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LGBTQ+ allyship in the workplace: A guide for small business owners

Small business owners have a wonderful opportunity to uplift and support the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month and year round.

Already, small businesses are doing their part. In 2022, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a survey in which 72% of small business owners said they would be okay with losing customers as a result of their support for the LGBTQ+ community. Further, 86% said that it is important to provide an inclusive culture for customers and guests.

Now that Pride is here, it’s time to think big about how you might step up to the plate. But what are the best ways to become an ally as an employer?

Almost half of all employees in the US (46%) work for a small business, according to research from the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy. As part of that 46%, you can make sure that your workplace is not only welcoming but actively supportive to your LGBTQ+ employees. All it takes is a little empathy—and some thought about how your business functions.

Make your hiring inclusive

A welcoming workplace starts with welcoming hiring practices. If you want to make sure your small business is a safe and encouraging environment for all, start by making sure that your job ads don’t inadvertently turn some candidates away.

In 2021, the Society for Human Resource Management reported that in a recent study from the job search engine Adzuna, only about one-quarter of U.S. job ads actively encouraged applications from LGBTQ+ job seekers. 

“We would strongly encourage all corporations who adopt the rainbow for June to take a close look at their internal hiring processes and policies to ensure they are truly supporting the LGBTQ+ community,” Adzuna co-founder Andrew Hunter told the SHRM, “starting with using inclusive language in the hiring process.”

To underscore your support for the LGBTQ+ community, make sure that all potential job seekers know they’d be welcome to work for you. Consider adding a diversity statement to your job ads to put your priorities on full display.

Revise your language

Depending on how long your company has operated, your welcome materials and policy documents might need a quick review. Start by consulting a trusted guide like The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD’s) reference guide to identify any dated, potentially offensive language in your current paperwork. 

Then, try to find and trim any language that assumes a gender binary—constructs like “he or she,” “brothers and sisters,” and “sir or madam.” You’ll never need any of them again once you adopt more inclusive terms like “they,” “siblings,” and “esteemed guest.” 

Provide HR and mental health support

Make sure that your healthcare plans provide adequate healthcare coverage—and that all employees know about it.

Beyond working gender-inclusive language into all of your existing policies and materials, make sure you also include concise explanations of policies surrounding everything from parental and adoption leave to HR reporting processes.

Also: Does your workplace have a transition guide? This would be a reference document for employees planning to undergo gender affirming care, complete with straightforward explanations of medical benefits offered and resources for further conversation. If not, it’s time to put one together. 

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Being open to learning and adapting can go a long way.

It’s also crucial to make sure that all employees understand their mental health benefits. According to research from the global management consulting firm McKinsey, 29% of surveyed LGBTQ+ employees said they felt uncomfortable sharing mental-health concerns with colleagues. (Compare that with 14% of surveyed straight employees and 47% for transgender employees.) 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and concerned about missing something or leaving someone out, that’s okay. You can hire a consultant or even ask your employees what inclusive benefits they’d like to see offered in the workplace. Being open to learning and adapting can go a long way.

Set up an Employee Resource Group

Employee resource groups are voluntary and employee-led groups that seek to cultivate diversity and inclusion in the workplace. They do this both by collaborating with managers on specific efforts and, more broadly, by fostering an environment where all employees feel safe to discuss issues affecting them and their work. 

If you’d like to get started setting up an LGBTQ+ ERG within your small business, the Human Rights Campaign provides a helpful step-by-step guide. Work with your human resource team to come up with a plan to both create and support ERG’s within your organization. You’ll want to cast a net for anyone interested in making the workplace a more supportive environment for LGBTQ+ employees.

Encourage sharing pronouns

Do your employees all display pronouns in their emails? If not, one simple change could help some of your LGBTQ+ employees feel a little more at ease.

Displaying pronouns in places like email signatures and nametags normalizes the practice so that anyone who wants to clarify their pronouns can do so without feeling conspicuous. Just remember: everyone’s boundaries are different, and some employees might be more private than others. 

Make the effort year-round

Pride Month isn’t the only time of year to voice your support for the community—your small business should be doing that year-round, both internally and externally.

For starters, you can embrace the LGBTQ+ community by commemorating its history. Pride Month might be in June, but there’s also International Transgender Day of Visibility in March and National Coming Out Day in October. National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is on February 7, and International Lesbian Visibility Day is April 26, and Harvey Milk Day is May 22, and the list goes on. 

You don’t need to celebrate every holiday, but taking the time to educate yourself and employees about at least a few can go a long way. Additionally, your support shouldn’t only be tied to holidays or days of recognition. Make sure you are supporting the community in your everyday operations. 

Involve senior management

Whatever policies you enact to support LGBTQ+ employees in your small business, it’ll be up to your senior managers to make sure that all best practices are enforced. Your job is to make sure they’re set up to succeed.

Once you’ve done your research and updated your workplace policies, hold training sessions to make sure that your team leaders are ready and excited to lead by example. Even if you have minimal or no updates to share, talk your management team through your diversity and inclusion policies and answer any questions they might have.

Remember that everyone is always learning—including you

No matter how much research you’ve done, it’s vital to remember that all of us—regardless of identity—are constantly learning more about gender and sexuality. If you have the budget to do so, consider setting up quarterly educational events or investing in a diversity, equity and inclusion coach who might help your executive leaders foster an open-minded, conscientious environment. No matter how much you know, you’ll never know everything, and it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you approach everyone with patience and respect.

Two women waving a pride flag

Explore the small business guide to Pride

Find the tools and resources you need to be a strong ally to your customers and employees, support the LGBTQ+ community, and make an impact year-round.

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