While every thoughtful, reputable company should prioritize diversity and inclusion as part of their core principles, even well-meaning leaders sometimes miss the mark. In fact, policies meant to include those within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community can come across as pandering or inappropriate, without actually celebrating or propelling these employees.
Even so, Brian Silva, the founder and executive director of the National Equality Action Team (NEAT), stresses the responsibility of companies to emphasize inclusion. “Our country is a cornucopia of races, genders, religions, and sexual orientations. People respond when they see themselves reflected in their institutions: whether community or corporate. It shows you are making an effort to engage the communities you serve,” he explains. “Celebrating, learning about and being involved in diverse communities, increases the likelihood those communities will return that respect with their patronage.”
To create beneficial and impactful programs, events, and resources, take the advice of these LGBTQ executives who lead organizations to be open-minded, inclusive and forward-thinking.
Support smaller grassroots movements
Though corporation-wide efforts are important, Silva notes smaller groups within an organization can often be more effective. Because a concentrated sector of motivated and passionate individuals are more likely to incite change, it is the role of leadership to support, encourage, and pave the way for their efforts. “Make sure you have systems in place to support charities: donations, in-kind and such. And take into account that not all groups have large staff or development teams—that often means they need you more,” he says.
Get to know your employees individually
There’s a fine line between celebrating and welcoming the LGBTQ community, and shining such a spotlight on them that they feel uncomfortable, or put on display for the benefit of the company, according to vice president of GreenRoom, Patrick Gevas. This is why he suggests a natural inclusiveness approach, rather than one that draws potentially unwanted attention. This might mean welcoming significant others for a happy hour or office party, and not making a big deal of a gay or lesbian husband or wife who arrives.
But on a more significant scale, Gevas encourages employees to release any assumptions they have toward any employee, regardless of sexual orientation. “Perhaps a gay couple does want those courtside seats at the basketball game. Given that sexual orientation or race isn’t the only identifying characteristic of a person, it’s important for companies to know their employees as individuals with a variety of likes and dislikes rather than stereotypes,” he says.
Welcome discussions from top to bottom
In his first few jobs, president of Edelman Chicago, Jay Porter, had to navigate just “how out” he could be when he walked through the doors. Now in a leadership position and able to encourage others to embrace one another, he makes sure no one is afraid to be exactly who they are. Sometimes it’s subtle, like mentioning his husband during a meeting. Other times, it is simply listening and understanding, since he says it is important to never compare his experiences to others, but rather, acknowledge the challenges everyone personally faces.
He encourages companies to adopt this mind-set and filter it from the C-level suite all the way to the front desk. “When I first joined Edelman in 2005, in Seattle, the head of the office was the outest, proudest gay man I’ve ever met, and he taught me so much. Our receptionist was a trans woman, and that felt so brave. When I was talking with the head of the office, he said quite simply, ‘Anyone who has a problem with that isn’t for us—they can get back on the elevator for all I care.’ I think celebrating diversity is also about celebrating the people who led the way, keeping those stories alive.”
Allow your marketing to reflect your principles
Though internal practices will feed the growth of your company as you invest in talent from all different spectrums and backgrounds, the CEO of 2(X)IST, Tom Speight, says marketing efforts should also illustrate your support. This stems from photography and content to your external comments and more. “The LGBTQ community wants to see themselves reflected in the marketing that companies put out as a part of society at large. If you have to shout, ‘Look, we are representing diversity in our ad campaign,’ then it will be viewed as pandering. It needs to be natural, organic, and come from a place of truth in the value ecosystem of your corporate culture,” he explains.
Ensure LGBTQ voices are heard at every level
For founder, owner, and publicist of Fascinate Media Dara Avenius, prioritizing diversity when hiring was a fundamental of her company from day one. After all, as she puts it, you can’t learn about what this community needs or what they offer without giving them a seat at the table. It isn’t enough to send them an offer letter though, but to also manifest a culture where they are comfortable transitioning, discussing their relationship if they want to, as any employee might over coffee breaks. “Don’t hire them because they’re gay or trans or queer, but because they’re the best person for the job, and you value the voice and experience they will bring to your company and to your clients,” she says.
Create many open lines of communication
Early into his career, owner and president of Gabriel Cosmetics, Gabriel De Santino, was at a company that lacked diversity, causing him to feel stifled and insecure. When he left to work at a makeup counter he described as a “melting pot of personalities,” he flourished. After thriving in this inspiring environment, he vowed he would one day have his own company and re-create the same inclusivity. It was a promise he managed to keep, and today, he says, “With so many different backgrounds and life experiences, we have more creativity and incredibly thoughtful conversations.”
To ensure this dynamic is fostered, he has a few practices in place. First—and perhaps, most obvious—an open invitation to wear whatever suits his employees to the office. “Dress code is an easy way to be inclusive. This allows people to represent their religion, dress in accordance with their gender identity, or simply make a fashion statement,” he says. His company also has an anonymous drop box for feedback, and he works from a conference table instead of an office to provide a safe place for everyone to feel heard and empowered.
Get the nitty-gritty on what diversity actually means
When Emily Heath first joined United as the vice president and chief information security officer, she deliberately spoke openly about her sexuality, often bringing up her wife in conversation. For her, it was a seamless way to make it known that acceptance was a mandatory mentality. “I think seeing leaders be so comfortable about their sexual orientation can help both the culture of an organization, and help others to feel safe in their expression,” she explains.
Once settled, she required her employees to take a cultural training course, which provided an eye-opening experience for some. “Often, diversity and cultural differences can be misunderstood. People may think diversity is all about being male or female, or about the color of your skin, but it’s much more than that. We need to open our hearts and our minds to different ways of thinking and interacting. Imagine how that can inspire us to think more openly and creatively in business,” she says. “This is why a diverse workforce is critical.”