Sara Hancock (LinkedIn) from the Town of Chapel Hill shares suggestions for creating more support for LGBTQIA+ in the workplace.
Being openly LGBTQIA+ in the workplace is a tricky thing.
I have been honest about my queer identity in the workplace for 10 years. This hasn’t always been an easy thing to do—I’ve been pulled back and forth between well-meaning allyship, fielded uncomfortable questions, and often witnessed microagressive comments on my identity.
Regardless of whether an employee is “out” or not, you will find this is a universal experience for LGBTQIA+ individuals. We are often torn between being authentic and being marginalized in the workplace. When working in municipal government, there is an added level of public service. We love what we do and we connect with our communities through our work. But what happens when the work environment doesn’t provide a safe space for authenticity? What can you do as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community or ally to ensure all employees are welcome, safe, and supported?
Don’t Assume It’s Safe
Visibility of LGBTQIA+ employees is often an indicator of how safe the workplace is for employees. Even in the most welcoming communities, you may find that there is a need for a resource group, meet-ups, or training around LGBTQIA+ inclusivity. Because municipal governments are also a tapestry of industries and expertise in varying geographic locations, outreach is an important component to visibility. You also need to consider the varying experiences of LGBTQIA+ employees. For example LGBTQIA+ people of color experience more pronounced instances of discrimination. It is important to recognize that these unique experiences shape our reality of safety in the workplace. Once you know what supports exists and where the gaps exist, you can begin to build a plan.
Be Prepared to Contort
Time for some gymnastics! One of the most effective avenues for creating a safe space is an LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group (ERG). What you may find, however, that it is unclear who to ask, how to get started, or who even cares? This means you may have to check in with lots of stakeholders and be prepared for “We are already inclusive! Why do we even need this?” Ask around for volunteers and put together a small team to get started. It is helpful to have someone from the Manager’s Office or a Department lead in the room. This is one way to help create avenues for support from high level stakeholders.
One effective way to navigate this uncertainty is to ask for forgiveness. I know—this is scary. Draft a charter for the group and identify the needs of LGBTQIA+ employees. Make a business case for the work. Find some easy wins and document your successes. For example, an organization I worked for offered transgender inclusive healthcare, but no one knew about it. We discovered that all we needed was to advertise it to employees in our benefits book! This creates more visibility and inclusivity for transgender employees and families.
Get Buy-In And Come Out!
Once you have a framework and a group to champion your efforts, it’s time to go to management. This can be intimidating and may require more contorting. Depending on your role in the organization and your access to management, this could be something that requires a bit of strategy. There is not a “right” way to do this—be creative, compassionate, patient, and open while you have these conversations. What I have found is that management just needs to know that LGBTQIA+ employees are in need of a safe space, and are more than willing to accommodate. That being said, discrimination can show up in any space and even in the best conditions, this could be an uphill battle. If you feel like you aren’t being heard, you may need a new strategy and to engage support systems you have built in the organization through those initial stakeholder conversations.
Keep the Work Moving
Once you have formalized an ERG, keep the momentum. Plan fun events, connect employees, and find spaces that employees gather. For municipalities with multiple buildings and facilities, plan a visit. Isolation is a symptom of how our organizations are structured, so you may have to work a little harder to get connected. Just getting the LGBTQIA+ ERG visible means you are doing it right!
Document your successes, find seats at every table you can, and offer an LGBTQIA+ lens to policy, procedures, and events. Often these aren’t topics that are on the forefront of the minds of leaders in our organizations and an ERG’s presence brings them forward.
Creating safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ employees is one of the most meaningful and impactful things an organization can provide. It can shape the culture of an organization and improve productivity, happiness, and reduce turnover. As a colleague said at my Town’s last LGBTQIA+ ERG meeting, “the fact that our group’s existence makes even one person feel safer, we know that this work has meaning– that’s something to be proud of!”