Happy Pride Month! As an ethics and compliance leader and a member of the LGBTQIA community, I’m professionally and personally encouraged to see so many corporate logos “going rainbow” this June. It feels like a sea of recognition on social media and it is darn cheerful. With a recent Gallup poll finding that a whopping 5.6% of Americans, and one in six Gen Zers, identify as LGBTQIA, celebrating Pride is increasingly essential to building brand and employee loyalty.

Laura Nicole Dyer, compliance leader, smiles looking to camera.

Laura Nicole Dyer, Compliance Professional

But let us not equate rainbows in June with an inclusive culture at our companies. As ethics and compliance professionals, we are key players in creating a truly inclusive culture for LGBTQIA employees and other marginalized groups. We lead a program that governs how compliance concerns and other types of misconduct are reported, investigated, and resolved. We connect with employees directly in the course of such investigations. In fact, we may spend more time with them than any other leader in our organization. Our work creates lasting impressions that can serve our core functions of building culture and managing risk—or do harm that damages trust and leaves the company vulnerable.

The goal of an LGBTQIA inclusive workplace is not to have all of your employees feel they should “come out.” Instead, normalize the existence of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or any of the other identifiers adopted by this community (I have chosen to use LGBTQIA in this article, while recognizing that terms vary across the world and none is a perfect fit for everyone). Create enough psychological safety that employees can show up how they choose at work. This article will identify specific areas of focus for building LGBTQIA inclusion into your ethics and compliance program, and efforts you can support across your business.

Surveying, Training, and Policies

Include gender identity and sexual orientation identifiers in surveys. These two types of identity are often not legal requirements for recruitment and hiring, therefore many companies do not collect this information about candidates or employees. But the old adage that what is measured, matters applies here too. Asking individuals to share this part of themselves signals that the company recognizes and values these identities, and understands that they may have distinct experiences and concerns. To send this important message to your future reporters and witnesses, ensure your annual ethics and compliance survey includes these identifiers—and create momentum to adopt such practices across the business, such as in your company’s online application portal. Give employees the ability to self-define or decline to identify.

Focus on eliminating “safe spaces”—for disparaging comments. LGBTQIA employees can be at greater risk for experiencing “unintentional” microaggressions because their identities may not be visually identifiable (in general relying on visual identifiers of affinity is problematic but commonplace). Being “invisible” offers privilege, but may come at a high cost to these employees and your business if their coworkers are insensitive about an identity that may not be obvious.

Early in my career, a senior coworker learned that the Mayor of San Francisco was issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Because I was a recent transplant from California, she showed up at my desk in angry tears asking, “What do these people want?” She did not know I was those people. I did not come out to her. Instead, I said simply that they likely wanted the same thing she did when she married.

I have many stories like this one. I’m sad to say that I internalized some of the homophobia I experienced, believing for a time that I had to separate my “work self” from this aspect of my identity to be seen as an impartial professional. In each instance, the message I received was that this aspect of my identity was not welcome at this company.

That’s right—LGBTQIA employees will often associate your company with the comments they are subjected to by coworkers, just as research shows that women exposed to sexist comments at work are more likely to consider leaving. This negative association can undermine your efforts to build culture and encourage reporting. In other words, it can make it harder to protect the company from any kind of wrongdoing.

To combat this risk, make sure your mandatory training addresses how harmful it can be to assume aspects of any individual’s identity. Address the spectrum of misconduct, including offhand comments or microaggressions. Make clear in training and underlying policies, such as your Code of Conduct, Employee Handbook, or Communication Guidelines, that non-inclusive comments are not welcome at work. Encourage employees to report if they witness such comments.

In addressing LGBTQIA people in particular, the challenge of weighing freedom from discrimination against other employees’ religious beliefs about them may be raised. In private company work environments, there is not generally a free speech right, and your company’s policies can and should draw boundaries around sharing non-inclusive religious beliefs at work. Many LGBTQIA employees have their own religious beliefs that are also worthy of respect.

Reporting and Investigations

Train leaders to always encourage reporting. In my experience, without training, leaders are more likely to encourage reporting only if they agree with the issue or concern. Train leaders that they should always inform an employee of their ability to report, whether or not the leader shares the concern an employee is raising. Remind leaders that you have an effective reporting program, and that while not every report will lead to an investigation, the opportunity for investigators to listen to employees effectively and explain to them why something is or is not actionable under the company’s policies enhances a culture of inclusion and compliance. Employees will hopefully feel heard and gain knowledge about the company’s policies.

In contrast, the negative impacts of discouraging employee reporting can be profound. At best, employees lose confidence in the organization and may not report subsequent concerns. At worst, policy violations or other illegal behavior are not addressed, leaving the company exposed unnecessarily.

Implement a systematic approach to internal investigations. Internal investigations should not solely address wrongdoing or noncompliance.  They should also build trust. Building an investigative program that ensures employees feel heard and are treated with consistency and respect, is a powerful tool in building an inclusive culture and increasing employee willingness to report. Further, robust reporting only occurs when employees trust what comes after it.

Many individuals from marginalized groups have had negative experiences with individuals in investigatory roles. You have the ability to add to that burden, or to provide a different experience. Very few other individuals at your company can impact culture—for better, or for worse—in this crucial way.

Advocate for all company investigators, even those who may sit outside of compliance, to receive standardized training, including on working with employees from marginalized groups. Have diligent oversight of their work and the outcomes it generates. Use a comprehensive tracking system to aid consistency and allow investigative teams to learn and evolve practices collaboratively over time.

When interviewing employee reporters or witnesses, always begin by laying out how the investigative process works and set ground rules and expectations. Tell employees why you may not be able to share details about the outcome of an investigation. Let them know they can always reach out to you with questions or to request updates. Use standardized protocols for reporter and witness interviewing. For example, I let witnesses know I may say something like “I have heard ______,” to protect the identity of other witnesses and that I will attempt to do the same for them in other interviews.

Listen to what employees with marginalized identities say to you about your protocols and practices, and survey them on this topic. For example, after standard introductory statements, a witness once said to me, “This is how internal investigations should work,” implying that a previous experience with a less-structured process had left them skeptical. Another thanked me for listening at the end of a difficult interview. While this work is never done and you will make mistakes, feedback can help you determine if you are building trust rather than causing harm during an investigation.

LGBTQIA Inclusion Across the Company

Establish LGBTQIA resource groups that are community-led and company-supported. Employees need safe spaces they help define and lead where they can openly discuss the issues that are important to them at work. Leadership needs them to alert you when you are missing the mark on key initiatives, or when something critical is happening in their communities that may impact your workplace. Consider whether the company can allocate funds to support programming, philanthropic giving, and stipends for leadership roles in these groups.

Foster inclusive leadership that allows LGBTQIA employees to see themselves reflected. Companies can start by creating a recruitment process that allows LGBTQIA candidates to be sought out and identified, through steps like including their identifiers in your application process and attending recruitment events and posting in spaces designed to attract LGBTQIA professionals. Once hired, let them lead any initiative to share this aspect of their identity more broadly within the company or externally.

Build inclusive professional development programs. Can your company get more curious about what LGBTQIA employees need to not only stay, but to grow and succeed? Mentoring efforts? Progressive family-building benefits? Challenge the company to articulate how its development programs reflect needs specific to the LGBTQIA community.

If we take the time to learn and incorporate these approaches into our companies, not only will our June rainbows translate into Pride felt throughout the year, but employees with other marginalized identities will also experience increased safety and belonging—and our culture and risk management programs will benefit correspondingly.

About the Expert:

Laura Nicole Dyer is an attorney and ethics and compliance leader located in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about building inclusive practices into ethics and compliance programs. She has worked in health care for the past eight years, most recently as the Director of Ethics at Cambia Health Solutions, a World’s Most Ethical Companies© honoree for the past four years. Laura will shortly begin a new compliance leadership role at a technology company. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.