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Building an LGBTQ-Inclusive Workplace in the Tech Industry

How the tech industry can continue to make progress towards equality by creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace environment

Illustrated people in rainbow colors to symbolize inclusivity

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC), America’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender, and queer (LGBTQ) civil rights organization, is on a mission to ensure civil and equal rights for all LGBTQ people. The LGBTQ community is an integral part of American society, but bias, discrimination and bigotry can cause unsafe and unproductive work environment for LGBTQ people.
 
In January, HRC released the 2021 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), an annual report on LGBTQ equity and inclusion in the workplace. The most recent report was a standout for tech companies—with 18 new companies being rated and published in the report for the first time, a “significant number” of new arrivals from a single sector according to Beck Bailey, director, HRC Workplace Equality Program.
 
2020 was a historic year on many fronts. With the industry heavily impacted by the pandemic and a nationwide reckoning with racial equity, the CEI survey could have easily been passed over or forgotten. But, Bailey explains, the year’s turmoil didn’t detract attention from working for LGBTQ inclusion. “I think that just underscores the business commitment, and the understanding that diversity and inclusion work is a business imperative,” says Bailey. “The commitment from companies there was very tangible to us.”

Building an Equitable Workplace

The CEI survey has very clear perimeters, notes Bailey, and the publicized benchmarks make necessary outcomes available for every organization to attempt to reach. HRC focuses on outcomes in three categories.
 
“First, we look at nondiscrimination protections,” explains Bailey. Policies that protect against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation are key for building an equitable workplace, and written rules must provide clear guidelines that support any claims of maltreatment. These protections must expand out of the office. “We look at those in a 360-degree view,” adds Bailey. “They have to apply to employees, they have to apply to vendors and contractors, they have to apply to customers and clients.”
 
Building from nondiscrimination protections is the second criteria—employee benefits. “Benefits are important because they're such a big part of our compensation in the United States,” notes Bailey. Employee benefits is an area where the LGBTQ community often faces inequity. Benefits aren’t always equally accessible when it comes to transgender or gender non-conforming people, same-sex couples or reproductive support benefits. Bailey explains that areas like reproductive support through resources for alternative reproductive paths can be crucial in supporting a company’s LGBTQ employees. “There are a lot of areas of family formation where we want to make sure that LGBTQ people have equal access and support,” adds Bailey.
 
Thirdly, Bailey advocates for looking at internal practices and external engagement. “That includes training and education, performance evaluation, employee networks, resource groups and more” he notes. “And that's how you interact with the LGBTQ community at large, whether it's in philanthropy or sponsorship or supporting public policy goals, things that are in that external engagement realm.”

Positive Equity Trends in the Tech Sector

The commitment to creating a more equitable environment was evident within the tech sector.  2021 was a notable year in the CEI for tech industry with 71 companies receiving a score of 100.
 
With the world’s transition to virtual spaces, Bailey notes HRC saw an increase in equity programming and training, and the events were more accessible to people in every level of a company. “If I didn't work at headquarters, maybe I worked in the warehouse or in a distributed location, now I could attend that event over Zoom, where I couldn't in the past,” explains Bailey. “So in some ways, companies were able to reach more employees with their education and programming events than they used to when they relied heavily on in person events.”
 
Bailey also points to the fact that, using the data collected from the survey, HRC is able to track longer term trends towards progress. “Over the last decade there is incredible progress in the adoption of transgender inclusive healthcare coverage” explains Bailey. “If you go back 12-15 years, it was very hard to even get it anywhere, and now the majority of companies we work with have it.”
 
In addition to healthcare advocacy, the past year’s racial reckoning brought much-needed attention to intersectionality in LGBTQ advocacy. “There is a new awareness, a new awakening about racism and antiracism in America,” says Bailey. “That makes us think about the work we do around LGBTQ equality, and how we elevate this into a conversation about what it means to be a person of multiple marginalized identities.”
 
The conversation about intersectionality also introduces important questions of wellness, especially in the pandemic-ridden world of today. As organizations work to create health and wellness strategies for their employees, Bailey notes the importance of having intersectional conversations with them. According to Bailey, true intersectional conversations included “not only an understanding of how intersectionality means that people who have marginalized identities are suffering under the pandemic in disproportional ways, but also how our wellness efforts are working—whether it's vaccination campaigns or mental health awareness. We're all struggling with COVID-19 but we have to have strategies that take into account identities and marginalization as part of those wellness and health strategies.”

A Continuous Journey Toward Equality

While 2021 has shown some of the best results yet from the CEI, that doesn’t mean the fight for equality is over. The CEI, as explained by Bailey, is used as a tool to report on the benchmarks of foundational policies, practices, and benefits for an employer to begin the journey to being inclusive. But even if a company achieves all of the aforementioned benchmarks, and gets a high score on the index, it may not be as inclusive as it seems on paper. “It means that you have all of these foundational policies and practices that are truly critical and necessary, but by themselves they aren’t enough to create a fully inclusive environment” says Bailey. “If you get 100 on our survey, that doesn't mean you're done.”

Workplace Strategies

Moving inclusive practices from written policy to company culture can be difficult, and Bailey notes, while many companies want to do the right thing, it can be hard to know what the right thing is.
 
But sometimes the answer can be as simple as language. “In terms of workplace culture, there are things like ‘how do we allow people to share and elevate things like pronouns and name changes? Or names that may be different from our legal names?’ ” explains Bailey, “and that's all really important.” 
 
Misgendering someone, or using gendered language, can contribute to a workplace environment that is not inclusive. Commonplace terms like ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, guys, dudes, ladies and so on can carry unintentional baggage.
 
“We do a lot with companies around how they think about using more inclusive language in employee and customer and consumer facing interactions” notes Bailey. “It’s a 360-degree view. It's what’s in your policies; it's what's in your communications.”
 
Implementing inclusive practices like pronoun and name sharing can start online. “There are lots of strategies, whether it's putting it in the Zoom handle or on a business card, in the corporate directory, in the email signatures,” Bailey adds.  
 
While there are many paths to take when creating an equitable workplace, HRC is dedicated to using the CEI as a tool for companies of all sizes to compare equity practices. The workplace is a major aspect of modern life, and HRC believes every employee should feel supported. “Our mission and vision are to create an America where LGBTQ people are ensured of their basic civil and equal rights,” notes Bailey, “but also can be fully a part of the fabric of American society where they feel safe at home, at work, in the community, and where people can really thrive and be free from stigma and discrimination.”
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