Toward the LGBTQ+ Friendly Workplace: Are We There Yet?

Gender and sexual minorities in the United States still face discrimination and a number of challenges. What are the workplace experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals and is the modern organization LGBTQ+ friendly? Read more to find out.

With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots marked by June of 2019, it is important to reflect on advances for the LGBTQ+ community over the past 50 years. The Stonewall riots, among many uprisings of the time, are largely considered the primary catalyst of the gay liberation movement and represent the precursor to the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States [1]. The impact of LGBTQ+ activism is reflected in strides towards acceptance and equality for gender and sexual minorities [1]. Along with these advances, psychological science has been used to influence a number of domains including the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, legal rulings favoring LGBTQ+ individuals, and positive changes in attitudes towards social issues such as same- sex marriage and parenting, and transgender rights. Despite such progress, gender and sexual minorities in the United States still face a number of social, legal, and professional challenges. Issues of heterosexism, or anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes, prejudice, and discrimination present major challenges to LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace. In order to address these issues, it is important to evaluate the state of the modern organization along with research examining the effects of LGBTQ+ discrimination.

The Modern Organization: How Are We Doing?

Recent years have been characterized by strides towards workplace equality for LGBTQ+ people in many parts of the world. Many of these changes are, with few exceptions, indicative of a positive trend resulting in increased legal protections, improved workplace climate, and more opportunities for the advancement of LGBTQ+ individuals. One method to evaluate the state of organizational policies for LGBTQ+ employees is the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI; [2]). This index is the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices relating to LGBTQ+ employees. The 2019 CEI reported that 572 major businesses earned a perfect score and the distinction of “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality” [2]. The number of major businesses that earned this distinction has increased substantially since the first report was released in 2002, from 13 to 572 businesses in 2019 [2]. This is significant considering the increased stringency of the criteria to reflect changes in the sociopolitical landscape of LGBTQ+ equality. The increased visibility of the transgender community, in particular, has made such a distinction increasingly rigorous. At its inception, only 5% of the rated businesses offered gender identity non- discrimination protections in the workplace. Today, 97% of CEI-rated businesses have explicit gender identity employment protections [2].

While the CEI reflects a positive trend towards workplace equality for LGBTQ+ employees, these findings should be interpreted with caution. Many equality indices are fraught with problems and encourage superficial conformity rather than real change for LGBTQ+ workers [3]. These rankings do not give small organizations a clear path towards inclusion [3]. With that said, these indices do provide a useful benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices. Ultimately, these indices should seek to reward substantive changes and center the lived experiences of gender and sexual minorities [3].

The Impact of Heterosexism in the Workplace.

The targets of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination experience a wide array of negative outcomes as a result of anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes and discrimination. According to minority stress theory, experiencing discrimination causes stress responses that accrue over time and result in poorer mental and physical health [4]. A survey study using two community samples tested a structural model linking the experience of heterosexism with outcomes such as decreased job satisfaction, heightened work withdrawal, psychological distress, and physical health impairments [4]. Clearly, there is great value in combatting heterosexism in the workplace.

What Can We Do?

The experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace are largely affected by legislation. Currently, anti- discrimination legislation for sexual orientation is only available in twenty-two states in the United States [2]. The legal situation in the United States is volatile, facing constant challenges from the political and business spheres. Across three studies, researchers examined the effects of anti- discrimination legislation on interpersonal discrimination in employment [5]. A phone survey revealed that public awareness of sexual orientation laws is heightened in communities with legislation [5]. A field experiment using job applicants expressing themselves as gay or non-gay, found that gay applicants experienced decreased discrimination in areas with protective legislation [5]. Finally, an experimental lab study found that reduced discrimination still occurs when legal awareness is randomly assigned and manipulated in participants [5]. Legislation is critical in protecting LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace and the absence of such protection is a crucial antecedent of discrimination.

Workplace discrimination is perpetuated by a lack of consistent formal policies as well as informal experiences of prejudice. The policies and climate of an organization play a key role in combatting heterosexism. LGBTQ+ employees are less likely to report discrimination in organizations that (1) have written policies forbidding discrimination, (2) include sexual orientation in their definition of diversity, and (3) offer same- sex domestic partner benefits [6]. While organizational policies play a key role in preventing and reducing discrimination, the individuals who make up these organizations are essential. A recent survey study demonstrated that even heterosexual employees feel the negative effects of working in an anti‐gay workplace [7]. A national survey found that employees with supportive coworkers and supervisors report less fear of disclosure and were more likely to be out at work compared to those with unsupportive work groups [8]. The presence of supportive coworkers, or “allies”, can foster environments that allow for the full participation of LGBTQ+ employees.

The march towards full equality for gender and sexual minorities is still in progress. Substantive change efforts should center the lived experiences of gender and sexual minorities. All employees can strive to create an atmosphere that is accepting of all individuals in the workplace, regardless of their gender and sexual orientation. When possible, individuals should support efforts to enact legal protections for LGBTQ+ individuals. At the end of the day, organizations reflect collectives of individuals striving towards a common goal and each person plays a key role in creating workplaces that allow for the full participation of employees of all identities.


1 Bernstein, M. (2002). Identities and Politics: Toward a Historical Understanding of the Lesbian and Gay Movement. Social Science History, 26(3), 531-581. 

2 Human Rights Campaign Foundation. (2019). HRC’s 2019 corporate equality index. Retrieved from

3 Tayar, M. ( 2017) Ranking LGBT inclusion: Diversity ranking systems as institutional archetypesCan J Adm Sci, 34: 198– 210. doi:10.1002/cjas.1433

4  Waldo, C. R. (1999). Working in a majority context: A structural model of heterosexism as minority stress in the workplace. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 46(2), 218-232.

5 Barron, L. G., & Hebl, M. (2013). The force of law: The effects of sexual orientation antidiscrimination legislation on interpersonal discrimination in employment. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 19(2), 191-205.

6 Ragins, B. R., & Cornwell, J. M. (2001). Pink triangles: Antecedents and consequences of perceived workplace discrimination against gay and lesbian employees. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(6), 1244-1261. 

7 Miner, K. N., & Costa, P. L. (2018). Ambient workplace heterosexism: Implications for sexual minority and heterosexual employees. Stress and Health34(4), 563-572.

8 Ragins, B. R., & Cornwell, J. M. (2001b). Walking the line: Fear and disclosure of sexual orientation in the workplace. Paper presented at the National Academy of Management Meeting, Washington, DC.