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June 14, 2024

LGBTQ+ inclusion: from silence to celebration

By elevating their ‘must-have’ supports to the ‘even better’ category, employers can ensure LGBTQ+ employees reach their full potential and that the business itself is as an employer of choice.

It’s clear that workplaces in many countries are putting effort into LGBTQ+ inclusion. In the last year, 40% of businesses assessed by the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index earned a top score, and over half in India’s Workplace Equality Index (IWEI) received a gold or silver award.

At the same time, half of LGBTQ+ adults report experiencing some form of workplace discrimination in the past year. And less than half globally feel comfortable being out with all their colleagues, according to Deloitte.

So, why should businesses care? Simply put, LGBTQ+ inclusion is essential for attracting and keeping employees. This is particularly true for the latest generation of workers, Gen Z, of whom over one-third globally identify as LGBTQ+, according to a study by myGwork, a networking hub and job board for LGBTQ+ professionals. This matters when the vast majority of LGBTQ+ professionals (83%) consider a company’s LGBTQ+ policies and initiatives when deciding where to work.

If they don’t find what they’re looking for, there’s a good chance they’d turn down a job offer—or quit. In the Deloitte study, one-third of LGBTQ+ respondents globally said they were actively looking to change employers to one that is more LGBTQ+ friendly. In certain geographic regions, like India, that jumps to three-quarters of respondents.

Who can blame them? Imagine trying to do your best work when you feel you need to erase your identity and masquerade as someone else. In my own experience, it was only when I reached the point of feeling supported and safe at work as my authentic self that I found my voice in the company and was ready to grow into my full potential.

Getting from good to great with LGBTQ+ inclusion

The fact is, there has never been more transparency into whether a company is LGBTQ+-inclusive or not. Indicators include the HRC and IWEI indices referenced above, social media reviews, the holidays the business celebrates or philanthropies it supports, and even whether pronouns are included in email signatures.

To show they’re truly LGBTQ+-inclusive, employers need to move from a “check-the-box” mentality to providing benefits, policies and supports that really matter to LGBTQ+ employees, which will help them gain the confidence and psychological safety needed to reach their full potential.

1.    Must-have: Affinity groups for LGBTQ+ employees
Even better: Affinity groups that are widely visible to the people who need them

You can have as many affinity groups or employee resource groups as you want, but if no one knows about them, what good are they? This is more of a problem than you might think, especially in large, globally distributed businesses.

Cognizant’s affinity group Embrace, for instance, is award-winning. But when I first started working here a few years ago, I wasn’t aware of it. Ultimately, I discovered Embrace by word-of-mouth through the company’s internal social media channels. The support I’ve found there has been invaluable.

Businesses can boost the visibility of their affinity groups by organizing events and engagement activities sponsored by the group. Not only does this enhance visibility, but it also creates opportunities for people to engage.

2.    Must-have: Clear support from top leaders
Even better: Team-level managers who are sensitized to LGBTQ+ needs

Senior leaders play an essential role in setting an inclusive tone, such as by hosting corporate LGBTQ+ events, sending company-wide communications regarding LGBTQ+ concerns, and forging partnerships with LGBTQ+ organizations. But such support needs to be shown at lower management levels as well, including supervisors, managers and anyone who has a team of direct reports.

From my own experience in India, sensitization training is particularly important for male leaders, who for cultural reasons may be less aware of the need for LGBTQ+ inclusion. But gaining this support from the managers and supervisors we encounter in our day-to-day work is so essential—these are they people who can serve as an inspiration, validate our experiences and show us the way, including pointing us toward affinity groups and other LGBTQ+ resources. When this support is missing in our daily work lives, it perpetuates feelings of exclusion.

3.    Must-have: Support from allies in private conversation
Even better: Allies who are actively engaged in educating others in the workplace

Allies are an essential part of LGBTQ+ inclusion. In the Deloitte study, 61% of LGBTQ+ professionals say allyship plays an important role in helping them come out, and this rises to 85% in India. In the myGwork study, 49% said that seeing more visible LGBTQ+ role models and allies would influence their decision to accept a job offer. The importance of allies is reflected in Cognizant’s theme for Pride Month this year, “Together for each other,” as well as the allyship training offered to associates.

However, there are many types of allies. Some are confidants who create a safe space for others to express their fears, frustrations and needs. Others are what could be called “sponsors,” who show support by, for instance, introducing us to others in their professional network.

But then there are the upstanders who speak up if they witness behavior or speech that is degrading or offensive. Or they actively educate others about LGBTQ+ issues and challenges. We always need more people like this—even if it’s as simple an act as wearing a rainbow lanyard.

4.    Must-have: An inclusive culture
Even better: A culture that’s so inclusive it serves as a platform for professional growth

I feel fortunate for the opportunity to work in an environment that makes me feel safe to be my authentic self. Because of the inclusive workplace environment, I’ve gained the confidence to open up to the people I work with, as well as family members and friends.

Professionally, I’ve taken on new roles, including a leadership position in the India affinity group and raising my hand when leadership asks for volunteers to work on an initiative. Others may find the confidence to open up by participating in Cognizant’s inclusion mentoring program, which matches people within affinity groups with mentors.

The next step for many organizations: ensuring LGBTQ+ professionals have opportunities to grow into senior levels of the organization—or simply hiring more of these professionals into leadership positions. Especially in certain geographies, such as India, LGBTQ+ professionals are underrepresented in business leadership.

When more LGBTQ+ professionals are in leadership positions, it will give businesses a far greater understanding of the challenges and issues we face, and the policies and workplace benefits that would truly matter. Having LGBTQ+ representation at the leadership levels sows the seed for authenticity, leading by example and having someone to look up to.

5.    Must-have: LGBTQ+ inclusive hiring policies
Even better: A focus on hiring transgender professionals

It’s essential for businesses to have employment non-discrimination policies in place regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. To go further, they should put a particular hiring focus on the transgender community.

In the US, transgender adults are twice as likely as the general population to be unemployed. In India—where transgender hiring remains disproportionately low due to familial and societal marginalization—92% of transgender adults have been denied employment even when they have the credentials for the job.

By promoting transgender hiring, businesses can provide opportunities for diverse perspectives and talents, enrich the workplace culture and drive innovation. Embracing transgender individuals not only enhances diversity but also reflects a commitment to equality and social progress.

Such inclusion was evident recently when two transgender associates shared their challenges at a company event, enlightening others and inspiring them to become better allies. Their resilience serves as a beacon of hope and motivation for transgender individuals seeking opportunities in the workplace.

6.    Must-have: Internal benefits and policies ensuring equal treatment for LGBTQ+ employees
Even better: Externally facing advocacy in the form of marketing and public support

More businesses now offer equivalent benefits for LGBTQ+ employees, such as insurance coverage for same-sex partners, family leave policies that recognize diverse family structures, and health coverage for transgender individuals without exclusion for medically necessary care. Particularly useful is when companies provide an LGBTQ+ benefits guide to employees.

Businesses should also integrate their LBGTQ+ inclusion initiatives with their corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals and make those initiatives a core project of their CSR strategy. With such intersectionality between these two groups, inclusiveness could grow exponentially.

Beyond these internal measures, businesses should show outward support by ensuring their marketing and advertising materials represent and include LGBTQ+ individuals and communities in a respectful and authentic manner. They can also publicly advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and support initiatives to promote equality and inclusion both internally and externally.

LGBTQ+ inclusion and employers of choice

In some studies, companies that embrace LGBTQ+ inclusion show a significant boost in profitability. The reason: enhanced employee morale, reduced turnover costs and access to a wider talent pool.

In today’s labor market, businesses need to stand out. LGBTQ+ inclusion is a powerful way to do just that.

Cognizant is an Equality 100 Award recipient in HRC’s Corporate Equality Index. Cognizant India is a Gold Award recipient and employee resource group (ERG) of the year in India’s Workplace Equality Index.

Vignesh K

Senior PMO, EPS Global Delivery

Vignesh K

Vignesh K is a core committee member of Cognizant's LGBTQ+ India Affinity group, a position he has held since 2022. Previously, he served as an executive in Outreach India, an employee-led volunteer program, and worked as a Programmer Analyst for US-based Insurance clients.

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