More than 40% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people experience conflict—such as being undermined, humiliated or discriminated against—at work, according to a recent report. This figure rises to 55% for transgender and nonbinary staff, compared with 29% for their heterosexual colleagues.
The report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), suggests that these issues are often left unresolved and more needs to be done to protect and support LGBT+ people within the workplace. And, while some progress has been made, there remains a particular and significant lag in the inclusion of trans workers and understanding of the specific challenges connected with gender identity.
There is compelling evidence that workplaces can be challenging environments for trans people, where their voices often remain the least heard. Even for organizations that seek to be inclusive, many lack the necessary expertise.
This is reflected in the CIPD report, in which most trans workers said their organisation did not have sufficient supportive policies in place—despite evidence that they have a positive effect.
The report also highlights how some trans workers feel isolated from colleagues, find it difficult to maintain work-life balance, and experience difficulties in expressing or transitioning their gender identity.
Many trans workers said they didn’t feel they had the active support of their work colleagues, which may help to explain why up to half reported not being open about their gender identity at work.
It seems then, that concrete steps are needed to build a more inclusive workplace culture. One way of doing this is to engage in a concept known as “allyship.”
Allyship refers to everyday acts which challenge behavioral norms and support members of marginalized groups through an awareness of the issues being faced by others.
As a concept, allyship can be applied to anyone within the LGBT+ spectrum as well as other marginalzsed groups, including people of color. Women can also benefit. For trans people, allyship focuses on increasing knowledge about identities and experiences, and gaining the personal skills required to be trans-inclusive.
How to make allyship work
An important first step is self-education, which might involve exploring free resources available from organizations such as Gendered Intelligence and Stonewall. There are widely available documentaries, films, podcasts and social media campaigns where trans experiences are explored with nuance. This can then influence long-term everyday language and behaviour which may cause a person to feel included rather than excluded. One example could be the use of preferred personal pronouns in email signatures and during meetings.
An LGBT+ staff network group might also be useful to help workers feel more included, as would a move away from one-off grand gestures (such as investing heavily only in pride month) towards regular smaller supportive acts, particularly visible role modeling from managers and leaders.
Employers should consider too how they cater for different gender identities within Human Resources (HR) policies such as recruitment, leave arrangements and dress code. What training and guidance is given to line managers about how they support trans workers for example, particularly during a period of transition? Are websites and internal communications properly scrutinized for problematic gendered language or images?
Intersectional thinking means understanding how a person’s experiences may be informed by different aspects of their life, such as socioeconomic background or education. It also includes understanding how experiences of exclusion can compound, such as when trans people of colour can experience both racism and transphobia.
As a general approach, being proactive about inclusion sends a clear message to current and future employees about the values of an organisation and how it supports its people. Some groups face greater challenges and barriers to being included in the workplace than others, but everyone can benefit from a culture of allyship.
The pandemic has meant drastic changes to how many people work, and altered the social dynamics of the workplace— perhaps for the long term. Businesses should take this time of adjustment as an opportunity to remember the importance of adapting broader policies and practices to specific minority groups.
The pandemic has also highlighted the need for everyone to support each other. Allyship presents a good opportunity to build a stronger sense of community for the organization—and society—as a whole.
Luke Fletcher, is an associate professor in Human Resource Management at the University of Bath; Deborah Brewis, is an associate professor in Management Strategy and Organization at the University of Bath; and Rosa Marvell, is a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford Brookes University.