Creating Queer Inclusive WorkplacesFeatured

Crafting workplace policies that are truly inclusive is a huge task and a scary one. It would be difficult to find a tech start-up that doesn’t put diversity and inclusiveness among its top priorities—but are these initiatives actually making a difference?

It’s fair to say the tech industry is on the bandwagon when it comes to embracing LGBTQIA, but it’s very easy for that wagon to veer off-course, even when it’s fueled by the best of intentions.

I’ll start by saying this isn’t meant to be a fix-all post. I’m a 35-year-old queer white tech professional who stalls every time a job application offers too few or too many pronouns to select. Am I woman? Am I genderqueer? Am I a bit of both? Does it matter in a job application, and what does it mean when and if I actually get the job?

I’m writing from my personal experience, and I hope to offer some actionable points of change for those with the power to enact it. Identity in the workplace is complex and varies by individual, so there aren’t any “right answers” here—just one techie’s opinion.

Sometimes I reference specifically queer perspectives, while other times I write more broadly about staff that fall outside of majority demographics. I want to note that the intersection of race, sexuality, age, and much more has differential impacts and are not accounted for in this piece.

If you’re someone in a position to promote queer-inclusive policies in your work organization, here are some thought points to consider:

1. How to avoid the DEI flop.

This is not a knock on DEI groups at work. Quite the opposite. But when considering whether to start or expand existing DEI-focused efforts, it’s important to accept that these initiatives often require the most work out of those they’re meant to empower.

The pandemic brought an explosion of interest in making actionable changes. At the time, C-Suites wanted to create organizational momentum. They wanted to donate and volunteer and ensure diverse hiring practices and they wanted to do it for the entire company.

For free.

Time was of the essence—seemingly every business was taking a stance. Easy knowledge and quick action was required, and the fastest route to knowledge was those with real experience of adversity in the workplace. DEI groups were formed fast, and guess who they attracted?

Diverse staff members were motivated to speak up and help, but in a workplace situation, you can imagine that choreographing a company-wide volunteer day or donation campaign might actually take more time than a 30-minute Zoom conference, on top of doing your full-time job, for no extra cash.

Following this period was the crash-and-burn of the DEI initiative. Staff members already facing real adversity at work, every day, quickly burned out juggling two full-time jobs: their regular job, and the job of proving a company that didn’t provide budget for organizational DEI actually cared about DEI.

This is all to say that money talks. Allocating a budget to your DEI groups is absolutely necessary to ensure you’re not creating more harm for employees by asking them to prop up a DEI initiative without any legs to stand on.

Budgets allow for the employment of a DEI consultant, or the ability to pay staff more to provide labor around DEI initiatives, or provide the funds for group meals, hosting speakers, and creating useful DEI campaigns for peers. Ultimately, putting money on the table creates space in your organization for real change to occur. It sends the message to employees participating in these initiatives that the organization values them.

What I find most interesting having worked in the start-up space is the month of June. Pride Month. Companies unveil rainbow logos (there’s a cost associated with this), and hand out rainbow t-shirts (yep, more budget), but internally I have yet to see any effort by the companies I’ve worked at to highlight the history of Pride month or why queer diversity in the workplace matters.

By now, I imagine people know what the rainbow stands for, but the cynical side of me thinks employees are probably happier to have the free swag. Here’s my question: why are companies spending money on rainbows while failing to provide budget for queer employees to gather and host events?

If this sounds like your company, consider dropping the rainbow and rerouting budget to a DEI initiative.

2. How to drop hollow “come together as a team” policies and achieve real employee engagement.

Writing this goes against all “down for the cause” operational policies start-ups place front and center on their website. If you’re not familiar, Anna Wiener talked about “down for the cause” in her memoir about Silicon Valley, Uncanny Valley. It’s the popularized start-up ethos of working at full throttle regardless of self-care or moral compass to drive company success. And to do that, everyone must participate.

Forced participation is the least diverse initiative I’ve ever encountered. Company retreats become an all-in booze and drug-fest where your unwillingness to mix partying hard with work becomes part of your performance review.

This is not to say that employees shouldn’t be encouraged to participate in off-site events, but if you’re looking to create a safe off-site event and ensure continued employee engagement from all staff, here are some points:

Alcohol and drugs create an unsafe environment automatically. Employees consuming these substances are impaired, sometimes severely, and are much more likely to speak inappropriately or commit inappropriate acts, including violent behavior.

Did you know that LGBTQ individuals are four times more likely to have experienced some form of violence in their lifetimes compared to a non-LGBTQ individual? Experiencing any form of violence increases the chance someone will also have post-traumatic stress disorder, including symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Now imagine a scenario where an employee is forced to participate in an event where alcohol (and possibly drugs) are limitless and even encouraged. They are more likely to experience harassment in these environments, and they are also more likely to be triggered by these environments.

If you must have work events where alcohol is served, allow employees to opt out without question, and ensure that this opt-out is not seen as a reflection of their work performance. A person making an individual choice about where they’re going to be comfortable is not a sign of employee disengagement, it’s a responsible choice, and it ensures that your staff know you put their health and safety first.

Some additional ways to curb potential harm is to limit alcohol consumption, and ensure your company has clear anti-harassment policies that are used in the event of an incident.

I highlight this last part, because all companies have anti-harassment policies in their handbooks, but that doesn’t mean they use them. It shouldn’t matter if a staff member has been with the company ten years or one day. If a report of harassment is made, companies must ensure appropriate action is taken. This reduces harm to all employees in the long-term, reinforces responsible conduct by employees, and it also signals to all vulnerable employees that they are safe at work and can report incidents.

There is no easier way to reduce the engagement of your queer staff than by doing nothing in the face of harassment.

Some additional points to drive engagement:

Employ assigned seating. No, we’re not in middle school anymore, but if you’re trying to promote diversity, there’s real power in breaking up homogenous cliques (here’s looking at you tech bros) and ensuring staff meet a diverse cohort and engage. The damage caused by one inappropriate individual in a diverse group is easier to combat compared to an entire group dominating one diverse individual.

Also consider round-table styles of meetings where every employee is provided time to speak. This prevents one individual from dominating the conversation. Similar to allocating budget to DEI groups, allocating time for employees to provide their input shows them that the company values everyone’s perspective.

As a last point, location also matters for your team get-togethers. Remember that not all states in the U.S. are queer friendly. Anti-trans bills are rampant and only accelerating, including passage of bills like “Don’t Say Gay” in Florida. Any state where lawmakers are crafting these bills very much equates to the message of “you’re not welcome here”.

Remember that allocating company dollars to states that actively support queer discrimination signals to your staff that the company is not concerned about queer employees encountering hostility while attending an off-site. If your company is already located in a state with these laws on the books, the best way to counteract them is to donate to LGBTQIA charities and ensure you signal your support for queer employees regardless.

3. Pronouns in the workplace.

We’ve all seen it. A company-wide Zoom has started, maybe 60 to 70 people for a Stage-B organization—and about 1% of those profiles have pronouns next to their name.

I love pronouns, and I love it when people have it in their profiles. But I’ll be honest: I don’t use pronouns in mine because I’m terrified.

The rise of pronoun usage is a fascinating new social element, and I’d wager a fair amount of people in the start-up space know the major three: he/him, she/her, they/them. Statistically speaking (for now), most people will fall into he/him and she/her. So, guess what happens when 1% of your 60-70 people organization use binary pronouns and only one person in that 1% is a they/them?

They stick out like a sore thumb. Everyone notices. Everyone wonders what it means. Whispers abound…or, at least, that’s what it might feel like if you’re genderqueer or non-binary.

The truth is, I didn’t fully understand the diversity of pronouns until about a year ago, and I still don’t totally know what I want people to call me.

Why am I so terrified to use my pronouns in a profile? Because I’ve yet to see any company handbook that actually talks about pronoun usage in the workplace. Here are some starting questions:

What are pronouns?

Where and when should you use them as an employee?

How should you approach them in relation to your peers?

Answering these questions for your company is a great jump-off point to promoting inclusion. I don’t currently use pronouns in my work profiles because I have no clue how any other staff member would interpret them, or if they’d even notice.

For example, I currently go by she/they, which denotes that I’m genderqueer but I’m okay being called she/her, and I actually love being referred to as “they” when someone takes the initiative. This may shift as I become more comfortable in a genderqueer identity, or it may stay this way forever. But having two pronouns seems complicated, even to me!

There is plenty of room for organizations to remove some of the complexity around what this all means by providing documentation and knowledge sharing.

Here’s a quick primer: pronouns are way more complex than the three I listed above:

Did you know that people can change pronouns from day to day?

Did you know that people, like me, have combinations of pronouns like she/they or they/he?

Did you know some people use entirely different sets of pronouns?

A simple and easy-to-implement policy could be informing staff members of variations in pronouns and asking individuals who feel comfortable to mark their preferred pronoun set in their profiles. Employees should be encouraged to check pronouns before referencing a peer. If a pronoun has changed, or an employee feels confused about what to use, they can consult the handbook or ask HR for assistance.

I’ve made the point before that allocation of resources, in this case providing documentation, goes a long way to signaling to every employee that their identity matters—even if it changes.

Now, let’s walk through a typical hiring and work process for a non-gender-conforming individual:

When applying for jobs, I’ve seen it all. In New York State, some applications only have the state-mandated diversity data points: are you male, female, or “prefer not to answer”?

Other companies have their own customized gender questions that are diverse: he/him, she/her, they/them…or really diverse: an expansive list of pronouns with the ability to enter your own preferences in a text field.

I love open text fields.

When applying for a job, you muddle through as best you can. Maybe you’ve been able to write your life struggles with gender in an open text field, or maybe you just put “prefer not to answer” with a few “female” answers thrown in there for good measure because you’re exhausted trying to explain yourself.

Once you get the job, you never know what you’ll find. HR portals are as diverse as pronoun usage on job applications. Sometimes you can custom-enter your pronouns, while some portals only follow the binary male or female. Have a check if your current HR portal doesn’t allow for gender diversity. Since logging in to the portal is often a first step in onboarding, it’s important for a company that cares about queer inclusion to ensure employees can select or type in what they wish.

Here’s the weird catch: even when an organization allows for employees to self-select their gender identity, without any additional documentation around how this data might be used in practice, non-conforming employees are self-selecting in the dark.

For example, in one of my prior jobs, I input “genderqueer” on the company’s HR portal. It’s an affirming practice, and I felt confident that no one would see it. No one at the company used pronouns, and I never discussed my gender identity at work, nor did I feel the need to. However, when a new monthly review of gender diversity at the company was instituted, suddenly a metric displayed that the company was 60% male, 39% female, and 1% non-binary.

I knew I was the 1%, and I felt weirdly outed.

This is to say that your organization needs to meet employees half-way when it comes to their identity. Make it clear how the organization plans to handle pronoun usage, what knowledge they expect their staff members to have, and how staff members should approach gender diversity in the workplace.

Also be aware that some employees may in fact have a sexuality and gender identity that they don’t want to make public at work, and that self-selection on an HR portal does not automatically mean this data is a talking point for the entire company.

There’s a lot more I could say about being queer at work, but I’m hopeful these three talking-points have inspired you to make some small but impactful changes today. To summarize:

Review your company’s current DEI initiatives and ensure groups have allocated budgets. This prevents employee burn-out, free labor, and causing more harm to employees already facing adverse work circumstances. And when June comes around…if you’re spending more on rainbows than your DEI groups, consider a budget reallocation.

Forcing participation in the name of group cohesion can cause harm for queer and diverse employees. Allow employees to make their own personal safety choices, and ensure that any reports of harassment are addressed. In addition, limiting the use of alcohol and avoiding states with anti-queer policies goes a long way in creating safety for queer staff members.

Finally, expanding knowledge of pronouns and how to use them at work is essential to creating inclusion. Also be sure to value personal privacy, and share data points related to identity only after confirming if individuals are comfortable sharing.

Thanks for this great, pragmatic post! This resonated with my experience of being one of the very few loud queer people in my workplace. I really wish HR folks would be more forthcoming with how demographic data get used by the company, and I wish they would take more time to think about the potential fallout of making assumptions about how social gatherings should work.