The blog of the Urban Institute
June 20, 2019

Corporations Have Led on LGBTQ Workplace Inclusion, but Many Challenges Remain

June 20, 2019

Rainbow flags appear everywhere during LGBTQ Pride Month. Increasingly, rainbows decorate the logos of large corporations and brands recognized by millions. To many, these and other gestures represent a welcome sign of support, but others have critiqued the commercialization of Pride Month and discrepancies between messages and actions.

As Alex Abad-Santos put it, “Brands promoting gay pride and the LGBTQ community may not always be consistent in actually supporting the LGBTQ community, but they still capitalize on the help that people want to give that community.”

But corporations have made bold strides in defense of the LGBTQ community. In 2015, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff announced a boycott of Indiana over the state’s discriminatory religious freedom law, leading to a surge of similar statements from other business leaders. The backlash prompted revisions to the legislation, and Benioff said he received more positive employee feedback than ever in his 16-year tenure.

“Corporations have been important leaders in the area of LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace,” said Urban Institute senior fellow Jenny Yang, who is also a former commissioner of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Ninety-three percent of Fortune 500 companies have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation.

What explains corporations’ leadership in this arena? “This trend could be partly explained by the presence of senior leaders one level down from the C-suite at many of these organizations who are LGBT and advocates for inclusion,” Yang said, also noting a dramatic cultural shift in which more Americans are supporting equity for the LGBTQ community.

“In this time of political and cultural division, more companies are leaning in to state their values,” Yang continued. “Companies want to ensure that all their employees feel safe and supported. Companies have a competitive advantage where they can build a diverse and inclusive workplace, which increases engagement and strengthens organizations.”

What the evidence says

Approximately 20 percent of LGBTQ Americans report experiencing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity when applying for jobs. Yang notes that LGBT-based discrimination charges filed with the EEOC have steadily increased since 2013, when the EEOC first began collecting these data. These charges have been followed by an increase in resolutions and monetary recovery.

Beginning in 2012, in a series of federal employment decisions, the EEOC set forth its position and explained the legal basis for concluding that LGBT-related discrimination constitutes sex discrimination under our federal antidiscrimination laws. The Supreme Court is set to rule on three cases with profound implications for this issue.

But data on LGBT workers can be difficult to collect in a sensitive and accurate manner. LGBT employees may “cover” their identities because they feel uncomfortable or for cultural or personal reasons. According to a 2018 survey from the Human Rights Campaign, 46 percent of LGBTQ workers are not out at work.

“Many people don’t feel comfortable sharing that information,” said Yang, “but data on representation are important. When you better understand the population, you can better identify barriers and challenges and work toward inclusion.”

What other challenges remain?

Employees earning low wages or working in male-dominated industries often work in places with more risk factors for sexual harassment. This may pose particular challenges for LGBTQ workers, but more evidence could illuminate those challenges.

Regarding low-wage workers reporting sexual harassment, Yang said, “The biggest challenge is the power imbalance. You are not going to fight for your rights if you don’t have power.”

Other risk factors for sexual assault or harassment identified by the EEOC include isolated workplaces, like those in agriculture or farming, or workplaces with cultures dominated by one sex.

“We need to focus on building safe ways for all employees to raise concerns,” said Yang. “No organization should sit back and assume there are no problems simply because they haven’t heard any complaints.”

By creating safe ways for employees to raise concerns about equity, such as through climate surveys, focus groups, or diversity and inclusion task forces, employers can better understand the nature and scope of problems. Yang said, “With this baseline understanding, they can develop strategies to change both practices and culture to build more inclusive and productive environments where all workers can thrive.”

David Thornton, Business Control Executive at Bank of America, raises the LGBTQ+ flag at the company's call center in Brea, CA on Monday, June 3, 2019. This was the first time the flag was raised at the campus to celebrate Pride Month. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

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