Suki Sandhu: How can we support LGBTQ+ workers who experience discrimination in the workplace?

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Suki Sandhu

LGBTQ+ discrimination should, by now, be a thing of the past. We have come a long way as a society, and as we approach the third decade of the 21st century, business owners should take comfort in the knowledge that such discrimination is now in the rear-view mirror. However, this is far from the case. According to many reports, problematic displays of hateful behaviour in the workplace are, concerningly, on the up – and the negative impacts are worsening.

A recent report has found that more than a third of LGBTQ+ workers choose not to ‘come out’ at work, with the biggest concern they face in doing so being fear of discrimination. In fact, over half of LGBTQ employees cite having heard lesbian and gay jokes at work as an example of victimising behaviour. It’s easy to see how a hostile setting can be created and, often, left unaddressed.

Solving the ‘invisible problem’

Discrimination takes many forms. Problematic behaviours include, but are not limited to, bullying, name calling, physical violence, as well as actions of a sexual nature. If you thought that sexual harassment would be an uncommon occurrence in the workplace, there is lots of research which shows otherwise. For example you may be shocked to discover that one in five bisexual people have been sexually assaulted whilst at work. This requires fundamental change.

The primary issue when aiming to quash discriminatory behaviours in the workplace is that these actions tend to be ‘invisible’ or discreet, with victims often feeling embarrassed or discouraged to come forward. This links intrinsically to the fear of ‘coming out’ at work. The Financial Times spoke to a selection of LGBTQ+ workers and asked them about their experiences of exactly that. One respondent stated:

There are situations where the choice is taken from you because it would compromise your safety. It’s not limited to threats to physical wellbeing; it could be psychological and social.

It’s shocking, and of course, there is no one answer to encourage honesty and openness, just as there is no way to eradicate discriminatory behaviour. But, one thing is for certain – just having a zero-tolerance policy will not solve the problem on its own.

Communication is critical, and creating a nurturing and inclusive environment where people feel safe and comfortable to report situations will help to address wider problems. Offering routes such as ‘honesty emails’ – a discreet email account that can be moderated by HR – can be a very good start. This is a sound addition to traditional and external whistleblowing services, as internal feedback channels can ensure that issues are dealt with faster.

Considering a ‘banter-vs-bullying’ statement can also be useful to identify phrases and actions which can be offensive and hurtful to others. The issue with discrimination is that some of it is unconscious or unknowing. Education is vital to improving awareness and consideration.

A step that can help with this within businesses is the implementation of chief diversity officers whose role it is to educate people and solve discrimination-based conflict in the workplace. The presence of this person can indicate a business’ genuine and tangible commitment to eradicating bias. In the past year, nearly one in five Fortune 1000 companies have hired chief diversity officers, evidencing the need to place greater emphasis on this essential area holding back businesses.

Consequences run deeper than poor performance

Mental health awareness charity, MIND, reported that facing discrimination at work can have a detrimental impact on mental health. It can be a vicious cycle and with the level of discrimination of LGBTQ+ workers on the rise, businesses need to understand that eliminating unfair treatment can also support the ongoing wellbeing of their team.

Staggeringly, nearly three-quarters of LGBTQ+ people have experienced mental health issues because of work. It’s a very real problem which contributes to the shocking statistics regarding suicide rates within the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ adults have a two-fold excess risk of suicide attempts compared to other adults, with almost half of trans people in Britain having attempted suicide at least once.

To combat the worst-case scenarios, many businesses are beginning to take part in mental health first aid awareness training. This training attempts to educate the individual on signs, sensitive approaches and methods of effective handling that can aid and support sufferers. Insurance provider Bupa is an example of a company that is putting mental health at the forefront of policy – becoming the first company in the UK to complete this training.

How can businesses resolve conflicts?

Of course, resolving conflicts can be the hard part, but it is absolutely vital to ensure you aren’t encouraging further behaviour of a discriminatory nature. If an incident is reported, no matter the nature, it is to be addressed and dealt with swiftly. If dismissal is required it should be done so professionally and communicated to the team, placing the discretion of the victim at the fore. Depending on the nature of the behaviour, legal action may also be required, but with each situation dealt with on a case-by-case basis, the right approach will be selected organically.

Nurturing diversity of thought, building a safe environment and offering discreet and sensitive communication channels are all-important first steps to take in order to care for, and nurture, your LGBTQ+ employees, as well as create a kinder and more productive environment for all.

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About Suki Sandhu

Suki Sandhu OBE, is founder and CEO of Audeliss Executive Search, a specialist search firm that focus on diversity placements and improving representation of minorities at board level. He is also founder and CEO of INvolve - a global membership organisation and consultancy championing diversity and inclusion in business.. In 2019 Suki was awarded an OBE for Services to Diversity in Business.

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