Being an LGBTQ+-friendly company comes down to much more than simply non-judgemental allies occupying leadership positions.
LGBTQ+ friendliness is not a secret sauce of mysterious rainbow unicorn vibes. There are specific policies, benefits, and practices that can improve the lives of queer and trans people who work for your organization.
“If your organization wants to be known as an LGBTQ+-friendly organization, that’s a proactive mandate not a bumper sticker,” says DeVan Hankerson Madrigal, a queer woman who works as research manager at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “That means an organization is enacting policy or building cultural norms in the workplace because the status quo is hostile.”
In fact, the real-life experiences of LGBTQ+ people at companies over time has shown which environments are supportive of queer and trans people, and which are not. And queer and trans inclusion experts, as well as queer and trans employees in other fields, have identified best practices for fostering a welcoming culture.
Here’s an introductory list of ways to build an LGBTQ+-supportive workplace. Please note that this is meant to be used as a starting point, and is not exhaustive.
How to build a LGBTQ+-friendly workplace
Employee benefits that support queer and trans employees center around two main topics: family structure and medical care. Those are two areas in which queer and trans people’s life experiences and systemic support—outside of the workplace—often differ from straight and cisgender people’s.
“Companies that are doing their best in this work understand that LGBTQ+ people, because of their identities, have all types of different family structures,” says Raina Nelson, manager of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index, which provides a benchmark for corporate policies, practices, and benefits that are pertinent to LGBTQ+ people. “The people that need to be involved in their lives may not be just a legal spouse or just a biological child.”
One example of this is bereavement leave: allowing employees to take paid time off for the death of a loved one who is not in their biological family or spouse. Another example is extending health benefits to include an employee’s domestic partner.
For queer and trans people who want to start a family, significant financial hurdles related to medical care might get in the way. Fertility support is often not covered by employer health care plans, but should be.
“When it comes to family formation benefits, LGBTQ+ folks may have families that don’t fit the cisgender heteronormative structures, and that should be reflected in the benefits offerings,” says Nelson.
“Companies can help fill in the gap and offer services to their employees, especially in states where the minimum health coverage does not include these services,” says Hankerson Madrigal. “It makes a difference if your journey to becoming a parent is not severely financially crippling.”
Companies can also create robust parental leave policies, allowing for paid time off to care for a new child, which extend to any new parent, whether they carried the child or not, and whether they are married or not.
“At my employer, the leave policy uses same-sex couples as one of the examples in our materials. It can not be said enough, representation matters,” says Hankerson Madrigal. “You want to know that you're covered without having to ask.”
When these types of benefits do not exist in a workplace, queer and trans employees often end up spending time and energy advocating for the inclusion of benefits that support their needs.
Transition-related care benefits
Transgender people may seek medically necessary treatments including hormone replacement therapy and surgical procedures, in addition to mental health counseling.
And even for health care that is not transition-related, trans people often lack access to providers who are knowledgeable and competent about trans patients. Companies can work to ensure their insurance plans cover transition-related treatments and check that their plan’s provider network includes providers experienced with caring for trans patients.
Companies can stand out in their support of trans employees by ensuring that transition-related facial feminization surgeries and electrolysis are also covered, as this type of care can often be costly to pay for out of pocket. And they can ensure that employees can access short-term leave after a gender-affirming surgery.
Starbucks is one company known for having trans supportive health insurance policies and for supporting its employees through navigating health care and insurance. The email marketing company Mailchimp is another employer with trans-supportive healthcare policies.
Luna Cooper, an engineer who transitioned while working at Mailchimp, appreciated the support of HR employees in navigating care.
“There’s a lot of trans-related health care coverage,” says Cooper. “Of course, it’s a fight with insurance companies to actually get it paid for. We have HR people to help you actually get your coverage.”
2. Nondiscrimination policies
While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees against discrimination due to their gender identity or sexual orientation (a ruling in the 2020 Bostock Supreme Court Case), companies should have clear nondiscrimination policies that cover gender identity and sexual orientation. Because Title VII only applies to companies of over 15 people, it’s especially important for smaller companies to clearly outline nondiscrimination policies. And for companies that operate globally, Nelson says nondiscrimination policies should extend there, too, to cover all employees.
Especially for companies with many sites across the country, it is crucial that these policies are reinforced on the ground, and that there is a culture of respect for LGBTQ+ people. A public case of a mismatch here was with Saks Fifth Avenue, a company that scored highly on the HRC Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index, yet was faced by a public lawsuit from a former transgender employee who had faced discrimination at her workplace.
All employees should also be provided clear information about how they can speak up (including anonymously) about issues of harassment and discrimination.
One important site to pay attention to discrimination is in hiring. Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán, former senior counsel at National LGBTQ Task Force who wrote a guide to best practices for DC employers in valuing transgender employees, recommends addressing discrimination at the level of hiring. Companies can remove “male” or “female” boxes on hiring forms, allow a preferred name in addition to a legal name, and ask applicants their pronouns.
Rodríguez-Roldán also recommends an internal test of hiring practices to ensure that the people reviewing job applications are not discriminating against transgender people. A government-run test in DC found that hiring managers often preferred less-qualified candidates perceived as cisgender over more-qualified candidates seen as transgender. Because of widespread societal discrimination against transgender people, companies should actively seek to remove bias.
“Companies need to do their own internal audits—if they can afford to do so—of their own hiring practices,” says Rodríguez-Roldán. “Don’t wait until someone has to investigate you. Do your own resume testing of how people are hiring at a granular level, so as to be able to correct it quickly internally.”
4. Representation and belonging
Once hired, for queer and trans employees, it can be a significant burden to be the only one with a certain identity at work.
“As a queer African American woman, I think companies should hire a diverse group of people,” says Hankerson Madrigal. “The lone LGBTQIA+ person in an organization is essentially outnumbered by whatever the dominant work culture happens to be. That experience can be one of isolation, intense unease and emotional stress in the workplace”
Companies that understand the importance of a diverse workplace can seek out opportunities to connect with and recruit from LGBTQ+ groups like Lesbians Who Tech, Trans Can Work, and other professional groups of queer and trans people.
5. Workplace experience and culture
Within a workplace, in the daily experience of working at a company, there are many ways employers can build an environment that is comfortable for LGBTQ+ employees and meets their needs.
LGBTQ+ consideration internally
Company documents and employee handbooks can use gender neutral pronouns and use examples of queer couples in their writing.
“The employee handbook uses gender neutral pronouns, and I noticed that right away,” says Hankerson Madrigal. “That shows a level of consideration about gender identity issues and visibility.”
“It sends the message that as an LGBTQIA+ person, your organization does not want you to hide, and that they are willing to model the use of inclusive language for the whole organization,” she adds. “De-gendering the language of company-wide documents may seem like a small detail but it can be an important signal to LGBTQ team members."
Workplace transition guidelines
A company that anticipates and prepares for employee gender transitions will be much better prepared to support transgender employees now and in the future.
Companies can build written policies and guidelines that cover management support, administrative changes, dress codes and bathroom usage, and communication with coworkers.
Without these written guidelines, the burden often falls on a trans employee to both navigate the complex and often emotionally taxing experience of socially transitioning while also building policies and guidelines for themself and others.
“It was such a supportive company, and it was still so hard to work through,” says Cooper, who wrote internal documentation for Mailchimp to support and build pathways for other trans employees.
The best policies to support transitioning employees involve flexibility to meet employee’s specific needs, especially those about confidentiality. Managers should never disclose information about an employee’s transgender identity without explicit consent.
Respecting names and pronouns
In HR systems, companies should allow employees to change their names (including in email addresses, business cards, and documents) and hide information about former names and gender markers. This way, trans employees can work at an organization without daily experiences of being referred to by the wrong name and pronouns.
An increasing number of companies encourage including pronouns in an email signature, and in virtual meetings to build an inclusive culture.
6. Dress codes
Company dress codes can further support the wellbeing of queer and trans employees.
“Our company has a casual dress code, so pretty much anything goes,” says Cooper. “In having that leniency, any trans or gender minority person might be able to express themselves however they feel most comfortable”
Of course, many employers have more formal office environments. In these cases, companies can shift their dress codes from designating specific items for women and men, to simply “business casual,” or listing what items are and are not appropriate for the workplace, without mentioning specific genders.
Companies should allow transgender employees to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. This should be clearly outlined in company policies. Further, to support gender non-conforming employees, companies can turn single-occupancy bathrooms into gender-neutral bathrooms for use by any employee.
“A gender neutral bathroom tells you that your employer has had a conversation—probably more than one—with many different parts of the organization,” says Hankerson Madrigal. “And those discussions have led to a structural and visible change that no one can miss.”
8. Employee resource groups
In addition to actively hiring employees from diverse backgrounds in terms of gender and sexuality (in addition to race, religion, ability, and national origin)—companies can also support the creation of volunteer, employee-led employee resource groups for queer and trans employees, as well as for other identity groups. These groups can build community, increase employees’ sense of belonging, and lead to further improvements in the workplace.
9. Ongoing training and education
Companies that engage in regular training on topics of unconscious bias and gender inclusion, and explicitly talk about LGBTQ+ identity in discussion of larger topics about identities, can help ensure that the company doesn’t rely on its queer and trans employees to constantly teach their coworkers about their identities.
“It goes a long way if leadership conceives of these things and the onus does not fall on the employee to explain themselves or have to educate peers and leadership who may have had little to no exposure,” says Hankerson Madrigal.
10. Celebrating LGBTQ+ culture
A company can build off inclusive and supportive benefits and policies by celebrating the LGBTQ+ community year-round. This is where efforts like rainbow merch and special events with LGBTQ+ speakers can come into play, especially outside Pride Month, to increase visibility and recognition and to celebrate LGBTQ+ people at the company and in society.
“The company also sometimes will hang pride flags around the office space,” says Cooper. “The rainbow flag, trans flag, bisexual, pansexual, lesbian and nonbinary flags—things like that give us a sense of belonging.”
11. Social responsibility
Companies that support queer and trans employees internally should also demonstrate a commitment to LGBTQ+ populations outside the company.
That means not providing a platform for or donating to politicians or organizations that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.
“More recently in the wake of a rash of now over 100 anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation, companies have also signed onto our letter denouncing these bills,” says Nelson.
“Companies need to engage in their own advocacy along the lines of not supporting, for example, when you make corporate donations, refuse to support politicians who engage in harmful anti-trans rhetoric or policies,” says Rodríguez-Roldán. “If you are supporting harmful anti-trans politicians, you are in the end harming your trans employees and even harming your own ability to retain them.”
Nelson recommends employers join the Equality Act Coalition and support federal legislation to protect LGBTQ+ people.
The bottom line
When employers build in benefits, policies, culture, and other practices that include and support queer and trans people, it sends a clear message: You belong here. You do not have to fight for your right to be treated equally to your peers here. Your safety and wellbeing matters.
About our sources
DeVan Hankerson Madrigal (she/her) is an advocate for improving technology access that expands individual rights and ensures that more people share in the benefits of technological progress. She is Research Manager at the Center for Democracy and Technology where her team focuses on research that advances human rights and civil liberties online. Her most recent published work discusses the weaponization of racial and gendered narratives in online disinformation, highlighting key areas for further research which center intersectional approaches.
Raina Nelson (they/them) is the Manager of the Corporate Equality Index for the HRC Foundation and co-author of the CEI. In this role, they engage directly with employers nationwide to identify and improve LGBTQ-inclusive policies, practices and benefits.
Luna Cooper (she/her) is an engineer at Mailchimp. She also supports the Atlanta community mutual aid project Free999Fridge and loves sewing and pet chickens.
Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán (she/her) is Senior Policy Manager at AIDS United and former senior policy counsel at the National LGBTQ Task Force. She serves on the boards of HIPS, which focuses on harm reduction for trans sex workers, Autistic Women and Non-Binary Network, and Equality New York.