Today, Jove Meyer is a successful, New York-based wedding planner who prides himself on challenging the antiquated norms of the wedding industry. But working a corporate job just a few years prior, he felt continually exhausted from having to police his identity in the workplace. As a gay man who grew up in a conservative town with little LGBTQ representation, he said it took years for him to stop catering to a stereotype. “The business started to blossom when I started to show up as myself,” he said.
Despite significant gains in workplace protections, Meyer’s experience is still all too common for business owners and employees alike—and it’s in everyone’s best interest to fight for inclusion. Stigma, discrimination, and the pressure to hide one’s identity comes at a great cost to LGBTQ employees, including physical and mental stress. A Human Rights Campaign study found that unwelcoming work environments decrease engagement for LGBTQ workers by as much as 30%. “When people are compelled to stay closeted at work, everyone loses,” said RaShawn Hawkins, deputy director for the Human Rights Campaign’s Workplace Equality Program.
Of course, many business owners recognize that there’s more than the bottom line at stake—and addressing inequality for LGBTQ customers and employees is a crucial part of every business plan. “With small businesses, it’s imperative because you’re the ones that are in those communities,” Hawkins said. “You’re the ones that probably interact with the community holistically on a more frequent basis.”
To dive deeper, we spoke with experts about the best ways to turn this responsibility into impact and create inclusive, welcoming spaces for LGBTQ customers and employees.
1. Update your non-discrimination policies
From LGBTQ-owned establishments to enthusiastic allies, businesses can take the first step to protecting LGBTQ employees by updating non-discrimination policies to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (which is expressed through a person’s pronouns, clothing, and more).
These policies provide a roadmap for holding employees accountable and ensure that LGBTQ inclusion is a priority from day one. “Small businesses in particular have to do more on the fly or handle issues as they come up,” said Katina Sawyer, assistant professor of management at the George Washington University’s School of Business. “It’s really important to make clear when employees are hired that you have zero tolerance for harassment.”
Beyond taking a stand against harassment, Sawyer encourages business owners to examine their processes—from hiring to retention—for any practices that may stigmatize the LGBTQ community. For example, on job applications, are you asking candidates to identify along a gender binary? If a transgender employee is transitioning or coming out at work, are you keeping track of name changes? “Making tweaks to formal processes can send a strong signal,” she said.
These policies are also a good place to outline specific protections in the workplace, such as access to restrooms that align with employees’ gender identity and gender-neutral dress codes. Take inspiration from LGBTQ advocacy groups and businesses: The Transgender Law Center offers a template for trans-inclusive employment policies, and the Human Rights Campaign publishes many resources for best practices.
2. Ask LGBTQ employees what they need
Once inclusive policies are in place, it’s time for businesses to “put their money where their mouth is,” according to Hawkins of the HRC. Providing transgender-inclusive health care and extending benefits to domestic partners is a proven way to make your business more inclusive—particularly because LGBTQ people are more likely to encounter barriers and discrimination in the health care system.
In 2021, a record-breaking 767 businesses offered LGBTQ-affirming benefits, earning the top score of 100 on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, a national benchmark for inclusive policies. Not every small business owner can match these corporate offerings, but Hawkins encourages reviewing practices and benefits with an open mind: “The apprehension or the fear is that you’re not going to know everything or that you may get something wrong, and I think that that’s okay. We’re not asking you to come out the gate with a 100. Take it in steps. It’s a journey, and it’s a process.”
Start by gathering information and asking LGBTQ employees what they need, without putting the burden on staff to out themselves or guide the conversation. This can be accomplished by soliciting ideas and feedback anonymously or discussing LGBTQ inclusion at your next team-building exercise. “It takes being very honest about your intention on wanting to create an inclusive workplace and being really transparent about where you are currently and where you want to go,” Hawkins said.
3. Model inclusion from the top down
In a truly inclusive workplace, LGBTQ employees feel comfortable sharing photos of their families and inviting partners to work events; managers and coworkers use the correct names and pronouns. These practices are part of each business’ workplace culture, and while small businesses may not be able to afford extensive programming and diversity training, business owners and managers can model inclusion with their own behavior.
“Communication from top leadership about the importance of these issues takes a little effort but isn’t very costly,” Jennica Webster, co-director of Marquette University’s Institute for Women’s Leadership and assistant professor of management. “Respect and courage aren’t very expensive at all and can make a world of difference. By respect, I mean valuing people for who they are and the contributions that they make. By courage, I mean empowering employees to call out anyone they see engaging in harassment or incivility directed at their LGBTQ coworkers.”
In Philadelphia, Fairmount Bicycles owner Shelly Walker has regular conversations with her team about best practices for affirming LGBTQ customers, especially because she identified the shop as LGBTQ-owned on social media. “If we are are saying to the world—at least to Philadelphia—that we are a queer-friendly bike shop and a trans-friendly bike shop, we do have to make sure that everyone’s on the same page about that and that we’re not misgendering people and making them uncomfortable because they don’t look a certain way,” she said. “It’s acknowledging that we’re not perfect but actively engaging in these conversations.”
4. Commit to inclusion year round
Pride Month is a great opportunity to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Celebrating Pride can also signal that your business is a safe space: Research shows customers prefer to spend their money at businesses where they see themselves reflected in the employee base—or even in small gestures of support, such as a rainbow flag in the window.
However, it’s important to remember that Pride is just one month out of the year. “The risk is being performative,” Hawkins said. “Yes, it’s great to show up at a Pride event, but if you don’t have anything in the internal practices, it’s a little bit disingenuous. Be honest, and do a real assessment.”
Show that you’re committed year-round with actions like lending your influence to public policy—for example, you can call out that recent anti-transgender bills are bad for business. “When the business voice stands up and says, hey, this is wrong, it’s the transition from being an ally to an advocate,” said Jason Rae, president and CEO of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce. And this type of support is gaining traction with businesses of all sizes. Already, more than 400 major U.S. companies have pledged support for the Equality Act, which would provide consistent and explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
But even the smallest steps can have a lasting impact, from educating yourself to ensuring you partner with people who align with your values. After the Black Lives Matter protests last June, Meyer of Jove Meyer Events began scrutinizing non-discrimination policies within the industry and his own business—and found them lacking. Now, he asks every client, journalist, and vendor he works with to sign an ally pledge, stating that they choose “love above hate” and actively support BIPOC and LGBTQ people. It’s one way he protects his clients on one of the most important days of their clients’ lives. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I did a wedding with someone who made their living taking away the rights of others,” Meyer said.