When Selisse Berry talks to business owners about creating a safe and inclusive space for their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) employees, they sometimes respond, “Oh, don’t worry. We don’t have those people here.”

Actually, you probably do, she tells them. But if those employees don’t feel they will be accepted, chances are they are hiding who they are. That, Berry tells employers, can negatively impact their businesses.

“When you don’t have to hide who you are, you can put that energy into your job, and creating relationships with your co-workers,” Berry says. “It just changes so many things.”

And, she adds, in an environment where employers compete to attract the best talent, many prospective employees won’t even consider working at a place that requires them to hide their true selves.

One result: Companies increasingly recognize the importance of diversity, and of the different perspectives that help them succeed.

Out and Equal

Berry founded and runs Out & Equal, a nonprofit organization that promotes LGBTI inclusion and equality at work. One technique: recruiting an outside speaker to initiate discussions that otherwise wouldn’t happen.

“A lot of times it’s about education,” Berry says. “People are afraid that they are not going to use the right words” when talking to LGBTI colleagues and trying to understand them.

Exhibition attendee perusing promotional materials at display booth (© AP Images)
A transgender executive director checks out a corporate booth at Out & Equal’s annual Equal Workplace Summit. (© AP Images)

“They don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. And so just doing some basic education helps get the conversation started and often allows people the safety to feel that they can come out and say who they are,” she said.

What makes a workplace “out and equal”? Berry points to these features:

  • nondiscrimination policy that clearly includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Identical health care and other benefits for straight and same-sex couples.
  • Active employer recruitment of LGBTI employees and inclusion of those employees as part of the company’s public image.

Social attitudes are changing, Berry concludes, not least because so much time is spent at work interacting with people of other races, religions, genders and sexual orientations.

“Our goal is to get to a place where it just doesn’t matter,” she said.