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Mary Mazzoni headshot

How Companies Can Break Down Barriers and Empower LGBTQ+ Employees

The workplace isn't always the most welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ employees, but companies have the power to do something about it. We spoke with two out and proud leaders about their insights and advice for organizations looking to make their cultures and workplaces more inclusive.
By Mary Mazzoni
lgbtq+ pride flags against blue sky background

The workplace isn't always the most welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ employees, particularly as increasingly hostile rhetoric toward the community continues to make headlines in the U.S. For fear of discrimination, 46 percent of LGBTQ+ employees say they are closeted at work, according to polling from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation. Around half say they hear jokes about lesbian or gay people at least once in a while, and 31 percent say they've felt unhappy or depressed at work, the survey shows. 

As a result of discrimination in the workplace, white LGBTQ+ workers earn about 10 percent less over their lifetimes compared to straight white workers — and LGBTQ+ people of color, transgender people and nonbinary people earn even less, according to the HRC Foundation

Peter Gandolfo and John Volturo, two out and proud partners at the coaching, consulting and investment firm Evolution, wanted to do something about it. They co-created Evolution's Gay Men's Leadership Circles, a peer group of directors, managers and C-suite leaders who meet to lift each other up, support each other in their careers, and share ideas about how to make their organizations more inclusive. 

"The courage that people show up with each week that we meet is palpable," said Volturo, who spent decades serving in C-suites and on corporate boards as an out member of the community. "People get to promotions faster, people get to key decisions faster, because they're seeing different perspectives from their peers and they're feeling empowered in the sense of community we provide." 

But you don't have to be part of the Circles — or even part of the community — to create change within your organization and make it a more inclusive place. Read on for Gandolfo and Volturo's top insights and advice. 

Create and support employee resource groups for LGBTQ+ employees

Employee resource groups, or ERGs, are employee-led groups that foster diversity, equity and inclusion within organizations. They can take many forms — from women's ERGs to Black, Latino and Asian-American ERGs, to wellness-focused ERGs.

For the LGBTQ+ community in particular, "These groups allow LGBTQ+ people and their allies to come together for connection," Gandolfo said. "It allows people to move away from feelings of isolation to realizing they have people in their organizations with similar lived experiences, and they have the support of people who don't even share those identities." 

Gandolfo has a close connection with ERGs and affinity communities, having served as the founding president for Mattel's LGBTQ+ ERG and represented LGBTQ+ alumni on the UCLA Anderson Alumni Board, and he knows the power these groups can hold in helping colleagues to feel seen and heard.

"I was very hesitant in starting the employee resource group at Mattel in particular, because I felt quite supported throughout my career," Gandolfo said. "Yet I realized there were probably people in the organization who hadn't even felt comfortable enough to come out yet because they hadn't had the same experience." 

Evolution partner Peter Gandolfo — an out and proud LGBTQ+ leader
Peter Gandolfo spent years at Mattel, where he served as founding president of the company's LGBTQ+ ERG, before joining Evolution as a partner. 

But don’t make it "their job" to fix your organization

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, we heard a lot from Black employees — particularly Black women — about being implicitly tasked with "fixing racism" and lack of representation within their organizations. Don't make the same mistake with your ERGs, Gandolfo said. 

"Everyone has their own feelings around what level of advocacy or education they want to play," he told us. "It's important for leadership to turn to the ERGs, but not just make it this expectation that it is their job, without opportunity to say no, to do all of this work." 

Embrace hybrid and remote work

In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone indoors, diversity advocates have celebrated the opportunities of remote and hybrid work and encouraged companies to keep these systems on board. "Those remote work options can create safer spaces for people who may fear going into the office because of physical or verbal discomfort that could come from things other people say," Volturo said.

"It's also harder for people in the LGBTQ+ community to move from one location to the next because every state does not treat LGBTQ+ people equally," he continued. "You get the ability for those folks to actually work for a company they feel they could work for, but not live in that state where they would feel unsafe with their family." 

Even for employees who wouldn't be required to relocate for a new job, "The idea that they have the flexibility of working from home and avoiding the risk of a microaggression happening in person is really appealing for them," Gandolfo added. 

Leverage diversity, equity and inclusion training to bust unconscious bias 

In a survey released by Indeed earlier this month, LGBTQ+ workers called out LGBTQ-specific diversity training as a solid first step for educating corporate teams about how to avoid, spot, and stamp out microaggressions and discrimination against their colleagues. 

"Diversity and inclusion training is obviously a buzzword today, but it's really important — especially if it's approached the right way," Volturo said. "People don't realize their unconscious biases, and the idea that we can shine some light on that is helpful, as long as it's delivered in a way that people can hear it."

John Volturo Evolution — an out and proud LGBTQ+ leader
Evolution partner John Volturo is recognized as one of a few individuals who has served in multiple C-suites and boards as an out member of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Rally leadership to create a more welcoming culture

"It's really important to get the buy-in of the executive leadership team, so that they start talking the talk and walking the walk and making the environment at work feel a little bit more inclusive, even though it's not going to be perfect," Volturo said.

When leadership is intentional about welcoming the input of everyone on their teams, it allows employees to be more of themselves at work and thrive as a result. "Especially if there isn't an LGBTQ+ person in a leadership role, be explicit about someone in leadership who is going to be an executive champion for this community," Gandolfo added. "There's a lot of benefit to it being someone who doesn't share that identity — it's reinforcing that the responsibility isn't solely on the people who are being marginalized."

Foster a virtuous cycle of inclusion

In his decades of experience in the C-suite, "I made it my business to make sure my teams were the most diverse, because that was the lens through which I look at the world," Volturo said. "As a result, though, my peers also started doing it. When that starts happening within a company, the HR folks start taking a little bit more notice, the leaders take a little bit more notice, and then everyone else does as well, because they start seeing themselves reflected in the new hires." 

Championing diversity also leads to real business benefits. "I had the highest retention on my teams," he continued. "We know through lots of qualitative and quantitative studies that when people are showing up authentically at work, the bottom line improves for companies. Imagine your best workers doing their best work because they're in an environment that supports that." 

Image credits: Daniel James and Teddy O via Unsplash and Evolution

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni