Lessons Learned from Employee Research on LGBTQIA+ Workplace Inclusion

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Posted by Billy Table on Feb 16, 2023

This article is a part of AnswerLab’s Human-Centered Work Project, a hub of research-based insights and resources on redesigning work. The following insights come from research exploring policies and perspectives from LGBTQIA+ and ally employees to uncover what actions can improve workplace experiences and further cultivate an inclusive culture.

Workplaces are a site of discrimination, uncertainty, and trauma for many LGBTQIA+ people. Even for the best intentioned employers, it can be difficult to know how to actively demonstrate support through policies and actions. Many companies are meeting the bar for LGBTQIA+ inclusion. What if you don't want to just meet the bar, but exceed it? 

AnswerLab has taken steps to instill community and create inclusive policies, in part through the development of RainbowLab, the LGBTQIA+ ERG. And while we knew AnswerLab was prioritizing inclusion, we wanted to dig even deeper and go a step further to understand how to thread inclusion into the fabric of our work. We recently conducted research internally at AnswerLab to identify necessary changes and next steps, while sharing opportunities for expanding inclusive workplace practices more broadly as well. Here's what we learned:

Follow along with our LGBTQIA+ Workplace Research

How do we know if we’re succeeding when it comes to LGBTQIA+ inclusion, really? 

We knew we had to assess inclusion at the macro and micro levels - by carrying out a benchmarking assessment and speaking directly to our LGBTQIA+ employees and allies. Our research gave us concrete feedback and metrics on how we’re meeting or not meeting inclusion standards, and what we, as well as other organizations, can do to take the next step. The results have enabled us as a company to dig deep, identify opportunities, celebrate our wins, and prioritize next steps as we enter 2023. Learn more about the methods we used. 

Inclusion Wins: Steps for Building Inclusive Work Environments

Our study showed us we’re succeeding in creating internal structures for LGBTQIA+ employees to feel safe, and over time, thrive. Overall, we discovered we succeeded at most criteria for corporate inclusion, but there were some limitations in our formal policies and training that showed opportunities for improvement.

Here were a few things that stood out as wins in our research and why they matter:

  • Set company-wide goals to promote inclusion from the top

    As a company, we set Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to define our goals and hold ourselves accountable. AnswerLab’s OKRs prioritized inclusive goals on a company-wide level. They went beyond finance or strategy-focused objectives, instead measuring ERG development, prioritizing and funding internal research like this and pro-bono work, and surveying employees about their experience with inclusion and workplace environments.

  • Keep a pulse on the employee experience through surveys and check-ins

    Being an agency of researchers, our team developed an ongoing, anonymous employee survey in 2021 to measure team inclusion and satisfaction.

    Monthly “pulse checks” asked employees to reflect on their experiences with workplace inclusion, flexibility, growth and development, and more. Our team reports on these metrics and how they’re changing at our All Team Meetings, which according to our study demonstrated to employees that they were being heard and leadership was looking for opportunities to improve. 

  • Commit to and build infrastructure and funding for Employee Resource Groups

    By prioritizing ERG development and providing funding towards ERG events, AnswerLab demonstrated their intent to cultivate an accepting workplace climate. ERGs act as culture-builders that give members a voice and visibility, create a sense of community, and drive change toward a more equitable workplace. They provide both social and professional benefits to employees, and organizational benefits in attracting talent, building community, and fostering belonging. In our listening sessions, we heard that these employee-led groups offered an impactful source of support and education for many AnswerLabbers. Learn more about ERG development at AnswerLab.

Opportunities to Take the Next Step in our Inclusive Workplace 

While we’re proud of how far we’ve come and our existing work towards workplace inclusion, assumptions of goodwill are not good enough, and we identified some areas where we could do better. Here’s what we learned: 

  • Provide opportunities for employees to practice speaking up as an advocate and ally

    While annual sensitivity training is required to establish expectations for the workplace, simply checking the box on these modules is not an indicator of a welcoming environment. Our research demonstrated that employees need to practice allyship and know what actions to take to become supportive colleagues. In our listening sessions, we heard that ally employees want to do and say the right thing, but they’re not sure what those things are, and end up saying nothing in the moment.

    Organization-wide training needs to prioritize education about inclusive language use, understanding intersectionality, identifying microaggressions, and practicing allyship. Experiential peer education in smaller groups can offer deeper understanding of topics by blending inquiry-based and direct instructional ways of learning. In doing this, organizations can cultivate a culture where employees, whether LGBTQIA+ or ally, can proactively educate, intervene, and uphold anti-discriminatory policies.

  • Make sure your health insurance carriers uniformly cover transgender healthcare.

    During our internal audit, we dug into the details of our employee health insurance plans to ensure they cover same-sex partners, as well as medically necessary care for transgender individuals, including gender affirming surgery, hormone replacement therapy, mental health care, and more.

    While our health insurance plans did uniformly cover employees’ spouses and domestic partners, some plans did not cover the full range of transgender healthcare, including hormone replacement therapy. Hormone replacement therapy is a significant and very costly part of medical transition. As a result, our team recommended we switch health insurance carriers to ensure our team could access gender affirming care. We partnered with AnswerLab’s People & Culture team to make the switch during our 2022 Open Enrollment, and now our health insurance plans for all employees cover the full range of transgender healthcare. We are also working on building employee-friendly guidance and policies to help our team more easily navigate the complexities of healthcare and insurance.

  • Create inclusive policies that overtly describe who they include and protect.

    How written policies and guidance for dress code directly impacts transgender and gender-nonconforming employees. While you might think not having a dress code at all allows employees to show up however they wish, our research found it wasn’t that simple. We learned that employees wanted dress code policies to spell out that employees are welcome to dress in ways that affirm them. By lacking a dress code altogether, as was the case with AnswerLab, it creates ambiguity and confusion, and can set the tone for acceptance or discrimination.  Embarrassing or stressful situations that impact employees’ morale can be avoided with thoughtful guidance and consistency in dress code policies.

  • Develop and share guidelines on how to end harmful conversations.

    Listening sessions captured employees’ anxiety surrounding external communication. For example, LGBTQIA+ UX Researchers described feeling uneasy over what research participants might disclose during a 1:1 interview. A few experienced prejudice or anti-LGBTQIA sentiments when conducting interviews. Employees also felt conflicted about how open they should, or could, be when working with clients. Employees desired additional guidance and procedures around when they can draw the line and end a call with a disrespectful participant or client. We also recommended building in a mention of safety guidelines in introductory conversations with clients and participants to set the tone for an inclusive, safe working environment.

About the Research: How did we get here?

Now that we’ve shared the results, it’s time to dig into how we got there.

Why these research methods? 

We started with a benchmarking study to review how our organization performs against meaningful industry standards. We looked at the tools leaders in LGBTQIA+ workplace inclusion were using to assess organizations. As a result, we selected and adapted The Corporate Equality Index from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC CEI) and the Beyond Diversity Criteria (BDC) from Great Place to Work as our benchmarking standards. The HRC CEI is the foremost benchmarking tool for LGBTQIA+ workplace inclusion in the United States, and BDC comes from Great Place to Work, a global authority on building high-trust workplaces. 

Why were they both necessary? 

By using both benchmarking tools, we were able to strengthen the depth and validity of the findings. Each tool assesses complementary areas. For example, CEI includes responsible citizenship and giving practices criteria, but BD did not. BDC called out insurance needs for employees going through gender transition, but CEI did not. Both tools and their corresponding categories would help us grade AnswerLab on how thoroughly we demonstrate the following criteria: workforce protections, inclusive employee benefits, supporting and maintaining an inclusive workplace culture, and corporate social responsibility.

Benchmarking in Action

After adapting these two indexes into a scorecard with point values, we collected hundreds of pages of internal records including AnswerLab’s employee handbooks, benefits packets, training curriculum, employee survey summaries, and design and marketing standards. Our goal was to systematically review the records and look for evidence of workforce protections policies, inclusive employee benefits, support for an inclusive workplace culture, and demonstrations of corporate social responsibility.

While this method gave us a viewpoint of how we looked on paper, we also needed to talk to current employees. 

Listening Sessions in Action

We conducted internal listening sessions to add depth and context to the benchmarking findings. We spoke with 12 LGBTQIA+ identifying employees and 9 allies about their thoughts and experiences with AnswerLab’s policies, culture, and research practices. We included employees from many departments with varying levels of seniority. To build rapport and create a space in which free expression could flourish, the researchers who conducted the listening sessions identified as members of the community they were speaking with. LGBTQIA researchers led LGBTQIA+ listening sessions, and ally researchers led ally listening sessions.

We also conducted individual contributor- and manager-only ally listening sessions to encourage thoughtful feedback about management-specific topics, such as improving training materials and leadership training. Participants described many ways in which AnswerLab created and fostered an inclusive environment. We also asked their opinion on what the company could do to emphasize support for LGBTQIA+ employees. Ally participants were asked to identify LGBTQIA+ topics they wished to learn more about or receive additional training on. To conduct your own listening sessions, utilize and adapt our Focus Group Interview Guide.

What’s Next?

As a part of the next phase of the Human Centered Work Project, RainbowLab is conducting original research external to AnswerLab with LGBTQIA+ employees as a wide range of corporate workplaces. This work will further deepen our understanding of the widespread challenges and impact of inclusive (or not so inclusive) workplace policies today. As we complete the research this spring, we’ll be sharing our findings and resources for you to take back to your workplace. Subscribe to get the latest delivered to your inbox.


Take Action

  • Use a benchmark to evaluate your workplace. The Corporate Equality Index from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC CEI) and the Beyond Diversity Criteria (BDC) are great places to start to help you understand what to look for.
  • Use our Focus Group interview guide to conduct your own internal listening sessions at your company. This is a version of what we used internally with our own employees.
  • Make employee feedback about your workplace climate as much a priority as business growth in your company’s objectives and key results.
  • Use clear language in workplace policies (e.g., gender-affirming healthcare vs. inclusive healthcare, explicit dress codes).
  • Talk to your employees–you can’t know what policies could be improved if you don’t ask! Provide opportunities for LGBTQIA+ employees to voice their policy needs, whether through listening sessions like ours or anonymous pulse check surveys.

In addition to Billy and Michelle who authored this article, we'd like to acknowledge researchers Sabrina Del Moral and Eden Jackson for their contributions throughout the research for this work.

Written by

Billy Table

Billy Table (they/them) is a Senior UX Researcher at AnswerLab with over 8 years of experience leading foundational, qualitative, and mixed-methods studies. Billy has worked with both qualitative and quantitative datasets to solve important problems and make evidence-based recommendations for clients in e-commerce, privacy and identity, mobile interfaces, voice user interfaces, healthcare, and transportation and automotive tools. They also specialize in organizational evaluations, LGBTQIA+ advocacy, and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) research. They have led over 60 end-to-end projects and conducted hundreds of hours of participant interviews and focus groups. Billy holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from The University of Texas at Austin and the Journal of Applied Communication Research, Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Bisexuality, Health Communication, and The Handbook of Taboo Communication. They are also the Vice Chairperson of RainbowLab, AnswerLab’s employee-led resource group for LGBTQIA+ AnswerLabbers.

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