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Reflections on LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Corporate America

For Pride Month 2021, Enspira interviewed two pioneers in the LGBTQ+ business community who continue to inspire change.

As we look back on 2021 Pride Month, Enspira interviewed two pioneers in the LGBTQ+ business community: Beck Bailey, a managing director of Inclusion & Diversity at Accenture, and Kurt Landon, founder and CEO of Enspira HR, a boutique HR consulting firm that was recently certified as an LGBTQ Business Enterprise™ by the National LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce. Bailey has spent over 20+ years in corporate, non-profit, and entrepreneurial roles across various industries, and is an openly transgender man. Before founding Enspira, Landon, who is openly gay, spent 26+ years as an executive and entrepreneur in senior business and HR leadership roles spanning various industries and geographies.

Over the past several decades, the LGBTQ+ community has made tremendous strides in fighting for equality and acceptance. Nearly 6% of US adults now identify as LGBTQ+, the highest percentage on record.

While the general public has demonstrated a growing appetite for equality, some social domains--such as corporate and political entities--still lag behind: 36% of all LGBTQ+ people reported workplace discrimination in the US, and 46% reported being closeted at work. However, positive change is afoot. Most LGBTQ+ people navigate a delicate path around disclosure, and more companies are taking a newly invigorated approach to their diversity and inclusion efforts to promote impactful, lasting change.

As recently as the 1990s, the topic of LGBTQ+ wasn't even on the agenda for most HR professionals. Beck Bailey began his career working for Fortune 500 companies in manufacturing plants, entering the workforce when LGBTQ+ inclusion was tenuous, to say the least.

"I started as a young woman who identified as a lesbian; I could not be publicly out," Bailey recalls. "At that time, people were being unapologetically fired if they came out or were outed." There was a lingering fear of being exposed; while many found refuge in LGBTQ+-friendly spaces, they lived with the reality of potentially losing their jobs, or worse.

In 1995, during the early days of Kurt Landon's career in St. Louis, he chose not to come out to his colleagues, as he "didn't feel like it was safe or an inclusive environment." Even after he relocated to Atlanta--a more progressive environment at the time--and came out to his colleagues, "leaders would say, 'Kurt, I don't see you as gay; I see you as any other consultant,’ which came across as negative," he remembers. "They didn't appreciate the differences that I brought to the table. They couldn’t see me as both a consultant and as a gay man, and as result, minimized my identity. They didn’t and couldn’t see me as a whole person.”

There was very little focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in corporate America, and its scope was limited primarily to race and gender. As time went on, HR leaders broadened the conversation and brought LGBTQ+ matters to the forefront. By the early 2000s, Landon began to see a shift in how companies approached diversity among their employees.

"As time went on, the advent of how we handled individual differences--i.e., looking past them and not addressing uniqueness--changed," Landon said. "By 2002, thought leadership shifted. Because you are gay, there's something that shaped you that brings differences to your approach and perspectives that is valuable. My own unique experiences, for example, contribute to my leadership, and I’m proud of that. As a marginalized or oppressed person, you must work harder to establish credibility, and as an outsider, you gain a keen perspective around belonging and inclusion.”

Some companies celebrate these differences better than others--and it often depends on leadership. More than once, Landon felt a lack of inclusion and belonging from management, which drove him to leave and seek an environment that felt safe, respectful and more aligned with his values. "A job search for an LGBTQ+ individual is harder and scarier," Landon said. "You have to assess so many different things to make sure you're in an environment where you can work safely. How do you assess that from the outside?"

There are several ways for candidates to assess the inclusivity of a company's work environment. It’s on the candidate to do their own due diligence by researching the organization’s DEIB policies and identifying its ERG groups--but that’s not always enough to gather a holistic impression of the company culture. One of the most effective tools, as Landon cites, is Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Corporate Equality Index (CEI).

Landon and Bailey both dedicated parts of their careers to making the workplace a more welcoming and hospitable environment for LGBTQ+ individuals through their work as members of the HRC Business Advisory Council, representing industry sectors to influence company policy in line with LGBTQ+ inclusive legislation. HRC “opened the door to evaluate corporate equality for workplace benefits and policies,” Bailey said. “The introduction of the CEI score provides a monitoring and grading system for gender identity and sexual orientation protections.” Legal protections and fair benefits for workers and their partners set the foundation for LGBTQ+ inclusion. “Same-sex marriage benefits and gender inclusive healthcare are more recent important additions to the experience of basic fairness,” Bailey added. “Before we get to inclusion, we must promote basic fairness.”

While there has been incredible progress in regard to policy, practice and protections for LGBTQ+ employees, today just 71% of Fortune 500 companies offer transgender-inclusive benefits (LGBTQ+ Workers). As it relates to the dynamics of power and privilege, Bailey believes that “we are still in a troubling position regarding identities, privileges, and career power. If you are college-educated, white, cis or gay, you are still probably better off than high school educated trans, black, minority individuals.” National policy is a primary catalyst for workplace diversity, and there’s much more that can be done.

Within the United States, more than 30% of LGBTQ+ Americans and 60% of transgender Americans were subject to some form of discrimination in the past year. Discrimination adversely affects the mental and economic well-being of many LGBTQ+ Americans, including more than 50% who report moderate or significant negative psychological impacts (Center for American Progress).

There are currently 22 states with laws that explicitly prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (LGBTQ+ Workers). Last summer, the US Supreme Court determined that LGBTQ+ people were protected from employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Just recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released comprehensive guidance for employers on implementing Bostock. “In the US, we still have significant space to improve,” says Bailey. “Other rights and protections such as housing discrimination and equal access to credit, for example, vary on a state-by-state basis.” However, while basic rights and protections serve as powerful milestones for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace, neither legislation or culture change overnight. It’s the company’s responsibility to push for change within its own walls and in the communities where they do business.

“Companies need to stay engaged in the dialogue and use their influence to make the world a better place,” Bailey added. This begins by building allyship, creating the space for education, and improving the sense of belonging on a professional and personal level. Leaders like Landon and Bailey understand that to be truly inclusive, “we must push beyond establishing basic rights and celebrate the unique perspectives that LGBTQ+ employees bring to the table.”

The tremendous adversity that LGBTQ+ workers face in America instills a tenacity to work harder, Landon believes. "It requires innate/cultivated attributes around self-confidence, resilience, and challenging the status quo." They’re often “overachievers'' and offer diverse perspectives, which are incredibly valuable assets to any organization. It’s each organization’s own prerogative, however, to recognize and value the benefits that LGBTQ+ employees provide.

“Even if your organization feels progressive, you can’t miss the steps of aligning philosophically to create a safe place for conversation and tie facts and resources to the strength of diversified teams,” Landon said. Enspira’s methodology, for example, is built on listening and philosophically aligning viewpoints on inclusive policies and practices.

“No company has it perfect; we all have plenty of work to do. My partner and I say, ‘At the end of the day, everyone knows what’s up.’ You know when your company has true commitment and is taking the action to make change,” Bailey said. “Companies should not put up the pride logo if they aren’t supporting the LGBTQ+ community and living the values. The people who work there know what’s happening.” It’s not just about being an ally; it’s about taking the stand to be an agent of change.

Ultimately, it’s a collective effort. “We need everyone to feel a sense of action,” Bailey added. “If you feel uninformed, take a step to learn more. If you feel uncomfortable and you don't know what to do, reach out to someone who can help you process and make a plan.” The tide of change will persevere with the right intentions and a commitment to inclusion, and the responsibility lies with every single one of us.

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