Supporting the LGBTQ2S+ community at your workplace is about much more than building Pride parade floats or hanging rainbow flags in the office. To learn more about how leaders can support the mental well-being of their LGBTQ2S+ employees, we spoke with registered social worker Jess Marie who has worked for more than ten years helping fellow LGBTQ2S+ individuals.
It starts with creating a safe space in the workplace. “People need to feel acceptance and belonging at work,” says Marie
Experiences of marginalization and discrimination negatively impact mental health. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, LGBTQ2S+ individuals face a higher rate of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders, suicidality, self-harm, and substance use. The risk increases for individuals with intersectional identities that may face other types of discrimination such as ableism, racism, classism or misogyny.
“It’s societal factors that create vulnerability,” says Marie. “There’s a lot of healing potential, creativity, and abundance in this community. The qualities of someone’s environment can create challenges to live as a queer or trans person (in the workplace).”
8 ways to support LGBTQ2S+ people in the workplace
Everyone deserves to feel safe and thrive at work. If you’re an employee or employer looking to create a more healthy, supportive workplace for your LGBTQ2S+ peers, here are eight steps you can take.
1. Use gender-inclusive language and normalize sharing pronouns
Consider language as a powerful tool. Using gender-neutral language in meetings makes more people feel welcome, reduces the risk of misgendering someone and helps set an example for other employees to follow. In addition to using gender-neutral language, Marie suggests that pronouns should be used by all staff. “All staff should use pronouns in all areas, including email signatures. If only staff with diverse or nonbinary pronouns use pronouns, it can feel very othering and outing.”
2. Respect privacy
While some people might be very open about different facets of their identity at work, not everyone will want to discuss their personal lives or journey. Marie emphasizes that respecting the privacy of your LGBTQ2S+ peers is important: “Don’t police bathroom or change room use and advocate for gender-neutral facilities. If you come across information such as a person’s legal name or gender marker they don’t widely use, maintain confidentiality.” Instead of looking for others to disclose, Marie says employees and employers should assume they have LGBTQ2S+ staff and work to build inclusive environments around that.
3. Ensure you have accessible facilities
While many of us might be working from home, Marie emphasizes that things like bathrooms and change rooms should be gender-neutral and accessible for in-person work environments. Additionally, it's important to have dress codes that avoid gender stereotypes or restrict someone's gender expression. If a uniform is required for work, it should remain gender neutral.
4. Examine your hiring practices
Having a staff that reflects the diversity of human experience is beneficial for company performance and creates a sense of belonging for LGBTQ2S+ individuals. In addition to having diverse hiring practices and a statement that lets people know, “We are looking for people reflective of you,” Marie emphasizes the importance of hiring diverse people into leadership in addition to entry-level roles. “If you look at your leadership team and they’re not reflective of the diversity you’re hiring for at entry-level positions, work to change that.”
If you’re hiring for a position and no one is applying from specific communities, they add, that might mean you don’t have connections to those communities. Marie asks: What causes could you get involved with, or accessible education opportunities could you create to change that?
In office environments where professionalism in dress is needed, codes should be written in gender-neutral terms.
5. Educate yourself
Try not to lean exclusively on your LGBTQ2S+ peers for knowledge; a labour Marie notes can be emotionally burdensome and retraumatizing—and should be paid. Do your part by learning more about what issues affect the LGBTQ2S+ community and about topics like the importance of using gender-appropriate pronouns before asking questions. If LGBTQ2S+ peers show leadership on these issues in the workplace, listen and stay open: “Everyone benefits when people are willing to admit gaps in their knowledge and learn from others.”
6. Offer inclusive benefits programs
Providing comprehensive and inclusive health benefits programs is a great way to support the well-being of your LGBTQ2S+ staff. In addition to increasing coverage for life-saving surgeries or drugs, Marie suggests ensuring you have sick leave, caretaker leave, and definitions of family and partner that “capture the breadth of what a family can be for someone.” Offering better access to mental health services is another important part of improving the well-being of all employees.
7. Start conversations and take initiative
One great way to encourage allyship is by starting a conversation. If you hear or see something homophobic or transphobic in the workplace, use that as a teachable moment or an opportunity to nudge your workplace towards improving education around this topic.
“Often marginalized staff do additional, frequently unpaid labour to improve circumstances for themselves and other marginalized people by auditing company materials, sitting on committees, organizing or facilitating training, and identifying needed changes,” says Marie. “Be accountable to taking on this labour too, while also emphasizing the importance of marginalized people being compensated well for this additional work.” Encourage your employer to hire diversity and inclusion experts with lived experience and be ready to receive leadership from LGBTQ2S+ peers.
8. State policies clearly
In addition, for employers, it's essential to have very clear anti-discrimination policies in writing. Anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies should have specific language that reflects sexual orientation, identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination. This sets the tone and expectations for behaviours in the work culture.
Building inclusive workplaces can be a messy and sometimes awkward, and non-linear process. Try to be kind and patient with each other throughout this ongoing learning, consult specialists when needed and remember your motivation: to create healthy workplaces and healthy lives for all.
Disclaimer: This article contains guidelines or advice not intended to self-diagnose or treat. No content should be used as a substitute for direct advice from a qualified professional such as your doctor or mental health professional. Please reach out for support from a certified professional related to the symptoms you may be experiencing.
If you are in crisis and require immediate support, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Alternately, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 (24/7). For residents of Québec, call 1 866 APPELLE (1 866 277-3553).