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Economics & Social Science

The key to making LGBT diversity work for your company

An Elsevier employee reveals what he learned in his master’s thesis on workplace diversity in Ireland

The Author

Mark O'Mahoney, MBAAs General Manager of Operational Excellence & Support at Elsevier, Mark O'Mahoney leads continuous improvement projects and initiatives for the world's largest provider of scientific, technical and medical (STM) information products and services.

He is a trained facilitator, working with teams throughout the company to develop their creativity. He specializes in idea and innovation management, problem solving, process mapping and visual management. Using continuous improvement skills and training to aid teams and individuals to develop and implement ideas and solutions that focus on improving the customer's experience and employee satisfaction.

O'Mahoney recently completed his Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at the University of Limerick in Ireland, writing his thesis on the relationship between fostering diversity in an organization  (focusing on lesbian, gay and bisexual employees) and individual wellbeing and commitment to an organization.[divider]

Editor's Note

Several of you have emailed me to point out that the proper way to reference the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is LGBT. Our author, Mark O'Mahoney, has pointed out that because of the time constraints of doing a master's thesis as opposed to a doctoral dissertation, he chose to mirror previous research in this area and reduce the scope of his research to focus on the gay, lesbian and bisexual demographic. He said he is aware of the discrimination experienced by transgender employees and in no way wishes to diminish their experience. He thinks this area warrants further research, which he hopes to do in the future.

Meanwhile, because this article addresses the broader aspects of diversity, and because "LGB" might be interpreted as exclusionary to some people, I took the liberty of the reference in the headline to LGBT. Thank you for pointing out this important issue. — Alison Bert

The rainbow flag is a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride. The colors reflect diversity and inclusiveness and are used as a symbol during LGBT pride marches and events. (Photo by Mark O'Mahoney)Research shows that the support for diversity is not only the right thing to do — it also makes good business sense. As a consequence, diversity management has become an important topic in recent years as organizations compete on a global scale for the most talented workers.

Diversity management goes well beyond equal employment opportunities; it is the management of policies and procedures that embrace all forms of diversity, from cultural, to ethical, religious and sexual orientation. However, unlike other forms of diversity, sexual orientation is often a hidden stigma, and individuals often will decide to hide or disclose sexual orientation.

Research reports that fears of disclosure of sexual orientation have an overwhelmingly negative relationship with employee workplace experiences and psychological wellbeing. Lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) employees fear the consequences of disclosure, which range from exclusion, bullying, harassment and, in extreme scenarios, physical violence or loss of employment. However, LGB employees are more likely to disclose when workplaces are supportive of sexual orientation, bringing benefits for the organization as much as the individual.

What are the benefits of a diverse workplace?

For organizations, benefits of such diversity include the development of a creative and innovative workforce, attracting and retaining talent, increasing employee commitment and aligning employee and customer's demographics. While, individual benefits of a supportive organization and disclosure include positive job satisfaction, affective organizational commitment, less stress and anxiety, and the ability for LGB employees to develop more positive relationships with colleagues.

The current turbulent economic environment has led to what is known as the "war for talent" — that is, organizations are now competing for the knowledge, skills and abilities of potential employees, and successful recruitment represents a major competitive advantage for organizations. Within this global talent pool, it is estimated that between 5% and 10% are LGB. As a consequence, diversity management has become a means of attracting the potentially large pool of talented LGB employees.

Exploring the experiences of LGB employees in Ireland

With this in mind, as part of my MBA requirements, I choose to explore the relationship between fostering diversity in an organization (focusing on LGB employees) and individual wellbeing and commitment to an organization. Through research, I sought to gain insight into the lives and experiences of LGB employees in the Irish workplace, and determine if Ireland has become a more tolerant nation where diversity is accepted.

5 tips to building a workplace culture supportive of diversity

  1. Understand and comply with the law. Laws may differ from one state or province to another. Your Human Resources office can advise you on how the law affects all aspects of doing business.
  2. Make the business case for diversity. Diversity policies contribute to business successes through the attraction and retention of talented employees. Communicate, inform and demonstrate to employees that diversity is a source of strength and is welcome; this could be through recruitment practices or company social activities.
  3. Tackle harassment and bullying. Make it easy for employees to report discrimination and ensure swift and fair treatment in resolving such issues.
  4. Manage performance fairly. Decisions should be made based on merit and competency.
  5. Monitor and evaluate policies and practices to ensure diversity management is working. Create opportunities and mechanisms for employees to provide feedback on diversity management – through formal channels, such as employee surveys and through more informal channels, such as the annual employee performance reviews.

Based on a cross-sectional sample of 80 LGB individuals in Ireland, I developed and tested a multi-factor model of workplace support for LGBs in the Irish workplace, focusing on the relationships between fear of disclosing sexual orientation, stress and anxiety levels, workplace discrimination, harassment, organizational commitment and overall job satisfaction.

The findings from this study suggest that while implementing gay-friendly policies and practices can have a positive impact on the wellbeing of LGB employees and their commitment to their organization. To attract LGB employees, employers must create the kind of organizational culture where LGBs will want to work; this includes signaling of the culture through enacted diversity policies. The most important practices identified by survey respondents are the inclusion of sexual orientation in diversity training, the extension of benefits to same-sex partners and, most importantly, the inclusion of same-sex partners at company social events.

However, what is more interesting is that creating the organizational culture that is supportive of all employees is what really matters. Organizational policies and practices should focus on recognizing the uniqueness and value of each individual in the workplace. When the organization's culture is one where co-workers understand and accept differences, employees feel less stress and anxiety, experience less discrimination and harassment, are more committed to their organization and have less fear of being stigmatized for their differences.

A key finding of this study is that general supportive organizational practices and supportive co-workers have a strong impact on LGB wellbeing, affective commitment (the employee's positive emotional attachment to the organization) and the career of LGB employees – more so than having LGB-specific policies and practices. In other words, what matters most to LGB employees is a fair and equitable workplace that welcomes all types of diversity.

It is particularly interesting that the availability, concern and treatment by a supervisor showed the strongest relationship to having a general supportive organization for all employees and also had a moderate relationship to how LGBs see organizations as being specifically supportive of LGB employees.

Diversity, creativity and technology growth

In a 2001 study for the Brookings Institute titled "Technology and Tolerance: the Importance of Diversity to High-Technology Growth," Dr. Richard Florida demonstrated a strong correlation between the US cities he classified as both creative and gay hubs with US cities that succeed in the technology sector. He concluded that communities that embrace LGB community are more likely to be open and welcoming to diversity, and it is this openness that leads to a community accepting of new ideas, with more creative workforces and wider markets. Read more on Dr. Florida's website.

Of all the LGB supportive practices, inviting same-sex partners to company social events had the strongest relationship to perceived LGB support, suggesting that the practice of welcoming LGB partners to social events sends a signal to all employees that diversity is accepted and welcomed and that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not permitted.

Why law isn't enough

In Ireland, there is legislation prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. While the law as a regulatory apparatus is important in shaping organizational policy, practice and the production of cultural norms, however, having a law in place does not guarantee an organizational culture which is "gay-friendly." It is not legislation which creates the environment to support diversity; it is the application of legislation though supportive organizational policies and practices that supports all types of diversity and the acceptance and equitable treatment of all employees.

The findings from this study suggest that effective diversity management can support Ireland in its wish to become an open society that values all types of diversity. Based on the research of Dr. Richard Florida (2002), the equal treatment of LGBs and overall tolerance of all types of diversity will lead to the "creative economy." It is the understanding of tolerance – the openness of Ireland to new ideas and new people – which will enable Ireland to harness knowledge, creativity and talent, and it is this that will lead to innovation and productivity growth.[divider]

Implications of this research

My study has identified implications for attracting and retaining LGB employees. Through the implementation of LGB supportive policies and practices, organizations can have a positive impact of the lives of their LGB employees, but also on the general wellbeing of all employees, whether or not they belong to a minority group.

As LGB employees take into account the extent to which potential employees are gay-friendly, organizations that signal openness and embrace diversity will likely gain a competitive advantage in the recruitment process. In addition, because co-worker support is so important to LGB employees' job satisfaction, disclosure and experiences of discrimination and harassment, it would be beneficial to ensure that sexual orientation is part of diversity awareness and training. This would help to foster a climate supportive of all diversity and signal to all employees that discrimination is not tolerated.

Related resources

Organizations for advocacy and education

Government policy

  • Simply Gay (Dutch government's LGBT policy document 2008-11)

In the media

Research papers



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1 Archived Comment

Davin Roche January 8, 2014 at 10:02 am

Very informative article



For more information and news on how leading companies in Ireland are connecting LGBT diversity and inclusion with their business goals see www.diversitychampions.ie

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