Timely study for Pride Season: LGBT research review offers insight for D&I practitioners

A systematic literature review on careers and workplace experiences of LGBT employees has recently been published in the Human Resource Development Review. It contains a discussion of empirical findings from 263 manually selected studies dating from 1985 until today. The content emerges from within business, management and broader social sciences disciplines. We have exclusively summarised the most important results on LGBT Diversity as a contribution to this year’s Pride season.

The literature review was conducted by Ciarán McFadden of Maynooth University (Ireland). The meta-findings of the study include a growth of academic interest in LGBT workplace issues in recent years. According to the study, however, the topic still remains under-researched. Existing literature falls into a few major topic clusters: Career / Identity Overlap, Organisational and HR Perspectives, Discrimination, Identity, and Social Issues and Experiences. Recommendations both for future research and for HR practitioners are given at the end of the article, following a summary of the most relevant findings.

The literature demonstrates impressively how being lesbian, gay, bi or transgender interacts with career issues. One recurring key aspect is that study participants reported decreased job satisfaction when working in heterosexist organisations. Furthermore, LGBT executives were found to be aware of their position as role models for other LGBT employees.

Overall, sexual or gender identity has been identified a key aspect to many LGBT workers’ lives and hence has to be integrated with workplace identity, which may take place in different ways. Various strategies of reconciling those different identities are discussed in the review which stresses that identity management is much more complicated than only choosing whether to come out (or not) at the workplace. On the contrary, identity management takes up a large amount of psychological resources and hence coming out has various positive effects: higher affective commitment, higher job-satisfaction, lower role ambiguity and conflict, and a better work-life balance.

Another finding is that LGBT individuals may stay away from certain career paths as they fear discrimination, intolerance or other negative attitudes. One study further demonstrates that LGBT people support more altruistic values as being part of a marginalised social group and are hence more likely to choose to work, e.g., in the non-profit sector. The study finds that transgender aspects are particularly under-researched, and existing literature finds that transgender employees face specific difficulties in their careers, especially during a gender re-assignment process.

Some studies theorise that gay and lesbian youths find less role models in the business area due to the lack of visible lesbian or gay employees or managers and hence also miss examples for the interplay between one’s sexual and workplace identity. As a consequence, valuable psychological resources have to be taken up in developing individual strategies for identity management. Some studies about bisexual people, although this is yet another under-researched topic, show that this group often faces double-discrimination and -exclusion: both from heterosexual and homosexual communities. As a consequence, bisexual people are even more likely to hide their sexual orientation at the workplace. “We still need to remind heterosexuals in the workplace that they usually don’t have any issue in managing the different parts for their identity – gender or sexual identity or sexual orientation – in the workplace, where they display dozens of indicators of who they are as a person,” Diversity expert Michael Stuber comments, who was a pioneer in LGBT workplace issues and the master mind behind many initiatives in the field.

The amount of LBGT workplace research is quite large for highly educated professions such as those in education, public service, healthcare, and professional industries, but still low for blue-collar environments or those in lower skilled jobs.

The review also provides some insights on organisational and HR aspects: LGBT employees who feel supported by their supervisors or top management show higher job satisfaction. On the other hand, evidence demonstrates that workplace heterosexism correlates with (low) amounts of people being “out” at their company. This, in turn, was found to the related to the amount of organisational citizenship performed by LGBT employees. The study further states that there is a clear business case for LGBT Diversity within organisations and for support of LGBT employees. When the level of “outness” increases, the authors conclude, economic benefits for the organisation arise.

Furthermore, the literature indicates that discrimination, both of formal and informal nature, still is prominent with respect to career and workplace experiences of LGBT employees. Some studies detect that, in some countries or regions, being open about one’s homosexual orientation or transgender identity entails a significantly lower chance to receive a positive response following a job interview. In addition, the experience of heterosexism results in less psychological health and worse work-associated outcomes. Also for LGBT employees who were only witnessing homophobic incidents towards a third party, discomfort and an increased focus on their own identity management strategies were detected, causing a distraction from workplace tasks.

According to the author, promoting and maintaining Diversity & Inclusion in an organisation provides an important context for LGBT topics. In line with the findings of IBCR 3.0, the literature review finds that Diversity is linked to lower turnover costs, better talent acquisition, lower absenteeism, greater market understanding and increased organisational creativity. Promoting Diversity and LGBT supportiveness may encourage lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers to come out, leading to more productive LGBT employees with higher levels of job satisfaction and affective commitment.

HR practitioners are recommended to show the Business Case for D&I to both LGBT and heterosexual employees to demonstrate the advantages of Diversity that everyone will enjoy and to explain why D&I initiatives are being implemented. Diversity workshops and trainings that include LBGT topics may signal supportiveness to LGBT employees and demonstrate that that the company is (striving to be) a safe and welcoming place to work. In addition, the presence of LGBT networks also signals acceptance and may generate role models for younger employees. “Companies should not delegate all their LGBT activities to the respective network,” warns Michael Stuber who insists that there is a specific agenda for the company itself – just like in gender or age diversity – and that D&I managers must be those “running the show”.

A lack of LGBT supportiveness, instead, reduces the size of the talent pool available for recruiting. D&I training and workshops as well as marketing one’s organisation as LGBT friendly (only, of course, if you can prove this in the moments of truth) will help to gain access to a talent pool that previously was off-limits so that an organisation can then reap the full creativity, productivity, and economic benefits. The author recommends to HR or Diversity managers to implement mentoring programmes, if possible with LGBT mentors for LGBT mentees. A concept that is disputed by the more integrated concepts that have been launched in recent years. Finally, they should ensure that any promotion, mentoring, training, or development decisions are made in a transparent and strictly meritocratic manner.