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Inclusive LGBTQ+ employees

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Keeping LGBTQ+ employees’ safe in global organizations

Published 12 June 2023 in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion • 6 min read

Multinational companies must dedicate themselves to ensuring the wellbeing and safety of LGBTQ+ employees, regardless of whether and how these individuals choose to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity, argues IMD’s Josefine van Zanten.

Globally, the legal formalization of LGBTQ+ rights is not progressing consistently. As things stand, 67 countries continue to criminalize homosexuality, and 11 impose the death penalty for private, consensual same-sex sexual activity. While Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Singapore all overturned anti-homosexuality legislation in 2022, Uganda passed an anti-LGBTQ+ bill that includes a 20-year sentence for “promoting homosexuality.” 

Intolerance of the LGBTQ+ community by people outside it endangers LGBTQ+ employees who work in or travel to hostile territories, potentially exposing them to harassment, prosecution on the grounds of their sexuality, and even violence. So, how can multinational organizations steer a course that allows their LGBTQ+ talent to flourish in every jurisdiction in which they operate?

Issues around self-disclosure

As awareness of LGBTQ+ inclusion has increased and self-disclosure becomes more prevalent, the “LGBTQ+ glass ceiling” – the inadvertent blocking of LGBTQ+ talent from progressing up the organizational structure – has come under scrutiny.

The task of addressing this concept is greatly complicated by the uncertainty around the number of LGBTQ+ people in any given organization. A recent survey found that, globally, more than one-quarter of LGBTQ+ employees had not yet “come out” at work, a problem found to be particularly acute at lower tiers of the company structure. Only one-third of LGBTQ+ employees below senior-manager level said they were open with work colleagues about their sexual orientation.

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The complexities around self-disclosure are especially relevant to multinational organizations seeking to foster inclusive employee experiences. One key issue is the discrimination risks for staff members who are required to interact with individuals or companies based in countries with unprogressive attitudes to LGBTQ+ rights. In some territories, LGBTQ+ employees may find their safety and liberty to be at risk if they choose to be open about their sexual orientation.

As today’s multinational corporations strive to build inclusive, diverse cultures, CEOs are tasked with building safe and inclusive environments for all their employees, including those from the  LGBTQ+ community, and regardless of whether staff members choose to be public about their sexual orientation or gender identity. This begs the question of what practical measures multinationals can take to protect LGBTQ+ employees exposed to culturally hostile working environments.

Walk the talk on LGBTQ+ rights

Rather than waiting for legislation to include Human Rights, including LGBTQ+ rights, multinationals must take the lead on equality in their HR systems and processes, including the same Benefits Policy across all the countries they operate in. LGBTQ+ employees working in countries that recognize same-sex marriage, for instance, will have access to benefits such as equal pensions, which would not be available to LGBTQ+ couples in countries that do not legally recognize their relationships. By considering such differences in your HR systems and processes, you can support employees in working where they know they will not be at a disadvantage as well as send a powerful message of Equity.

Multinational organizations must do more to make work safe for their LGBTQ+ talent around the globe.

Business leaders should be conscious that asking employees to put their sexual-orientation data in the hands of the HR department demands complete confidence in the organization’s cybersecurity. This is an obvious risk for employees based in countries where LGBTQ+ rights are absent or weak. Unsolicited exposure could also affect employees based in countries that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ rights.

For example, when they must travel to or live in countries prejudicial or hostile towards same-gender relationships, for site visits, client meetings, or for potential development purposes. Safety should be paramount and, beyond that, LGBTQ+ employees should be allowed to determine their own exposure to personal risk in terms of work-related travel or international transfers. In all cases, multinationals should offer continuous safety to all their employees and provide alternative solutions or opportunities.

Build flexibility into your HR systems and processes

Variations in legislative attitudes to LGBTQ+ employees in different countries can have the further detrimental effect of limiting career-development opportunities, making affected individuals reluctant to take up overseas secondments and permanent positions in hostile territories.

Mitigating such issues is another important driver of flexibility in HR policies. Businesses should actively seek to offer LGBTQ+ employees alternative opportunities in non-hostile territories. Another possible solution would be for companies to offer a working structure that allows LGBTQ+ employees to fly back to visit their partners more often than heterosexual couples, who won’t face similar Human Rights violations.

Reframe the conversation

While an organization may be globally consistent in setting its values and beliefs, local cultural and legislative differences may dictate a more nuanced application of those values in certain territories. In the age of global working, communication conflicts may arise in a multitude of scenarios, from working with partner firms in countries hostile towards the LGBTQ+ community, to enabling collaboration between employees and teams based in different parts of the world.

Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace
In some territories, LGBTQ+ employees may find their safety and liberty to be at risk if they choose to be open about their sexual orientation.

However, while communication styles might have to be tailored to the country in question, it is important not to compromise your brand’s core values and beliefs. For example, to treat everyone in the organization with dignity and respect should be non-negotiable, regardless of creed, color, age, nationality, disability, gender, and sexual orientation.

The best way to ensure this is to give all the support and options you can to LGBTQ+ employees when they are making career choices, as well as providing all leaders in your organization clear interpretation of how values and beliefs ought to be implemented regardless of where people are located.

Advocate for LGBTQ+ rights

Multinationals have the economic clout to stand up for LGBTQ+ employees beyond changing their own internal systems and processes and behaviors.  

Where your organization operates in a country whose legislation conflicts with your company’s policy on Human Rights including LGBTQ+ rights, early engagement with authorities can be valuable. Making it clear that homophobic legislation is not something your brand can endorse not only contributes to the resistance against anti-LGBTQ+ policies, but it also demonstrates to your LGBTQ+ employees that your brand genuinely cares about their welfare.

The most effective approach, of course, is to avoid territories where LGBTQ+ people are persecuted. Making a public statement of this policy evidences both support for LGBTQ+ employees, clients, stakeholders and partners,  and indicates that homophobic national policies have economic consequences.

Multinationals should not rely on LGBTQ+ individuals to “police” the behaviors of others in countries without Human Rights legislation; nor should they expect them to forego personal career development in order to secure their personal safety. Rather, organizations should be doing everything they can to create an environment of psychological and physical safety for all their employees, protecting them from discrimination and empowering them to develop their careers as they choose.

NB: For additional guidance and support, you can reach out to:


Chief Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Officer at IMD - Josefine van Zanten

Josefine van Zanten

Chief Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Officer, IMD

Josefine has been active as an HR Executive most of her global career, working in Fortune 500 organizations; as a Senior Vice President, she was in charge of departments of D&I, Culture Change and Leadership and Organizational development. Her experience spans across various industries with HP (IT), Royal Dutch Shell (Oil and Gas), Royal DSM (life sciences and chemicals), and Holcim (Construction). She currently is the Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) officer at IMD, and works as a Senior Advisor, EI&D, with global organizations.

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