Going beyond LinkedIn pronouns to achieve LGBT+ inclusion

Miller explains how leadership and language training are crucial building blocks to LGBT+ inclusion

Sheryl Miller, a serial entrepreneur, business coach, and diversity and inclusion activist, explains how LinkedIn pronouns aren’t enough to make LGBT+ employees feel included.

“What’s with the pronouns on Linkedin profiles?” 

D&I leads, HR teams, and socially aware colleagues will have likely been asked this countless times as provisions are made for the appropriate salutation that reflects the diversity of modern identities.

The pronoun ‘owner’ then explains that if we all started including what we’d like to be referred to in our bios and beyond, it is easier for trans and non-binary people to do the same without sticking out like a sore thumb. 

And with that, you’ve had your first ‘lesson’ in LGBT+ inclusion. Box ticked. Except it doesn’t start, or stop there.

The experience of many LGBTQ+ people is one of ‘coming out’ at college or university, only to retreat into the closet once they reach a hostile, unaccepting workplace.

According to Stonewall’s 2018 report on being LGBT+ in Britain, more than a third of LGBT+ staff (35%) have hidden that they were LGBT+ at work for fear of discrimination. And in the 2013 Uncovering Talent research by Deloitte, 83% of LGBT+ people reported ‘covering’ or hiding elements of their identity at work.

Both reports carry a consistent message. The reason people who are LGBT+ feel so uncomfortable at work is because of the overt and covert trans/homophobia expressed mainly through ‘harmless’ banter, offensive remarks, inappropriate jokes, and intrusive questions. In some cases, there is even physical abuse and sexual harassment.

Everything from the all too common “that’s so gay!” to the “are they or aren’t they gay?” debates concerning the latest celebrity fodder, and whose ‘gaydar’ is most accurate, needs to be confronted head-on.

So it’s going to take more than a new pronoun field on LinkedIn to address the pervasive issue of workplaces that are not LGBT+ friendly.

Leadership training

The saying ‘the fish rots from the head’ is there for a reason. Leaders and managers need to understand the magnitude of the challenge and the potential missed opportunity to unlock talent. If the organisation represents society at large, then roughly 1 in 12 people will be LGBT+.

Specific training around the prevalence of trans/homophobia, use of language, and how to deal with workplace bullying are vital for leaders to walk the talk and set the tone from the top. It is only by allowing everyone to fully be themselves at work that they will deliver their best performance.

Inclusive ‘D&I’ policies

The past 12 months have led to a greater focus on racial equality. While this is no bad thing, there is a risk that other marginalised groups get left behind. The needs and challenges of different groups differ and need to be adequately addressed by a comprehensive ED&I policy.

Specific to LGBT+, policies should ensure they address the rights of LGBT+ individuals as well as cisgender and hetero couples. Diversity and Inclusion advocates and staff representatives can be used as sounding boards and contributors to ensure policies are inclusive.

Language awareness

Tackling everyday language is critical to creating an inclusive workplace, especially for LGBT+ colleagues. Using terms like ‘partner’ or ‘significant other’ rather than husbands or wives is a simple place to start. To address the specific issue of trans/homophobic language, a campaign to educate individuals at all levels of the organisation is necessary.

Creating space for people to learn why certain words, terms, and phrases are offensive is important. This can be delivered through newsletters, but even better is face-to-face in team meetings, dedicated training sessions, or videos.

A ‘speak up’ campaign

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of verbal discrimination, such as a racial or sexist slur, you’ll know that finding a witty or suitably cutting riposte doesn’t come easy. You spend days and weeks replaying it and going over what you wished you had said. The adage: “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander” is rather apt. There is something very reassuring about others standing up for you when you have been wronged. It makes you feel like you’re not alone. To embed a culture of allyship, colleagues should be encouraged to speak up without fear of reproach. It needs to become the norm, ‘the way things are done around here’.

Relax the dress code

In the Deloitte study, LGBT+ individuals stated that they would adapt their clothing not to dress ‘too gay’. Even though I was once wedded to shirts and cufflinks, I now firmly believe that formal ‘office’ attire, e.g. a suit and tie, has pretty much had its day and will soon be relegated to weddings (or civil partnerships), christenings, and other significant life, or death, events.

Where uniforms are not required, and colleagues are not client-facing, there may be opportunities to abandon dress codes altogether. The fewer the restrictions on dress, the more employees get the message that they can be themselves. This would also make it easier for those who are transitioning genders or who identify as non-binary.

Walk a mile in their shoes

Since leaving corporate I have become attached to my own ‘uniform’ – black T-shirt and black jeans, the T-shirts often adorned with a pithy slogan about equal rights. With Pride month here and a few speaking gigs to deliver, I decided to add a cool rainbow T-shirt to my collection.

On the first day I donned the said T-shirt for a meeting and knew that I would be travelling by train, I thought for a split second: suppose people think I’m gay? The question surprised me, and I immediately thought, ‘so what!’ But the fact that it even crossed my mind made me question the unconscious biases I held, even though I’ve always thought of myself as an LGBT+ advocate, which included me walking away from a fairly high-profile project several years ago due to not-so-subtle displays of homophobia by the leader.

This surely is the ultimate test, isn’t it? How would we want the workplace to feel if we were a part of that group? Thinking about that long and hard might just get us to truly empathise and change our behaviour. If you’re struggling to imagine it, go buy the T-shirt.


Sheryl Miller is an award-winning serial entrepreneur, business coach, and author of Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only _ In The Room.

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