Building a culture of inclusion

Print More

Workplace diversity and inclusion efforts are on the rise as more companies and organizations commit to representing the LGBT community.

After struggling with her gender identity from a young age, Lori Fox was finally ready.

An MSU alumnus, husband and father, Fox was prepared to come out as a transgender woman in 2001. At the time, there was only one thing holding her back: The lack of diversity and inclusion policies in her workplace.

“When you work for a company, you get a feeling of whether it’s a safe place to be yourself,” Fox said. “I eventually left the company I was working for because I just didn’t feel safe to come out.”

Fox’s company acknowledged sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy, but there was no language protecting gender fluid or trans identifying employees like herself. While federal law does not require workplace protection on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity/gender expression, many state governments are stepping up to better represent the LGBT community in the workforce.

According to the Human Rights Campaign’s 2016 Corporate Equality Index, the national report on corporate policies and practices pertaining to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer employees, 19 states currently provide workplace protections on the basis of gender identity and 22 states protect employees on the basis of sexual orientation.

Companies and organizations across the U.S. are also joining these efforts to create a “culture of inclusion.” Of the 851 companies that participated in the HRC’s 2016 report, 87 percent prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in both their U.S. and global operations. These results alone show significant growth when compared to the 5 percent reported in 2002 and 66 percent reported in 2009.

“More and more companies are putting this term, culture of inclusion, into their policies and into their workplace diversity training,” Fox said. “It’s up to that company or organization to define that then. How does a culture of inclusion look from a male’s perspective, a female’s perspective, someone who is LGBT, someone who is Muslim, or whomever?”

The process of change

In 2004, Fox decided to start her own company, Lori Fox Diversity Consulting. After experiencing discrimination first-hand, she wanted to help companies and organizations find solutions to the diversity issues they were facing.

“There are all these consequences when someone comes out in the workplace. It has to be done right. It has to be kept quiet,” she said. “There’s just a tremendous amount of change that goes on, but when it all happens, it’s one of the most wonderful things in the world.”

When an employee is transitioning in the workplace, Fox consults the company’s human resources department and upper management throughout the strategizing process. Before the official announcement can be made, she assists the company in drafting essential documents such as communication and training plans.

While trans identifying individuals have resources in making the physical and legal changes during their transition, many individuals in the LGBT community have no guidance on making the social transition. To fill this gap, Fox coaches the transitioning employee on adapting to new mannerisms and navigating the complex dynamic with coworkers before and after the official announcement.

“So much of this is about the process of change,” Fox said. “It’s not just about coming out as LGBT, but you’re going to be rocking people’s worlds that don’t necessarily want to be rocked. They don’t want change.”

Going through the physical, emotional and social transition herself, Fox is able to be a healthy role model for her clients by living her own authentic truth as a trans identifying woman.

“As a person, I’ve never been happier,” she said. “To be able to help others find their authentic self is so powerful.”

Education and allies

As an advocate and member of the LGBT community, MSU alumna Cheryl Gilliam has the opportunity to lead inclusion efforts in her current position at the Kellogg Company.

Earning a score of 100 percent from the Corporate Equality Index for eight consecutive years, the Kellogg Company defines itself as a fully inclusive organization with strong diversity training programs and employee resource groups. K-Pride and Allies launched in 2009 as the foundation of this LGBT education and support.

“Training education is key,” Gilliam said. “People are still nervous a little about the LGBT community. People aren’t sure what questions they can and cannot answer in a corporate environment. So we make people feel comfortable.”

Serving as the national co-chair, Gilliam said Kellogg executives including the chairman/CEO and the president of the North American division are strong advocates of inclusion as well. By instilling this knowledge and support throughout the entire company, both morale and productivity can thrive.

“Because of our human resources policy, you can come to work and feel comfortable putting a picture of your family in your cubicle or office,” said Gilliam. “You can be open. You can be your authentic self. And Kellogg recognizes that when you can be your authentic self, you’ll do your best work.”

In addition to LGBT one-on-one training, Gilliam is most proud of the company’s out-straight ally program. Employees are able to show their support and acceptance for the LGBT community by wearing magnets, using specific “out-straight” pens and utilizing other materials.

“By having K-Pride and Allies out in the open, our employees and potential employees can go on the Kellogg career website, they see that we exist,” Gilliam said. “It’s nice to know that your company is a safe place.

Non-discrimination policies in higher education

As companies and organizations work toward creating a more inclusive culture, universities face the same challenges in representing the gender identities of the entire student body.

“I think the big horizon right now is around trans-identified students,” said Jayne Schuiteman, senior investigator of the MSU Office of Institutional Equity. “Finding adequate housing, bathrooms, locker rooms, and making sure that students who are trans identified are respected in their gender expression. I think that’s one of the bigger challenges that we’ve had in a long time.”

Schuiteman believes MSU does a good job accommodating the sexual orientations of lesbian, gay and bi students, but challenges arise when student identities fall outside the conventional gender binary. For example, gender queer is a common umbrella term that can take on various meanings based on the individual’s specific gender expression.

In order to move forward as an inclusive university, the administration, students and faculty must be willing to adjust to new concepts such as gender neutral bathrooms and preferred gender pronouns. According to Schuiteman, indicating one’s preferred gender pronoun in the signature of an email is just one cultural phenomenon helping MSU determine the best approach to better serving these students.

“We’re working on being more accommodating of trans students,” Schuiteman said. “And we can do it. It’s just a matter of how we choose to do it.”

As renovations and construction take place on campus in the future, Schuiteman believes there will be more physical responses to trans students and their needs through the addition of gender neutral bathrooms and housing.

“We’re all going to work here, live here and study here in a way that’s respectful of everyone else,” she said.

The future of inclusion policies

For individuals in the LGBT community who are seeking work, the language and diversity resources on an organization’s website create a snapshot of its culture. As a result, a company’s conservative or progressive online presence and rhetoric can have a strong impact on current and future employees.

“Those are really important things to talk about because very often, they’re unconscious,” Fox said. “People don’t even think about it. When you go to the website and the only photographs you see in all the marketing material are all white men, then what does that say about diversity?”

Fox recalls one powerful conversation she had with a group of college students a few years ago. After learning about the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, each heterosexual student claimed they will never apply at a company unless it explicitly protects LGBT employees in its policies.

For Fox, it’s this type of education, accountability and advocacy that will play a key role in developing these inclusive workplace policies both nationally and globally in the future.

In the meantime, Fox will continue working as a consultant and achieving what she’s most passionate about: Helping companies better serve and represent the LGBT community.

“I want to be a healthy role model to these companies to show them that their employees are not a stereotype,” she said.