How Organizations Can Support the Success of LGBTQ+ Talent in Corporate America

That's not a valid work email account. Please enter your work email (e.g.
Please enter your work email

2020 threw us all for a loop. As the workforce went virtual overnight, traditional approaches to attracting and retaining talent were upended. There were no more in-person interviews or on-site visits, no more face-to-face meetings, and definitely no more water-cooler conversations to get to know your colleagues.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve also witnessed the escalation of conversations about social justice, a dialogue that is now planted firmly at the center of the workplace. Many businesses were forced to take a hard look (in some cases, a first look) at their public stances on these conversations and their internal commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Governments, corporations, associations, and individuals all published statements affirming or reaffirming their commitments. Those who failed to do so faced intense scrutiny.

On paper, diversity has become a top hiring priority. That raises an important question: What does “diversity” actually mean in the context of work?

Sussing Out Corporate Culture

Today, conversations about DEI have become so prominent that it’s easy to forget this discourse is a relatively recent development. The diversity conversation, traditionally focused on race and gender, is only now expanding to include other types of diversity, like gender identity and sexual orientation.

Is corporate America simply trying to check the right boxes, or are we actually creating equitable spaces for the underrepresented groups we aim to recruit? As a third party, recruiters have a unique opportunity to empower organizations to build sustainable hiring frameworks that support marginalized candidates and establish pathways for their success.

In the last 5-10 years, it has undeniably become easier to come out at work, but it’s still somewhat of a gray area for candidates and employers. Legally, there is a rigid framework for what information can be collected about sexual identity and how that information can be used. To avoid presumed discrimination, businesses are inclined to create more space between the “sensitive information” collected on a candidate and the hiring process. While there are exceptions for gender and ethnicity — two areas with a long history of discrimination — most organizations have yet to extend the same considerations to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Building Inclusive Workplaces

While the pandemic has made it more difficult for new hires to experience a company’s culture firsthand, it has also prompted leaders to create new ways of sustaining and communicating the positive elements of their cultures.

From large corporations to startups, building an inclusive culture starts with the first interview. Today, candidates are taking a more active role in bringing up DEI during interviews. Job seekers looking to feel out the sociocultural dimensions of a workplace — without revealing more about themselves than feels right — should ask specific questions about DEI programs. This proactive approach to interviewing, which is becoming standard for younger candidates entering the workforce, can also help senior candidates make informed decisions without coming out on day one.

To get a sense of how tenured LGBTQ+ professionals approach discussions about gender and sexual identity at work, I spoke with several leading corporate executives who are out in the workplace. They shared their experiences and advice on the best methods for recruiting and retaining diverse talent.

3 Questions LGBTQ+ Candidates Should Ask Themselves

First and foremost, asking the right questions helped these executives get a sense of whether a company is truly committed to diversity (and to what extent). The head of diversity and inclusion for a large US manufacturer told me he asks himself three questions to see if a company’s culture is a good fit for him. He also said no amount of money would make him sacrifice any one of these criteria:

1. Does the brand align with who I am and what I care about?

2. What type of leader and communicator is the person I would be working for?

3. Is the job located somewhere inherently more diverse and accepting, such as a big city?

Even if candidates lead the discussion about DEI during interviews, hiring managers and HR leaders should clearly outline the company’s mechanisms to support a candidate post-hire.

Systems and Programs to Bolster DEI

Several executives I spoke with, including the chief people officer of a subscription-based eCommerce company, suggested using a “buddy system.” A buddy, or what some might call a “sponsor,” doesn’t have to belong to the LGBTQ+ community. They can be an ally who is highly skilled and willing to help new hires integrate into the broader organization.

This approach should be implemented alongside an introduction to employee resource groups (ERGs), and a range of employees should be involved throughout the hiring process. Research shows that LGBTQ+ candidates and allies are more likely to respond well when they have the opportunity to connect with successful colleagues they can relate to.

We’re at a pivotal moment. Corporate America is finally putting its weight behind diversity and inclusion, but we need to keep hiring and retaining inclusive leaders to encourage, support, and commit to a lasting culture of DEI. Otherwise, hiring diverse talent will be an unsustainable short-term solution that doesn’t benefit anyone, and we’ll erode all of the progress we’ve made. It will take a commitment from all parties — executive team members, HR leaders, hiring managers, external recruiters, and diverse leaders who have made their way to the top — to continue pushing the needle forward and for the next generation of talent.

Olivia Westbrook-Gold is an executive search and leadership advisor at Marlin Hawk.

Get the top recruiting news and insights delivered to your inbox every week. Sign up for the Recruiter Today newsletter.

By Olivia Westbrook-Gold