I’m Gay’: I Opened Up About My Sexuality On Stage at a Work Event — And My Company Reacted In The Most Perfect Way.

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In the spirit of Pride Month and as conversations around the evolving landscape of diversity in the workplace continue, I find it crucial to utilize this moment as an opportunity to explore how workplaces can better support LGBTQ+ individuals. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, I've experienced firsthand the challenges faced in a workplace environment. I can't help but reflect on the countless comments that I've heard throughout my career – some well-intentioned, others simply insensible – that led me to think it would be easier, and perhaps better for my career, if I kept this part of my identity private. However, joining Xero changed my perception of this entirely.

As I reflect on my coming out experience, it's safe to say it was truly one of a kind and a monumental moment in my personal and professional journey. To set the scene, picture a 26-year-old man presenting on-stage at a company-wide event, organically slipping a quote from Beyoncé into my discussion. Well, this exact scenario is what led to me spontaneously deciding to disclose to the full room about my sexuality. This light-hearted inclusion went something along the lines of, “And if you didn't already know, I'm gay.”

Since that day, the support from my colleagues has been nothing short of incredible. This experience also taught me a valuable lesson about the impact organizations and their leaders can have in fostering environments that not only encourage authenticity and differences but actually celebrate them. At Xero, I've found myself in a unique position, one that allows me to embrace my sexuality and bring my full, authentic self to work. I was able to achieve this level of comfort due to the uplifting workplace environment and supportive individuals at our organization – a standard that all companies must try and achieve.

Having gone through this experience firsthand, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what it takes to cultivate a truly inclusive workplace environment, one where employees don't keep any part of their identity private and feel comfortable bringing their true selves to work.

Celebrate and embrace diversity year-round

Throughout the year, various occasions lead to heightened recognition of diverse groups — February is Black History Month, March is Women's History Month and June is Pride Month, among others. Being part of an organization that values these moments as opportunities to celebrate progress, honor history and acknowledge the diverse individuals within an organization is extremely heartwarming.

Every year during Pride Month, I'm reminded of the significance of being part of an organization that proudly supports both my community and me. Many organizations focus solely on symbolic changes like updating social media logos, which hold importance, but efforts shouldn't stop there. Significance for me is about recognizing the progress we've made, reflecting on areas of growth and opportunity and using symbolic efforts, like updating social media logos, to celebrate our achievements.

This feeling of joy and acceptance during Pride Month has led me to ponder: What more can organizations do to extend these important discussions and celebrations beyond just one month a year? Truly inclusive workplaces recognize the value of creating work environments that regularly track and celebrate diversity goals and achievements. While designated months provide great opportunities for additional engagement and recognition, leaders should strive to create a workplace culture that regularly values, acknowledges and celebrates differences.

As a leader, one of the primary ways I try to model this behavior is by broadening conversations beyond work-related topics whenever possible (and appropriate). If we want to encourage individuals to bring their authentic selves to work, we must create space for personal conversations. This includes being vulnerable and open to hearing about your colleague's personal joys, such as wedding anniversary plans or dreams for the future, in addition to providing opportunities in team meetings or informal gatherings to share and celebrate these occasions. I vividly remember a moment when I shared details about my husband and my wedding anniversary at work and thought to myself, this feels so normal and uplifting to share such an important milestone with my colleagues. This further reaffirmed my thinking about the importance of celebrating these personal aspects of our lives to strengthen connections in the workplace.

Related: How Language Could Be Sabotaging Your Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

Addressing workplace microaggressions

As we've seen over the past few years, diversity and inclusion have been hot workplace priorities, with many companies increasing attention to these initiatives. While this heightened focus is a great step towards fostering more inclusive workplaces, the journey can't stop there.

Despite progress made, workplace microaggressions are still a big problem, with nearly one-third of LGBTQ+ employees reporting such experiences. Recognizing the impact of microaggressions, particularly on marginalized communities, is essential both from a personal and professional perspective; in fact, a recent study indicated that 50% of affected individuals would consider leaving their jobs. As leaders, it's crucial to refrain from treating diversity and inclusion initiatives as checkboxes or objectives with end goals – but rather understand that this landscape will require consistent education and growth to reach true inclusivity.

Effectively addressing microaggressions requires proactive leadership and accountability. Organizations must provide education and awareness initiatives, such as training and workshops, to showcase to employees how to understand and prevent microaggressions. Kroger is an example of an organization that stands out for its commitment to its employees, in part demonstrated through its rigorous diversity and inclusion training programs. Recently, the company published a framework outlining its goals and focus areas for diversity and inclusion, which included diversity training for all employees and tailored programs based on organizational roles. This initiative fostered meaningful changes and helped to promote inclusivity throughout its workforce.

Organizational leaders must lead by example by actively listening and, when appropriate, intervening during uncomfortable situations to educate others. Additionally, it's important to seek opportunities for personal education and take the time to learn from colleagues about how certain situations or statements make them feel. By doing so, leaders will have greater insights into how to be more empathetic and can better model appropriate and inclusive behavior.

While it may not always be possible (or comfortable) to directly address colleagues who use microaggressions, consider advocating for policies or reporting mechanisms that enable employees to address and report such incidents. Employee resource groups (ERGs), which are employee-led programs within organizations aimed to promote belonging and acceptance within the workforce, are also a great tool to educate and inform others; 91% of organizations with ERGs in place say they have helped to boost company culture. Consider advocating for or offering to lead such groups if they don't already exist, as they serve as platforms for mutual support and learning.

Related: Inclusivity Begins During the Hiring Process. Here's How to Do It.

Incorporate inclusivity into hiring practices

When assessing candidates for new positions, it's easy to get stuck in familiar hiring patterns that primarily focus on educational degrees, professional experience and tangible skill sets. But, this should not, and cannot, be the only consideration.

Inclusive hiring extends beyond just hiring people from different backgrounds to meet DEI goals. The process involves reducing biases that have no direct impact on job performance to ensure candidates are all evaluated fairly. In order to do so effectively, organizations should consider taking steps such as removing names and backgrounds from the application process to focus on screening for skills or diversifying who participates in the interview process to avoid having homogenous panels. These steps not only allow for a fairer interview process but also can help companies achieve and maintain DEI goals.

Embracing diversity can help to foster innovation and creativity, while also attracting and retaining top talent. Having a diverse workforce helps to build connection and loyalty, both internally and externally. When you're in a meeting and take the time to look around, it's comforting to be around individuals from similar backgrounds or who've gone through similar experiences or challenges as you have. Whether it's someone who grew up in your native country or from the same non-traditional background as you are, having a wide range of diverse individuals who make up the workforce can help employees feel a stronger sense of belonging.

While organizations have undoubtedly made notable strides in strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and initiatives in recent years, the journey is far from over. There is certainly still room for growth and improvement in creating workplaces that aren't just welcoming but truly empowering for LGBTQ+ individuals — and it starts with leadership.



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