third of people who experience higher rates of discrimination at work feel less innovative, and 46% feel less empowered to work at their best ability, according to a 2020 survey of 2,000 LGBTQ and 2,000 straight U.S. employees conducted by the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center and Boston Consulting Group.

What does that work look like, and who’s doing it? In many cases, the strides made to improve workplace equality over the past three decades are the result of diversity and inclusion advocates and allies pushing for policy changes on local, state and federal levels, and inside their places of employment.

And stories of how brave employees have brought about change — and how companies can learn and make space to hear those voices — can be powerful, valuable examples, for the intern and executive alike.

Persistence sets policy change into motion 

Douglas Robinson has welcomed the progress toward LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace over his 30-year career at Citi. 

Robinson, a senior portfolio analyst in credit card risk management, began working at the bank as a programmer in the treasury division in 1980. Robinson — an out gay Black man — led his life in the open. When colleagues talked about their spouses, he talked about his partner and displayed a picture of him on his desk.

“I tried to be as authentic as possible,” Robinson says. “A lot has to do with educating people.”

In the mid-1990s, Robinson continued to see the need, and opportunity, to effect greater change on LGBTQ+ policies by advocating for things like self-identification and, most importantly for him at the time, benefits coverage for domestic partnership for his now husband and two sons. Robinson and others had started meeting in 1995 to champion LGBTQ+ issues within the company. That led to the forming of the Gay & Lesbian Employees of Citicorp (GLEC) in 1998, Citi's first affinity group. In 2002 GLEC became Citi's Pride Network. 

Today the group has global reach and has been central in propelling the company’s march toward a more inclusive culture. By finding allies and getting organized, Robinson and others have helped shift attitudes and policies at Citi. 

Robinson's journey demonstrates the progress that has been made, and he continues to advocate for creating truly inclusive environments.

Douglas Robinson and his family smile for a photo

Photo courtesy of Douglas Robinson

Inclusivity is a standard to meet, not a goal that’s reached

A sentiment of support of LGBTQ+ employees needs to be backed by action, and many more companies are doing the work to support the LGBTQ+ community. 

The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ+ lobby group, reported in its 2020 Corporate Equality Index that 98% of the 686 major businesses it surveyed have non-discrimination policies in place and 91% have made public commitments to the LGBTQ+ community. 

“I’m amazed by what we started in the ‘90s and where we are today,” Robinson says of the move towards inclusion that he has been part of.  “We believed in the mission and that’s what drove us. Managers who are cognizant of an LGBTQ+ employee, recognizing who they are, their families, what will stimulate them to increase their productivity and get the best out of them. That’s so important. When I started, it wasn’t like that. It was a very different world.”

Even companies with LGBTQ+ policies in place can, and should, continue to learn, reflect and grow. 

Companies have to walk the walk

Companies that understand the importance of inclusion stand out. Not only will they get the best from their employees, but they’ll have a more favorable reputation in the world. Demonstrating they treat people fairly and equally can in turn lead companies to gain and retain clients.

Blanket statements of support of communities and causes aren't enough on their own, though. Employers need to commit to make change within an organization, according to Arthur Woods, a co-founder of Mathison, a hiring platform that helps companies grow a more diverse workforce.

“This has everything to do with companies and managers creating psychological safety to reassure people it won’t hurt their career [to be out] and that they’ll be respected,” says Jennifer Brown, CEO and co-founder of Jennifer Brown Consulting, which works with large for-profit companies on their diversity and inclusion strategies.

Employees may have experienced overt unjust behavior to micro-aggressive comments and questions or passively choosing not to interact with an LGBTQ+ co-worker. As a result, many people elect to keep their sexual orientation to themselves in order to better mesh with co-workers. According to the 2020 New York LGBT Community Center and BCG survey 40% of LGBTQ workers remain closeted at work and, of the 54% who are out at work, they say they remain closeted to their clients.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Woods says. “Do the work. Take steps to cast a wide net in hiring, develop objectives to remove bias in job descriptions, track and report your diversity data publicly. Then communicate to your candidates that these are the actions you’re taking to ensure they’re being treated equally. Companies, with their systems, can treat people differently and with bias if they haven’t taken the steps to minimize or eliminate it.”

Demonstrating they treat people fairly and equally can in turn lead companies to gain and retain clients.
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LGBTQ+ employees need allies

Creating an inclusive office involves companies proactively supporting a workforce that enables diversity with those in leadership positions to lead by example — in sharing human, personal aspects of their life and experiences. And affinity groups that help champion inclusivity should have the opportunity to thrive.

Programs that bring together LGBTQ+ employees with their allies allow a bridge to "connect members of majority and underrepresented groups to talk through issues in the context of a safe, supportive community," according to the 2020 New York LGBT Community Center and BCG survey. It adds that straight employees are twice as likely to recognize discrimination and 3.3 times more likely to intervene when they see it. 

“We have to work harder in pulling out invisible aspects of diversity in ourselves,” Brown says. “Even if you don’t have out executives, how powerful is it when they stand up and tell a story about their sister who is a lesbian, with permission, of course? You’re a leader in this world who is paying attention, who chooses with intent those stories you share. You are speaking to that person in the back of the room. That’s how change is made. We [the LGBTQ+ community] can’t do all the changing.”

When that change happens, people feel included. And when people feel included, work becomes a much better place.

Ari Bendersky

has written for The Advocate, Queerty, Out, New York Times, WSJ magazine, Men's Journal, Departures, Wine Enthusiast and Crain's Chicago Business. He lives in Chicago with his husband and their rescue dog.