In both U.S. employment law and cultural norms, a lot has changed for LGBTQ+ people in the past few decades. The conversation below between founder of The Prinz Law Firm Kristen Prinz and Paralegal Allison Wolcott, who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, considers the evolution of employer obligations and employee rights during that time period and provides insight into what inclusion looks like.
Allison: Kristen, thanks for talking with me about this topic. It’s important to me personally as a bi person who has been in the workforce around 25 years.
You founded the firm in 2009. What’ve been the most important employment issues for your LGBTQ+ clients and contacts during that time?
Kristen: Protections for employees have progressed a lot since I launched the firm. It is only during the past 25 or so years anti-discrimination laws have evolved to include protections for LGBTQ+ employees. Although Illinois has been fairly progressive in its human rights protections, Title VII was not clearly applied to sexual orientation or gender identity until 2020. And even then, there is a large carve-out for religious employers.
The evolution of domestic partnership and marriage laws has also impacted employment rights for LGBTQ+ employees in that, prior to those laws, leave for partner health issues, adoptions, and other familial benefits were subject to the discretion and generosity of employers.
It is critical to understand that what matters most is how LGBTQ+ people have experienced these changes. There are laws and then there is how people in workplaces behave and the two are not always aligned. So, while I am thrilled that the law has evolved, I think we as humans still have a lot of work to do to address discrimination in the workplace.
Culturally, what’s important to you as an LGBTQ+ person in the workplace?
Allison: For me, inclusion is at the top of the list. It’s important to me that my employer explicitly demonstrate to all employees that LGBTQ+ people are welcome. What this looks like in practice is sharing with employees their policies for protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace, hosting events and spotlighting employee voices around important cultural observances like National Coming Out Day and Pride Month, and providing access to diversity training for all employees so that everyone can learn how to welcome LGBTQ+ folks.
So, what are the most significant pieces of legislation that have been enacted to protect LGBTQ+ employees during your time in practice? And what do they mean for both employers and employees?
Kristen: It is not just the relevant statutes that matter, but how courts have interpreted them over the years. I think it is great that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has now been found to protect LGBTQ+ employees from discrimination at work, and that marriage equality was gained through the Obergefell v. Hodges case in 2015. However, the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court had to issue the decisions that confirmed these rights is scary. That means that the people, through their elected representatives, were seemingly unwilling to do so. It is also questionable whether those decisions would be issued by the Court as it exists today. And there continue to be attacks on gender identity and sexual orientation that may end up before this Court. That is why we need to protect these rights as much as possible in workplaces.
Have you ever had any experiences in the workplace that made you feel uncomfortable as an LGBTQ+ person?
Allison: I have! Heteronormative language is the most frequently occurring one. That happens when, say, if a woman refers to her spouse in conversation with a colleague, and that colleague responds, “Oh, what does he do for a living?” That “he” pronoun assumes that the woman is straight and married to a man. Of course, that is not always the case. And, if there’s been no employee communications from the employer stating that the workplace is LGBTQ+ friendly, then I hesitate to address things like that with the unintentionally offending colleague since I’m not sure whether I’m in a safe space to do so.
What advice would you give LGBTQ+ people who are struggling with their workplace culture or who think their rights might have been violated?
Kristen: Speak up. And assume positive intent. So many times we assume that others are intentionally creating an environment that makes others uncomfortable when in fact many workplace issues stem from a lack of communication. If the workplace doesn’t make that comfortable, try using an ally to help communicate your concerns. Sometimes it helps to talk about outside experiences to give insight to your current expectations. Speaking up doesn’t always mean calling people out. Sometimes it means sharing a personal story that gives colleagues an opportunity to reflect.
What advice would you give to employers who want to make their workplace more welcoming to LGBTQ+ people?
Allison: I have some ideas about that below. The best part: They’re broadly applicable to various protected classes, not just LGBTQ+ people. Yet they come with one caveat: no group of people is a monolith. One LGBTQ+ person might love one of these ideas, and another LGBTQ+ person might loathe that same idea. So, it’s important to keep in mind that your impact rather than your intent is the determining factor as to whether one of these ideas is appropriate to try with your particular LGBTQ+ colleague or colleagues.
Representation matters. Seeing other “out” employees makes LGBTQ+ people more comfortable. Try to create a diverse workforce in which new hires can see members of their own groups thriving in your workplace.
Cultivate a workplace culture that says, “I see you, and I welcome you.” You might try some of the following:
- Promote workplace benefits that are important to LGBTQ+ people.
- Provide diversity training to employees. It can make people in protected classes feel seen and respected, and it will help others learn what’s appropriate and what’s not.
- Encourage the formation of employee resource groups for LGBTQ+ associates and/or allies.
- Participate in community Pride events as a company.
- Provide guidelines to employees periodically and during onboarding about asking about pronouns and not defaulting to heteronormativity.
- Elevate LGBTQ+ employee voices on internal- and external-facing company communications like blogs and YouTube.
- Post about Pride Month on your company’s social media channels, but make sure it’s not just an empty hat tip. Show what you’re doing for your LGBTQ+ employees and community.
- Host a Pride event for employees–both LGBTQ+ people and allies.
- Add a Pride message to your email signatures in June.
- Sponsor an LGBTQ+ community group, and share your sponsorship on social media.
Don’t expect LGBTQ+ people to educate you. Read, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, and explore art by LGBTQ+ creators to learn more. You can politely ask LGBTQ+ people about their own experiences, but it can be tiring for LGBTQ+ people to have to educate others on basic issues when they are already expending much energy on navigating a world that presents them with regular obstacles.