LGBTQ+ Allyship in the Workplace

Creating Room for Belonging

Remarks at the European Central Banks System — SSM

While there is no hierarchy of discrimination against marginalized communities, there is a singular specificity to the LGBTQ+ experience: early childhood experience of isolation. LGBTQ+ are the only marginalized community I have encountered, which is born outside of its own community. Dalit people in India, Batwa people in Congo or Roma people in Europe face horrendous stigmatization but they often rely on family, community, or places of worship to experience connection and develop resilience in childhood. LGBTQ+ people on the other hand learn very early on to separate from parents, teachers, and priests and even to lie to them to protect themselves.

One common mistake we make in addressing inclusion in the workplace is to assume that LGBTQ+ people lose the baggage of this earlier experience of isolation when they cross the threshold of their office or factory.

I have heard people tell me over the years — particularly in Europe — “you in the United States love to hug each other and speak about your feelings, but we are serious people doing business”. It always baffles me because professional life is almost exclusively about emotions. In fact, one could argue the entire human experience is. People work, of course, to make a living but also because they want to be appreciated, feel validated, and experience connection and belonging. Something which remains elusive for many LGBTQ+ people at work.

Similarly, when I have conversation with European companies e, Human Resources professionals tell me “we do not discriminate” pointing out to inclusive policies and/or progressive culture. And yet, over and over LGBTQ+ people report feelings of unhappiness and not being out at work. Inclusion is a question of policy and culture of course but it is also about the individual engagement of employees to reach out to those on the margins of the organization.

The Williams Institute reported last year that half (50.4%) of LGBT employees in the United States said that they are not open about being LGBT to their current supervisor and one-quarter (25.8%) are not out to any of their co-workers. And yet being out to co-workers is over and over strongly correlated to happiness and productivity for LGBTQ+ people.

In this context, allyship cannot be passive, it must be proactive. As Out Leadership wrote in a recent report on allyship titled “Ally Up”: “Allyship is authentic when it is centered on education, action and amplifying the needs and voices of the community it is aimed to support.”

I like to share my personal story in the context of the World Bank where I worked from 2002 to 2016 and eventually led the employee resource group from 2010 to 2014. When in 2002, when I joined the World Bank, I assumed my colleagues were homophobic. Particularly the tall straight guys who made the bulk of our client facing Senior Management jobs. It made be both resentful, scared, and cautious about not sending any signal about my sexual orientation. Years later, I was really surprised, when I came out visibly by becoming President to our employee resource group GLOBE that they were actually very supportive. I had assumed the worse because I had a chip on my shoulder based on my earlier experiences in life.

As LGBTQ+ people we often assume ill-intent because of prior negative experiences. And this assumption triggers mental instability through experiences such as feeling lost, shameful, or anxious — something LGBTQ+ people across the board report.

Our decision to come out or not will be based on a careful reading of the room and indeed signs of allyship. This is particularly true of Senior Management. McKinsey reported in 2019 that LGBTQ+ survey respondents were 1.6 times more likely to feel very included in the workplace if company leaders had clearly put diversity and inclusion on the strategic agenda.

But it is not only about comfort: a high percentage of employees continue to report experience of discrimination in the workplace. In the United States, a 2021 Williams Institutes survey reports that 9% of employees report experiencing discrimination in the workplace and that LGBT employees of color were more likely to report being denied jobs and verbal harassment. And in this case, allyship requires the courage to stand up for what is right and defend LGBTQ+ colleagues even when they are not in the room.

For organizations, this is not only about being nice to LGBTQ+ people, it is about fulfilling their human rights responsibilities as outlines in the UN guiding Principles on business and human rights and reiterated in the United Nations LGBTQ+ corporate standards of conduct I co-authored in 2017.

I will end by adding that organizations can also play an allyship role outside of the walls of the company by finding opportunities to stand with the LGB TQ+ community. As we discussed earlier, workplace inclusion remains a response to societal discrimination and addressing societal attitudes is addressing the root of the issue.

By leveraging your power and that of your organization to demonstrate what an environment inclusive of LGBTQ+ people can look like, you can have a tremendous impact on the lives of LGBTQ+ people globally. A perfect Segway to the theme of this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT), ‘Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Rights’.

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