Engaging LGBTQIA stakeholders beyond Pride
It’s that time of year when companies around the world step out of the closet, splashing rainbow flags across advertisements meant to sell everything from mouthwash to mutual funds. On the part of businesses, perhaps it’s hoped this will be received as a gesture of inclusion: a signal that LGBTQIA¹ customers and workers are valued. Yet there’s a reason so many in the queer community are skeptical of the rainbow onslaught — at best, it’s seen as an awkward attempt to court business during Pride Month; at worst, as disingenuous ‘pridewashing’ that masks the harmful impacts that corporate interests have historically had on queer life.
After all, it’s not just June, or July, or other months where Pride is observed around the world: LGBTQIA people are a part of the global economy everyday — and feel its impacts all year long. Many in the queer community experience significant wage gaps in the workforce, an issue that is compounded for those who experience further marginalization at intersections of race, gender, disability, class, and more. As increased visibility leads, in many parts of the world, to a rise in hate-driven backlash and legislative policing — particularly targeting transgender people — LGBTQIA economic inclusion needs to go deeper than the rainbow branding.
It also needs to endure beyond Pride Month: to be incorporated holistically into the way a company values its stakeholders — starting with LGBTQIA workers. We spoke to three LGBTQIA-led B Corps in the business equity and inclusion space about why organizations should be prioritizing this work all year round. Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.
“Increased LGBTQIA visibility in the workplace creates a sense of welcome and belonging for the queer community — whether they are out or not,” says Dr. Tiffany Jana. Doc Jana is Founder and CEO of TMI Consulting, a diversity and inclusion management consultancy and B Corp, and a co-author of The B Corp Handbook.
There are many ways that leadership can signal that a workplace is welcoming to LGBTQIA employees, from everyday actions like normalizing sharing of pronouns to larger-scale commitments like codifying company policies and procedures for inclusive health and reproductive care, parental leave, shared facilities, and more.
Yet beyond establishing these norms, there’s a broader impact that comes from uplifting and celebrating the contributions of LGBTQIA workers — including having visible LGBTQIA leaders. This is central to the work of B Corp Out Leadership, a business advocacy membership company that works with CEOs and multinational companies to advance equality, economic impact, and policy change via initiatives that promote LGBTQ+ business leadership.
“We often find that people who have their own coming out experience or can relate to the experience of being different are detailed, conscious, and empathetic leaders,” says Todd Sears, Out Leadership founder & CEO. This has a positive effect on worker well-being and business both: “Employees who have the chance to show up each day as who they are and feel a sense of partnership with a company that respects them are much more productive and inclined to create value for the company.”
Of course, LGBTQIA workers are not defined by this facet of their identity alone. Considerations of LGBTQIA inclusion should be a part of — and will complement — a holistic approach to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, recognizing the ways in which race, gender, disability, and other aspects of identity impact employees’ workplace experience.
For Nancy Geenen, Principal & Chief Executive Officer of Flexability, an equity and inclusion consulting firm and B Corp, this work is rooted in professional and personal experiences.
“The executive team and current principles of Flexability all worked together at a temporary staffing agency for individuals with disabilities. So we all came to this work already with a pretty strong equity lens,” Geenen says, adding that members of this team “had lived lives that would have been even better had we been able to be out — talk about our disabilities, self-identify in whatever way we need — much earlier in our lives. When we broadened the aperture of working with more identities than just disability, we had a pretty good strategy in place.” Flexibility’s website notes that they are “women, disability, BIPOC, immigrant, & LGBTQIA+ led.”
“People with intersecting identities who choose to be out at work support the cultivation of more complex narratives,” says Doc Jana, of TMI Consulting. “Nuanced narratives can help build bridges and break down stereotypes that otherwise divide us.” And embracing this complexity of identity is a core tool when it comes to confronting the challenges of workforce inclusion.
“Not everyone will be pleased with the celebration of LGBTQ+ identities,” Doc Jana says. “People who hold onto bigoted and biased ideas, particularly when attached to religious beliefs, may create pressure within the organization. Leaders need to stick to their values, support inclusion, and be prepared to defend their stance when pressure is applied. The best defense is still a very clear inclusion vision.”
For each of these B Corps, achieving and maintaining certification has been a part of the pathway to doing work that helps other organizations improve their culture and create supportive environments for employees experiencing marginalization in the workplace — starting with their own internal practices.
“The B Impact Assessment has been shaping the evolution of TMI Consulting Inc since 2012,” says Doc Jana. “We have many policies and structures in place that would not have been considered for many years save for [the Assessment’s] insights and guidance. We are more resilient overall and have far more employee-centric policies as a result.”
Geenen — also a member of We the Change, a collective of women B Corp leaders — says that Flexability, certified in 2021, was built as “a B Corp from the beginning,” noting that the principle of bringing benefit to all stakeholders is key to their work.
“Equity and inclusion is what stakeholder primacy is really about. It's making sure that every person who's important to that daisy wheel of the business that you do has tools and resources and opportunities.”
In working with Out Leadership’s clients, Todd Sears emphasizes that ensuring equitable opportunities in the workforce has wider benefits. Going through the B Corp Certification process helped the team “identify ways in which we could become a more sustainable business as a for-profit company with the sole product of equality.”
“I like to argue that LGBTQ equality in the workplace is just good business,” Sears says. “At Out Leadership we call it ‘return on equality.’ There is so much value to be realized when we as a business community address the specific and unique needs of traditionally underserved communities. Ultimately, it's the only way to promote sustainable, long-term growth.”
Sustainable and long-term are key. To make a lasting difference in the lives of LGBTQIA employees — and to be credible in the eyes of other LGBTQIA stakeholders, including their customers and the communities they operate in — businesses need to show up beyond Pride. They need to admit that they’re vulnerable to mistakes and missteps (like the rainbow-branded mouthwash), and most of all commit to learning — and to doing better.
This holds for all equity commitments, says Nancy Geenen.
“These have to be conversations that we have more than once a year. We’ve got to have a way to have sustainability and intersectionality of all these identities — so that we are celebrating each other all of the time.”
¹ B Lab Global’s style guide uses LGBTQIA to indicate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual. Within direct quotes or references to the work of another organization, different acronyms may be used.