Date posted: 31/05/2024 5 min read

Beyond the rainbow flag: how to truly support LGBTIQA+ employees

Creating an inclusive workplace for LGBTIQA+ employees takes more than just words and morning teas.

Quick take

  • Setting up a pride network can be a great way to start to engage all employees to develop and implement initiatives that will benefit the whole business.
  • Look to the experts for a range of free and paid resources services to assist employers with all aspects of LGBTIQA+ inclusion.
  • Doing an audit of existing policies will help you see how you can change them to be more inclusive.

In many workplaces, rainbow flags fly and cupcakes are served at morning teas to celebrate Wear It Purple Day, IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia) day, or June’s Pride Month. Organisations enthusiastically promote they are inclusive and supportive of their LGBTIQA+ employees and then, once the attention moves onto the next issue, the conversation stops.

For many LGBTIQA+ people these types of gestures are welcomed as a sign of support and inclusion, but there is a danger that it can be seen as tokenistic. What happens once those flags are folded up and the cupcakes disappear? How can an organisation show they are committed to making sure all employees feel safe to be themselves at work and go beyond a vision statement?

There are many ways to do it, but putting words into action goes beyond holding a morning tea, says Ro Allen, former Victorian Commissioner for LGBTIQA+ Communities and currently the state’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner.

“I've seen this so many times, people fly the flags and they do the cupcakes and then they just expect everybody to feel safe and supported and to come out in their organisation,” Allen says. “They’re really surprised when people don’t, but don’t forget that some older LGBTIQA+ people have faced discrimination all their life and a couple of rounds of cupcakes isn’t going to make them feel supported. You need to be consistent, visible and vocal.”

First steps to inclusion

Setting up a pride network can be a great way to start to engage all employees and provide both LGBTIQA+ and allies with the opportunity to develop and implement initiatives that will benefit the whole business.

According to results of the CA ANZ Inclusion and Diversity Survey 2023, facilitating member ally networking communities for members to connect was the single most important diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) support mechanism ranked by LGBTIQA+ respondents (despite the broader respondent pool prioritising actions like continuing professional development, practical tools and research).

Sometimes not knowing where to start is the biggest obstacle. The way out of that is to seek expert help. For example, employee support programs such as the not-for-profit Pride in Diversity and ACON’s Pride Inclusion Programs offer a range of free and paid resources and services to assist employers with all aspects of LGBTIQA+ inclusion.

“Places like ACON give you an audit tool to help you go through your policies and look at the language. Does family leave include all types of families? Does parental leave include same-sex parents? Often the policies will be old and need to be audited with an LGBTIQA+ lens,” Allen says.

These organisations can help you do the work required to participate in the Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI) survey. This, in turn, helps you benchmark your progress annually, and see how you compare with other firms.

Staying silent helps no one

According to the Australian Workplace Equality Index, discrimination and harassment against LGBTIQA+ people at work continues to be a significant issue. A survey of workers in 2018 in organisations active in LGBTIQA+ inclusion found a quarter had witnessed negative jokes or commentary targeting LGBTIQA+ people and a third said they did nothing in response.

A further 13% felt that their managers or team leaders would not address harassment of LGBTIQA+ people and 14% did not feel that LGBTIQA+ employees could comfortably be themselves at work, without fear of constant innuendo, jokes or commentary.

The Diversity Council reports that fewer than 32% of LGBTIQA+ Australians are out in the workplace. Additionally, McKinsey and Co reports 60% of LGBTIQA+ working professionals regularly experience microaggressions – disparaging remarks or incorrect assumptions about their personal life.

The 2023 CA ANZ survey of members found that only 50% of LGBTIQA+ identifying respondents felt emotionally and socially supported at work, the lowest among all member groups meeting the sample size threshold – including across genders, sectors, career stages and among other diverse member communities.

So, when an organisation remains silent about a topic like LGBTIQA+ rights, under the misapprehension that it is not their place to make comments on a cultural discussion, the impact can be significant.

Hayley Angell, CA ANZ's senior manager – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and founded CA ANZ’s internal staff rainbow and allies network while in a previous role. The experience of organisations staying quiet has occurred throughout her career, causing her to raise it on occasion with senior management to try and change attitudes.

“At a previous employer, I referred to my wife as my wife in conversation with a colleague and that person shushed me. In their view, there was a colleague within earshot who had a different view on the marriage equality debate that was occurring at the time,” she says.

“The organisation had taken the attitude that it was not their place or not in their wheelhouse to say anything about LGBTIQA+ rights or to talk explicitly about inclusion or belonging, which sent a message to the workplace that it was best not to say anything.

“Cultures of avoidance and conformity quash diverse perspectives of all kinds.”

When Angell spoke about her experience with her manager, the reaction was supportive but it fell to her to do something about it. The senior leadership team hadn’t known how to address the topic because there was no mechanism or practice of engaging with employees on inclusion matters, and they wanted to avoid being tokenistic.

“No one at the time had publicly identified and talked openly about being LGBTIQA+. They were happy I spoke about it and wanted to do something,” Angell says. But it can be a chicken-an-egg situation, she says. If there are no visibility or explicit inclusion policies or practices that let people know they are safe, then there is uncertainty for people.

“How do you create a safe environment where someone can be open about their identity? This is where real commitments to inclusion and walking the talk really matter. People may think, ‘well, hang on, am I really safe here? Am I going to be limited by people’s assumptions?’. Without a clear leadership commitment to inclusion, you just uncomfortably nod along when someone asks what your husband does for a living, do your best to navigate outdated career policies – or worse – shake off comments like ‘but you don’t even look gay’,” Angell says.

Change it from the top

Nothing will change unless leadership is on board, Allen says. “It’s time to go beyond tokenism and put it into senior leaders’ key performance indicators if you want to see change. Make sure they’re engaged in their pride networks and that the whole organisation can see what the changes are.

“Leaders must walk the talk and be really committed to inclusion. If you’re the CEO, you can get up and welcome ‘ladies and gentlemen’, or you can get up and welcome ‘everybody’ to the event today, which includes your non-binary folks.

“It’s these types of small things that mean a lot to people. Be consistent in acknowledging people, so they feel seen,” Allen says.

Beth Te Wiata Vale, senior policy advocate at CA ANZ in New Zealand and co-chair of CA ANZ’s employee rainbow and allies network, says the use of language is a powerful tool and, if it’s used well by leaders in any business, it can change behaviour.

“One of the most successful ways I’ve seen it done is to have a sponsor in senior leadership, so that person can then promote and progress rainbow initiatives through the whole organisation.

“It comes back to that whole idea of you can’t be what you can’t see. So, if you are a young person looking to pursue a career and you look up and you can’t see anyone who looks like you, then you have to navigate that by yourself, which can be very difficult,” Te Wiata Vale says.

Expanding the network into the broader community could also help firms of any size connect and learn from each other, she says.

“I’d like to see how different accounting networks could share our work in this space. We could talk about challenges and opportunities, and we could learn from each other.

“We are all at different stages and everybody has different policies. It would be great to get everybody on board together.”

LGBTIQA+ explained

CA ANZ uses the term LGBTIQA+ to refer to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and/or queer/questioning. A person may have more than one LGBTIQA+ attribute (for example, transgender and gay) and, for some people, sexual orientation and gender identity may not be fixed.

What to look for in your firm’s policies

Want to make some concrete changes to make your company policies more inclusive? Here are some terms to update today.

  • Policies that state she/her or he/him when referring to employees. This language can easily be altered to they/them and refer to individuals as people.
  • Carer policies that outline maternity and paternity leave. Change this language to parental or caregiver leave.
  • Ensure forms and internal systems have an option for non-binary people. Avoid using the term ‘other’. Instead, use non-binary/gender diverse and/or give people a free text box to self-describe and an option that says ‘prefer not to say’.
  • Ensure any harassment or discrimination policies specifically call out gender identity as a protected attribute.
  • Develop a gender affirmation/transition policy and a procedure that explains how you’ll support your gender-diverse and trans employees. Ensure that staff are familiar with what to do when another team member shares that they’re going to affirm their gender.

Pride in the profession

CA Pride is a new initiative which will support LGBTIQA+ identifying chartered accountants, allies and employers with tools, resources and connections. Members interested in forming the CA Pride committee can express their interest by emailing: [email protected]

Take away

How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive

What do effective LGBTIQA+ policies look like in the workplace? Read this ebook.

Read more