In many parts of the world, there are legislative provisions that protect people in the workplace from being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
This legal obligation has been enhanced in many workplaces, where companies have implemented robust policies and initiatives to support LGBTQ employees, supported by initiatives to raise awareness across the wider workforce as to the issues that LGBTQ people often encounter within the workplace.
While, in many countries, employers have been able to demonstrate real progress in building the visibility and confidence of gay and lesbian employees, a general lack of understanding and knowledge about bisexuality seems to have resulted in bisexual people remaining largely invisible within these workplace initiatives.
Workplace surveys by LGBTQ organisations suggest that bisexual men and women are around seven times more likely to conceal their sexual orientation in the workplace than those who identify as gay or lesbian.
Research indicates that some of the most highly rated companies — from an LGBTQ employee perspective — are still struggling to find how best to support their bisexual employees.
Part of the challenge for employers is that while they may have established an LGBTQ employee network, and put a lot of effort into LGBTQ initiatives generally, this may not be enough to reach out and engage with bisexual employees.
For example, according to a spokesperson for multinational technology company IBM:
"IBM doesn’t differentiate between lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender employees. Our efforts to support employees and to generate wider awareness expressly includes bisexual employees — there are bisexual IBM employees who are a part of our LGBTQ network, who participate in our LGBTQ mentoring initiative and who actively contribute to making IBM a diverse and inclusive place to work."
It’s a similar story for consumer goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble. Spokesperson Mary Ralles confirms that Procter & Gamble doesn’t have any monitoring data that specifically relates to its bisexual employees — rather they take a one-size-fits-all approach through their LGBTQ employee network that is active in helping to ensure that mentoring and coaching is available to all LGBTQ employees.
According to Ralles:
"Key to Proctor & Gamble’s diversity strategy is inclusion, so our efforts are around ensuring that everyone feels included, enabling all of our employees to perform at their peak and bring their whole self to work every day."
However, this type of inclusive approach by employers is probably not enough to meet the specific needs of bisexual employees. Too often, stereotypical assumptions and beliefs about bisexual people and their lives — from both straight and queer people — mean that they feel unable to access the very initiatives that are meant to support them. This lack of awareness and understanding can leave bisexual men and women feeling marginalised and stigmatised.
Employers looking to enhance their support for their bisexual employees could consider the following approaches:
- Sexual orientation schemes or single equality schemes should include references to bisexual inclusion with mention of the unique issues bisexual people face in the workplace.
- While recognising the value of using ‘gay’ as shorthand to help simplify communications, when writing policy and strategies the full words — Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans — should be used. Using ‘gay’ as shorthand for LGBTQ in a sexual orientation strategy can give bisexual staff the impression that the policy or procedure does not apply to them.
- Sexual orientation strategies should make reference to any bisexual-specific initiatives or programs that workplaces develop.
- Staff benefit policies should highlight that they are available to employees in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships.
- Bisexual staff should be consulted in the development or review of relevant policies.
One of the most successful strategies for engaging with LGBTQ employees, and promoting equality in the workplace, is for employers to support and encourage the formation of LGBTQ employee networks — generally a forum that enables LGBTQ employees to connect with each other, create social and professional networking opportunities, and advise the organisation on issues relating to LGBTQ employees.
However, research suggests that bisexual men and women often feel excluded from LGBTQ employee networks as these are perceived to primarily cater for lesbians and gay men, with little participation by bisexual employees and no focus on bisexual issues.
Bisexual staff can be encouraged to more actively participate in LGBTQ networks by:
- Nominating a bisexual officer who is responsible for advising the network on current issues and leading on bisexual inclusion.
- Holding an awareness raising event with a guest speaker from the bisexual community.
- Planning an event around bisexual workplace issues, open to all staff and publicised throughout the organisation.
- Developing an electronic network and idea sharing system to encourage participation from bisexual staff who feel uncomfortable attending meetings.
- Ensuring bisexual members are represented on steering groups and committees, therefore encouraging bisexual colleagues to become role models and advocates.
- Ensuring the network has a well-publicised confidentiality policy.
- Holding both ‘open’ and ‘closed’ meetings allowing bisexual staff to come to open events without having to disclose their sexual orientation.
- Offering to meet potential members of the network for coffee half an hour before meetings to introduce them to the network and make them feel comfortable.
Employers are operating in an increasingly complex world, and the push for a diversity of talent combined with the aspiration for equality for all employees, is continuing to challenge even the most progressive organisations.
Having embraced the principle that top performing companies need to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion — to their current and potential employees — finding a way to engage and support bisexual employees is something that clearly requires further work.