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May 15, 2023

How to promote LGBTQ+ allyship and action in the workplace

Celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia by creating an inclusive and safe workplace for LGBTQ+ talent.

A month ago, I watched the grand finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 15. RuPaul’s opening remarks—“Drag is not a crime”—set the tone: The finale would be a celebration of the art of drag and a protest against anti-drag and anti-trans legislation sweeping across the US.

Despite the legalization of same-sex marriage and wider acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in many countries, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments and hate crimes are still growing. Between 2019 and 2021, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments reached a five-year high in Canada, while in the UK, hate crimes based on sexual orientation doubled in four years. Over 100 bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights and culture were filed in 22 states in the US in 2023, and more than 70 countries still consider homosexuality a crime, with 12 imposing the death penalty. 

To call attention to the violence and discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ individuals, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) has been observed every May 17 since 2005 (commemorating the World Health Organization’s removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders on May 17, 1990). Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are negative attitudes and feelings that exhibit aversion, fear, hatred and/or intolerance toward LGBTQ+ individuals. These attitudes stem from prejudices, stereotypes and misconceptions that justify bias, discrimination, harassment and violence.

Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments inevitably infiltrate the workplace, where many LGBTQ+ individuals may feel unable to be themselves, making their work environment uncomfortable and unsafe. But for our societies to grow, the future of work must include and develop LGBTQ+ talent.

Doing so goes well beyond changing logos or organizing activities during Pride Month. Thankfully, it’s becoming more clear what businesses can do to start on the continuous and ongoing journey to LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Why LGBTQ+ inclusion is vital

The emotional and economic costs of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments are substantial. In a 2014 report, The World Bank found that the Indian economy was losing as much as 1.7% of its GDP due to homophobia. According to the United Nations, between half and two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth experience bullying in childhood, forcing one in three to skip or even drop out of school.

As a queer person growing up in a predominantly heterosexual world, I experienced bullying before realizing my sexual orientation. This made me internalize the idea that something was wrong with me, impacting my self-esteem, confidence, relationships and career opportunities.

Many LGBTQ+ individuals living in anti-LGBTQ+ contexts face fear, isolation, depression, self-harm and suicide, preventing them from reaching their full potential and accessing job opportunities. This results in deep emotional wounds and represents a significant loss of human potential, flight of talent and lost productivity that burdens societies.

Forty-six percent of LGBTQ+ Americans, 50% of LGBTQ+ Canadians and 35% of LGBTQ+ Britons are not comfortable being out at work. Additionally, 20% of LGBTQ+ Americans reported searching for another job because their workplace was unwelcoming. LGBTQ+ employees who face more negative day-to-day interactions related to their identity are 40% less productive and 13 times more likely to quit their job than those who experience more positive interactions. 

Three actions to take

As someone with over 17 years of professional experience, I have faced homophobic colleagues and leaders, but I have also had exceptional allies. I know that the creation of safe spaces where discrimination is not allowed, can create excellent work environments where people can use their talents to perform better and be innovative, disruptive and productive.

Allyship must be promoted, and standing up against anti-LGBTQ+ practices must occur year-round. Having more real allies is essential for creating a workplace where everyone feels included and valued.

To combat anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in the workplace and become an employer of choice for LGBTQ+ individuals, businesses can start with these three steps:

1. Create the right conditions for LGBTQ+ employees to thrive

  • Adopt policies that reject discrimination and harassment, and encourage every employee to report any violations to ensure accountability. We need our allies to know they are expected to call out inappropriate comments, jokes and/or language.

  • Provide continuous education and training to increase awareness of challenges faced by LGBTQ+ people and prevent bias in employment decisions. Intersectionality should be acknowledged to recognize that the experiences of LGBTQ+ people may differ and intersect with other aspects of their identity, and employers should provide relevant support and resources.

  • People leaders and top executives play a significant role and should lead by example and demonstrate their support with concrete actions.

  • Offer mental health support and well-being resources to help LGBTQ+ employees cope with the challenges we face and overcome negative experiences linked to growing up as an LGBTQ+ person in a predominantly anti-LGBTQ+ world.

2. Show allyship with real actions

Once the right conditions are in place, it is important to show our commitments are real, not performative, with concrete actions. Such action will be rewarded. For instance, in Costa Rica, where I used to live, Cognizant has been actively committed to LGBTQ+ inclusion, and we signed the San José Declaration in 2018. Cognizant has renewed this commitment every year since then.

Further, in the US, we received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2022 Corporate Equality Index. And in India, Cognizant was awarded “Gold” employer status by the India Workplace Equality Index 2022.

Businesses can show their commitment in many ways, including:

  • Use graphic symbols, such as LGBTQ+ flags, stickers, badges and lanyards, in both physical and digital locations.

  • Encourage employees to add their pronouns to their social media profiles, email signatures and name tags to normalize the practice of respecting gender identity and expression.

  • Have open discussions about LGBTQ+ issues in the workplace to create a safe and inclusive environment.

3. Build a sense of belonging within the community

It’s crucial to offer affinity groups open to all associates. I started an LGBTQ+ affinity group in Cognizant Argentina in 2012 and another one in Costa Rica in 2014. In 2016, we launched Cognizant's Global Embrace Affinity Group, a community for LGBTQ+ associates and allies that now has over 2,500 members worldwide.

This group provides a supportive and inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ colleagues to be their authentic selves at work and has helped create policies and guidelines that promote inclusivity in the workplace.

Businesses should also partner with LGBTQ+ organizations to support outreach initiatives and provide learning opportunities for employees to gain a deeper understanding of the unique challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community. By connecting with these communities, companies can promote positive social change and establish valuable networking opportunities for LGBTQ+ people.

Making the right choice

Like it or not, we have always been here, and we will continue to be here. In the US, 7.2% of adults identify as LGBTQ+, and almost 20% of those aged 19 to 26 identify as something other than heterosexual. We are your family, your neighbors, your colleagues. Any business that wants to be future-ready must include and develop LGBTQ+ talent.

RuPaul often urges people to “say love!” Now more than ever, we need to do more than “say” love; we need to practice it, and a way to do that is through allyship. Being LGBTQ+ is not a choice—but hate and being anti-LGBTQ+, or love and being an ally, is. What choice will you make?

Emanuel Simo
Global D&I Manager
Digitally Cognizant author Emanuel Simo

Emanuel Simo has been the Global Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Cognizant since 2020. Previously at Cognizant, he served as HR Manager in Costa Rica and worked as an IT recruiter in Argentina, where he established LGBTQ+ affinity groups.

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