LGBTQI Discrimination Costs Businesses and Communities Dearly

The fight for inclusivity in the workplace begins long before employees join the workforce, but that’s no reason to let leaders off the hook  

Sara Silano 27 June, 2022 | 12:31AM
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Your productivity is reduced by around 10% if you are forced to hide your identity. So says Out Leadership, a global network that promotes the inclusion of the LGBTQI-plus community in business.

Other of the organisation’s data make for sobering reading, and particularly now, as Pride month draws to a close, and in the wake of the shocking attack in Oslo.

For context, the LGBTQI-plus acronym refers not only to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, but those who do not feel fully represented by the label of heterosexual cisgender identity. It’s thought there are 266 million such folk across the world, equal to 3.5% of the global population.

This is a significant pool of talent, Out Leadership says. It then posits that the gross domestic product of an entire country could potentially increase by 3% if adequate anti-discrimination policies were implemented.  

Discrimination in The Workplace

On this front, there is still a long way to go. In Italy (where the original version of this article was written), a survey by ISTAT and UNAR conducted between 2020 and 2021 revealed that 26% of people who identify as gay or bisexual felt their orientation represented a disadvantage in at least one of several areas, including careers and professional growth, recognition and appreciation, and income and remuneration.

"Even 26% is an optimistic estimate," says Cesare Sofianopulo, co-founder of insurance giant Generali’s WeProud initiative. Created in October 2020, it unites nearly a thousand employees around the world. The group’s Italian branch was launched in December 2020. 

"Many LGBTQI-plus people want to remain hidden, and believe their private and work life should remain separate, and that it is wrong to expose others," Sofianopulo says.

"There are plenty of people who perhaps refer to their partner or describe their family history using pronouns of the opposite gender or in more neutral ways in order not to reveal their identities."

But the figure of 26% is worrying for another reason. Chiara, a manager at a multinational consultancy firm, says she has always had support.

"I belong to the 74% for whom sexual orientation has not represented a disadvantage in their working life. It’s probably because I have always been lucky to work for a large American firm, which is globally very attentive to diversity issues – not just for the LGBTQI-plus community, but for women, people with disabilities, and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

She continues:

"I have always been part of a community of allies within the company where initiatives and courses are organised to support the whole community and foster a culture of inclusion. My experience is absolutely positive. Belonging to the lesbian community has never been a disadvantage or an advantage for me."

The Cost of Invisibility

According to the ISTAT-UNAR survey, 40.3% of the more than 21,000 respondents avoided talking about their private life to keep their sexual orientation hidden. Furthermore, one in five people say they have avoided hanging out with people in the workplace in their free time in order to avoid talking about their identity.

"Invisibility takes a lot of effort," admits Sofianopulo. 

"It means every morning taking off the homosexual hat and putting on that of the straight man – or worse, putting on a hood. But that also has an impact on work. 

"Taking off the hood exposes other issues, such as the preconception that gays should work in human resources or communications departments and not in STEM disciplines."

What Price Inclusion?

Being invisible is costly to the individual and their employer, then. 

"It means feeling alone and unvalued, and not enjoying the entrenched rights granted at birth to others,” Chiara says. "This impacts your performance at work. Even if you do want to keep things separate, wellbeing and performance are inextricably linked".

Research projects are now starting to address the added value of diversity in companies.

In Finland, a study of around 650 companies by the Aalto University School of Business and Vaasa University revealed strong evidence of higher profitability and higher equity valuations at LGBTQI-plus-friendly companies. 

"The research also underlines how taking a positive stance on these issues is a good tool for retaining talent, as it increases staff’s overall satisfaction," Chiara says.

What's Changing?

Large companies are talking big on inclusion. For example, Performant by Scoa reports that 260 companies globally have expressed their support for the United Nations Global LGBTI Standards for Business, an officially recognised guide for combating discrimination.

"In large companies like mine, training and awareness-raising initiatives on these issues are undertaken at all levels," says Sofianopulo. 

"It is important to promote an inclusive environment because inclusion is synonymous with innovation, represents an important lever for business and employer branding, and encourages a virtuous circles of civility among staff, even in local communities.

"I started my commitment in DEI six years ago and now, looking back, I am impressed by the progress made," says Sofianopulo. 

"Looking outside the company I work for, I notice there are companies today that are at the forefront on these issues, but that started their ‘revolution’ by accident: these are concrete examples of how so much progress can be born out of a tumble. 

"Finally, there are those who decide to do rainbow washing (the practice of using or exploiting LGBTQI-plus rights within corporate communication without making a significant contribution to the issue), but I am sure that every starting point, if it then leads to a better culture of inclusivity, it should be valued. It is not important where you start from, but where you arrive."

Walking The Walk

For Chiara, inclusion initiatives should always have a practical impact on the work and personal lives of employees. They should not just be a declaration of good intention

"If the company is limited to making public proclamations (rainbow washing), but does not care about having a truly inclusive culture, real change will always be hindered," she says.

"For example, why not make the employee benefits currently enjoyed by heterosexual couples the same for same-sex couples (and families)? 

"Supplementary health insurance comes to mind too. That might favour health plans that provide support to people transitioning whose birth sex is not aligned with their gender identity. Another example is parental leave for couples who decide to have children, or allowing trans employees to modify their personal data on companies’ human resources systems."

Educating for Inclusion

Inclusion must also involve a company’s managerial and operational hierarchy at all levels. But the path to inclusivity begins long before your staff arrive in the workplace as teenagers or young adults. 

"The path to create an inclusive culture should begin in schools to combat prejudice and bullying", concludes Cesare. 

"We have to remember that most of the time it is people who discriminate, not companies, especially when they have codes of conduct. However, it is up to the organisation to ensure that the policies are respected and to spread a true culture of hospitality among employees."

The article was originally published on, our Italian website


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Sara Silano

Sara Silano  is Editorial Manager for Morningstar Italy

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