Pride means many different things in the queer community. For us—two LGBTQ leaders at Bain & Company—it means celebrating the individual ways in which we all contribute in the workplace with our distinct backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and abilities.
That means recognizing that we all do our best work when everyone can show up as, and be celebrated for, their full, authentic selves. This is what constitutes true inclusion. Although many companies are awakening to the real business benefits of welcoming LGBTQ employees—including an ability to attract and retain top talent, and (in many but not all regions) an enhancement of a company’s image among both employees and customers—inclusion is about much more than “welcoming everyone.” Indeed Bain’s recent study of inclusion in the workplace, The Fabric of Belonging: How to Weave an Inclusive Culture, found that more than 70% of LGBTQ employees do not feel fully included at work.
Our study also found that what makes employees feel fully included in an organization is distinct for different groups, and that an intersectional lens that captures a multiplicity of identities enables companies to tailor their inclusion efforts most effectively. The data below shows significant variety in top enablers of inclusion across genders and regions in the LGBTQ community alone. (We know from our research that people’s experiences of inclusion are grounded in both underlying systemic support—through fair processes and systems—and everyday behaviors. We refer to these different ways of creating inclusion as “systemic” and “behavioral” enablers.)
Because the category “LGBTQ” is so broad—and because many organizations lack accurate data about the specific contours of its LGBTQ population—it may seem daunting to understand how to create greater inclusion for members of this group. Yet as LGBTQ leaders at Bain who recognize the incredible diversity of the queer community—about which our data only scratches the surface—we see some commonalities that can help organizations better recognize, include, and empower queer talent.
A shared experience of living outside the lines
Being LGBTQ brings a distinct feeling of “otherness.” LGBTQ folks often experience, from a young age, an awareness of difference that teaches us to navigate relationships and self-expression delicately. Because our identity is often something we have the choice to “cover,” we learn to constantly calibrate how “out” to be across settings, since even mundane workplace catch-ups can quickly become uncomfortable or even painful.
Being LGBTQ often comes with a distinct life backdrop. While the contours vary, queer folks often have the freedom (and opportunity) to design a life on their own terms, with great intentionality. This means that an organization’s LGBTQ talent brings a wide array of life backdrops—with varied family structures, gender expressions, financial considerations, and motivations for work. Marriage arrangements (if legally allowed), decisions around children (if legally allowed), and income needs are all more “choose-your-own-adventure” for those who identify as queer.
Because of these unique experiences, LGBTQ folks often bring differentiated perspectives and abilities to the workplace. While this will not be true for every queer person, a wide variety of research bears out that LGBTQ people (for reasons of nurture or nature) have frequently developed strengths in empathy, understanding social and group dynamics, and promoting cohesion. And the grit developed from “living outside the lines” often makes LGBTQ people highly effective challengers and change agents in an organization.
What leaders and organizations can do
Both of us have experienced, albeit in different ways, uncertainty about the interplay of our identities with our working lives. For Brenen—and, he suspects, for many other gay men—it has been a long learning process. When he began his career, he saw his orientation as incidental to the work he was best at. But over the years, he found himself gravitating toward working with clients on organizational, teaming, and leadership challenges, as well as work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Similarly, Andrea entered the consulting world wondering if she was too sensitive—a quality she believes is related to her orientation and background—for an often hard-edged environment, and she also had to learn how a key aspect of her identity is an asset.
It’s impossible for the two of us, or for anyone, to precisely quantify how much the way we identify influences who we become at work and beyond. What we have in common, however, is having had incredible sponsors at Bain who encouraged us to see that our true, full selves were valuable in our work. For me, Andrea, my sponsor pointed out that my sensitivity helped make me highly attuned to clients (and teammates) who were uncomfortable or even struggling. Being fully myself has helped me serve both clients and teams better. And for me, Brenen, my sponsor helped me see strengths that gave me confidence to specialize in the areas best suited to my distinct capabilities—and created opportunities to deepen skills and pursue passions.
We both believe this is what inclusive leadership means: Encouraging employees to bring their full selves to work. Leaders today—not just executives, but line leaders as well—increasingly recognize that diversity and inclusion make a business stronger. Our research found that, for all LGBTQ groups, the top enablers of inclusion were consistently around areas of growth and career development: coaching, talent development programs, and growth mindsets. If you want to truly include all your queer talent—and all your talent, period—here are a few clear areas on which to focus:
- Get the basics right. Create an environment where “coming out” is safe and easy. Examine how language—including pronoun assumptions and discussions of home life—may be working to include or exclude. Create opportunities for all employees to educate themselves on LGBTQ matters. Revisit your benefits, particularly healthcare and family leave, and ensure they meet the needs of all identities, genders, orientations, and family setups. Build allyship programs that “lighten the load.”
- Embrace individuality in talent management. Examine role expectations, performance reviews, and accepted language for describing success. Is your organization set up to encourage and cultivate diversity of thought in the most critical roles? Answering this question might mean looking, for example, at whether leaders use coded language to describe high performance, or privilege particular ways of framing and communicating ideas. Use what you learn to separate true role requirements from unspoken expectations.
- Enable tailored career pathways. LGBTQ employees are continually coming out, and our identities and passions may change significantly over the course of our careers. Inclusive organizations create clear pathways for lateral career moves that keep strong talent engaged. Part-time, hybrid, and remote roles and sabbaticals benefit everyone, but are particularly important for creating equity for queer employees.
- Cultivate true sponsorship. Mentor programs for minority groups are common, but true sponsorship opens doors, creates advocates, and helps employees navigate their organization. Minority talent (including and beyond LGBTQ individuals) benefits immensely from true sponsorship by senior leaders—the kind that actively coaches and helps shape opportunities, both directly and “behind the scenes.”
Pride Month is an opportunity for the LGBTQ community to celebrate the progress we’ve made. But it’s also a time to reflect on the opportunities and challenges of embracing the unique talents and capabilities of each of us—queer or not—and to commit ourselves to creating the kinds of teams and organizations where individuals can truly do their best work. When we practice inclusion in this sense, organizations—and all the unique individuals who constitute them—can thrive.