A businessman and member of the LGBTQ+ community shake hands over a background with the colors of the transgender pride flag for allyship in the workplace
iStock/Veleri

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When it comes to allyship in the workplace, there’s what companies say they’re doing, and then there’s reality. Many organizations have adopted the aesthetic of serving the LGBTQ+ community—what is commonly known as “rainbow capitalism.” It includes the pattern of progressive rebranding and cosmetic activism, but does little to support the LGBTQ+ community in practical ways.

I am a transgender nonbinary person, but I have many privileges in Japan as a white-passing foreigner from a developed country. As a native English speaker, I am guaranteed a comfortable (if tedious) job teaching English, should my other ventures fail.

But I have also experienced discrimination, including transphobic bullying, passive-aggressive comments, and sexual harassment in the workplace. I’ve been scolded by coworkers and classmates for using masculine-sounding Japanese. Day-to-day microaggressions, cringe humor, misgendering from coworkers, and apathy make health and happiness a fragile thing.

And again, I am one of the lucky ones.

On a positive note, we now seem to be entering an era where more people at different levels of influence have the common goal of making their modern workplaces more welcoming. But where to start with LGBTQ workplace equality? Both for well-intentioned allies and for queer people looking to introduce change, here are seven actions for how we can question, improve, and reframe company policy making to better support the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace.

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7 Actions to Support the LGBTQ+ Community in Your Workplace

1) Set a goal.

It’s easy to feel paralyzed in the face of huge, lifelong social endeavors such as fighting systemic oppression. Don’t try to take on these behemoths all at once. Instead, break them down into attainable, measurable goals. This will facilitate progress and help you recognize milestones as you learn how to be a better ally in the workplace.

Whatever goals you set, collect and measure the data: employee turnover rates, lost motivation at work, retention, and responses to employee wellness surveys. Goals such as “higher trust between employees and employers” or “greater respect among teammates” can be applied to any company.

2) Don’t react—plan.

The time to reform policies for LGBTQ+ hires is now—or rather, yesterday.

As a trans/nonbinary person, I can attest that the situation is rarely a matter of “when the trans hires arrive.” The trans folk are already here—they just haven’t come out.

While in recent years I have become very open, I was closeted for most of my professional life. I was also far from alone: at my former job at an international company, I socialized with a number of gay and transgender coworkers who had either opted to stay in the closet or been subtly pressured by management to do so.

Really, the onus should be on the manager, HR team, or business leader to be proactive about making a workplace more inclusive—not pressuring the minority to fight for change.

It’s possible to use allyship as a diversity and inclusion tool in the workplace. Such a mindset is promoted by noted D&I consultant Lily Zheng, who suggests considering a fictional employee profile—someone who is marginalized both socially and physically. This employee could be transgender, a single mother, a person of color, a non-native speaker of English, and disabled in ways that make navigating an office difficult. She has myriad intersections to her identity and experience that would hinder her in most traditional workplaces.

To plan (rather than react) to such an employee, frame your policy reform around the question, “How could this employee thrive?” This will make it easier to craft a modern workplace that is supportive and accessible to all.

3) Think “universal inclusion,” not exceptions.

The curb-cut effect dictates that changes made to provide equity for one group end up benefitting the many. With that in mind, remember that any and all accommodations you make for LGBTQ+ employees can—and should—be applied universally.

Making overarching policy changes with nonconforming employees in mind, as Zheng suggests, sets clearer and fairer expectations for everyone and teaches them how to be an ally for diversity. These policies benefit trans and gender-nonconforming employees who are not out at work, empower cisgender employees who simply enjoy nontraditional gender expression (i.e., men with long hair), and build solidarity among employees. Moreover, transgender employees will not feel beholden to management for allowing exceptions, but instead maintain their dignity and sense of equality in the office.

One of my former jobs had traditional gendered dress codes which managers would enforce at their own discretion. This included a manager who infamously made the women/assigned-female-at-birth employees wear high heels. (This does not refer to former Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto, though well it might.) Another manager scolded me for having a shaved head, and then told me he would permit my androgynous hair on the condition I bought nicer shoes.

Gender-free dress codes surpass merely aesthetic progressivism to impact queer employee’s mental health and safety—and avoid favoritism in the workplace. Similarly, providing universal spousal benefits, family plans, and housing subsidies for LGBTQ+ employees must be a priority for companies looking to provide equal rights.

Trans person with short, purple hair and rainbow earrings to promote allyship in the workplace
True allyship in the workplace supports visible and invisible diversity. | iStock/izusek

4) Involve everyone—even the uninterested.

One of the challenges with promoting diversity and inclusion in a workplace is that audiences tend to self-select. That is, people who already have an interest in social justice issues will participate enthusiastically, while others who are ignorant of or apathetic towards these initiatives will usually skip or even become polarized against them. That can result in lost motivation at work all around.

In the delicate balancing act of introducing diversity programs to an office, it is wise to take stock of which camp each employee falls into and to develop different programs accordingly. Not all employees who are uninterested in diversity and LGBTQ+ rights are opposed to these principles. Rather, they would benefit from communication and training to make these issues relatable and to promote common ground.

5) Establish a clear action plan for conflict.

There are inevitably going to be employees who do not accept diversity training, mock allyship in the workplace, and consistently disrespect their queer coworkers. There are words for that: harassment and workplace discrimination.

While proper training can bring conservative coworkers onboard, statistics and personal experience attest that some coworkers will openly resist widespread authenticity of self. Their actions must be seen not only as harmful to minority coworkers around them, but also as perpetuating the discrimination of wider society. Your HR department must have a contingency plan that prioritizes the marginalized party in these conflicts. Japanese law is particularly slow to institute suitable protections for the LGBTQ+ community, but an ethical company will implement policies that go above and beyond in protecting its workers.

No one should have to debate their human rights at work. No one should have to fend off attacks on their humanity while they earn their living.

6) Set high expectations for yourself.

Ultimately, whether you are an ally, a member of a particular marginalized group, or a newcomer to considering these structural power imbalances, you’re bound to make mistakes.

I have misgendered friends and family—I sometimes even misgender myself! In such situations, there is an easy course of action: accept accountability, apologize, and move forward. Mistakes made in good faith are not the end of the world, but they are an opportunity to grow and develop empathy.

Listen if corrected and read the room. If necessary, check with a coworker to see that you are treating them respectfully.

7) Hire a DEI consultant, and do more reading!

Investing in a professional DEI consultant to address lost motivation at work, promote purposeful work, and nurture authentic leadership characteristics through training and workshops is a worthy use of funds. Indeed, funds should be allocated to your diversity efforts, not merely for PR or to head off conflicts, but to proactively cultivate a healthier work environment for marginalized groups like the LGBTQ+ community.

Ultimately, these seven points are a launch pad for further reading and research. A business leader and proactive ally will demonstrate commitment to these issues by building their insight and investing in books and other resources. The goal isn’t just to understand, but to improve company policy and implement intersectional theory.

These issues do not stop at the office lobby. They are carried through our daily lives and relationships. So do better than a rainbow logo for Pride Month. Read further, listen more closely, and learn more about the stories of the people around you.

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