How can organisations navigate sensitive areas of equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) work?

Posted in: activism, CSR, Equality, Leadership, Wellbeing

Dr Luke Fletcher and the University of Portsmouth’s Dr Rosa Marvell recently collaborated with the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people Development, to produce a set of guidelines on transgender and non-binary inclusion. Here, they share insights from their work on LGBTQ+ workplace inclusion.

We all have a right to work in a safe environment, free from dangers and degrading treatment. However, 13 years on from the introduction of the Equality Act (2010), LGBTQ+ employees continue to face high levels of workplace conflict and harassment. Of particular concern is the impact on transgender and non-binary people more specifically through transphobia, prejudice and/or a lack of understanding about gender identity. Compared to both heterosexual, cisgender employees and the broader LGB+ community, transgender and non-binary people are most likely to experience poor treatment during the course of their employment.

In fact, recent research from the TUC has illustrated that “expectations are so low that employers who are supportive of trans and non-binary staff are seen as examples of exceptional practice, rather than […] fulfilling their basic equalities requirements as employers”.

However, in our own work on LGBTQ+ inclusion research for much of the past decade, we have felt a temperamental shift, particularly around transgender and non-binary inclusion. Just a few years ago, we encountered fewer concerns and anxieties about negative tabloid coverage, and less reticence and sensitivity around these topics. All this means doing the necessary work to help employers and managers understand LGBTQ+ inclusive practice has got harder.

Following the recent guidance, we have begun to reflect more widely on the current polarised environment and consider the narrative about ‘rights’ being in conflict. In part, this is inspired by advice from the advocacy organisations, consultants and organisations we have worked with: be mindful, be thoughtful and avoid (over)reacting to sensationalist moral panics.

With this in mind, we suggest that a number of practical insights can be (re)considered as not just beneficial for LGBTQ+ inclusion, but for a wider range of minoritised groups and ED&I issues.

  1. Be proactive and solutions-focussed
    Organisations who are proactive in their support for LGBTQ+ people – for example, thinking about how to support a gender transition before the need presents – are likely to be in a far better position to act inclusively. These sensibilities can shape a whole organisational climate when it comes to ED&I, creating a more strategic culture where issues are considered in advance, leading to better decision-making, and obstacles are not immediately perceived as insurmountable.
  2. Equip staff for challenging conversations
    Whilst a zero-tolerance approach has its place, sometimes a private conversation or more collaborative approach can be powerful. Equipping relevant staff to know what homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are and how to confidently respond could make a significant difference. The competencies required here can transfer to other contexts, such as interrupting sexist or xenophobic behaviour.
  3. Normalise sharing pronouns
    No one should be forced to share their pronouns, as there are legitimate reasons why it may feel uncomfortable or inappropriate. However, making them a normal part of work allows everyone to be referred to correctly and prevent employees from being misgendered – including international colleagues and those with less traditionally gendered names.
  4. Translate policies into action
    Having an LGBTQ+ inclusion policy is a great first step, but policies only count if they are implemented. Organisations also need a strategy for how these will be embedded, such as through training. Mapping out ED&I pathways and sharing good practice can help to improve across a wide range of areas, from menopause to neurodivergence.
  5. Properly activate grievance and fairness at work policies
    LGBTQ+ employees may have notable (and not unwarranted) mistrust of organisational complaints procedures based on previous experiences. Properly following procedures in a timely manner, rather than paying lip service, could go some way to restoring this trust, as well as benefiting the wider workforce.
  6. Think imaginatively about what a leader looks like
    There is still a lack of diversity in leadership in many organisations, with implications for both ED&I and innovative thinking. By challenging this orthodoxy, organisations can capitalise on the strengths that a more diverse pool could offer. For example, transgender and non-binary candidates may have developed expertise around change management and navigating challenging conversations. Imaginative thinking should be applied across the board, such as considering how parents returning to work may have more sophisticated time-management and conflict resolution skills.
  7. Make privacy paramount
    Whenever you are dealing with a sensitive area, be respectful and treat people with dignity. We have found that some of the thornier areas, such as how to provide inclusive toilet and changing facilities, can be better dealt with when thought about from a privacy perspective. If privacy is to be upheld for every individual who accesses a particular space or utilises a particular policy then how will that be achieved? Privacy is a useful and meaningful concept to apply in more challenging areas of ED&I where there is a lack of consensus.
  8. Be evidence-based and informed
    This doesn’t mean knowing specific proportions of staff who are from specific populations or who would use certain policies or facilities, such as gender-neutral toilets. Rather, this is about really understanding the issues at play – for example consult experts, read latest research and authoritative guidance, and understand the lived experiences of those you are writing policies for.
  9. Be clear on definitions and key terms
    It is important to understand the landscape of key concepts, definitions and current terminology used in any ED&I-related space. For example, recognising that the word ‘queer’ may be empowering for some people yet may be seen as problematic by others, and that the word ‘transsexual’, whilst used in legalisation, is an outdated term that has now been replaced with ‘transgender’. When communicating with a wider audience, be clear on what language the organisation is using and help people get to grips with those in a supportive and educational manner.
  10. Be prepared for unexpected challenges and evolutions in your own thinking
    LGBTQ+ inclusion is a journey of professional and organisational development, so treat it as an opportunity for continuous learning. There will be no ‘end’ success point, but rather twists, turns and many roadblocks. Recognise that it is a tricky area to navigate at the moment, given that there are areas under threat, such as with transgender rights for gender recognition – so take time to understand the issues, yet act decisively, consistently and effectively to support the LGBTQ+ community when it matters most.


Posted in: activism, CSR, Equality, Leadership, Wellbeing


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