Technically People
Technically People

Episode · 3 months ago

How To Create Equity for LGBTQ+ Employees? Be Brave


Lorraine Vargas Townsend is a people enablement veteran who’s good at “breaking HR” in order to fix it. In this episode, she shares her passion for creating safe and equitable workplaces for LGBTQ+ employees and, by extension, all employees. 


According to Lorraine, too many companies focus their DEI efforts on recruitment, but that’s missing the mark. Instead, she says: “Start with how you fire people.”  

“Audits are the sexiest work in my book,” she says, possibly representing the first-ever leader to say as much. But she has good reason. Through her career, separation audits are often the point at which employees’ experiences of bias and inequity emerge, giving her the data she needs to make change. 

That said, the onus is on leaders to begin the hard work before a separation of any kind. Lorraine urges leaders to regularly pulse check LGBTQ+ employees about their experience of equity, or lack thereof, in the workplace. 

“I get that it can be uncomfortable, especially if you don't want employees to feel like you're singling them out,” she says. “But at the same time, you want to know what their experience is. My biggest advice here is: Just be brave.” 

To start productive and safe conversations about inclusion for LGBTQ+ and all employees, Lorraine offers these and other prompts: 

  1. What supports or hinders your growth and prosperity at this company? 
  2. What gives you Sunday night dread? 
  3. And more.


“What I'm giving you are not ‘magical queer questions,’” she says. “These are just questions about building a culture of belonging. Whatever you uncover will make your workplace safer and more inclusive for every single employee.”


Episode Highlights:

  • 2020 was the most deadly year for transgender and gender non-conforming people since 2013, when the HRC Foundation began tracking known deaths 
  • Suggestions to start conversations with LGBTQ+ employees about equity 
  • Why the separation audit is a powerful place to uncover inequity
  • Understanding that LGBTQ+ employees must evaluate the implications of when, whether and to whom they come out, over and again (and “it never gets easier”)
  • The need to revise travel, bereavement and family policies with an eye to inclusion

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Welcome to technically people, a communityconversation by and for workplace futurists brought to you by the tech recruitment platform builtin. The podcast features insights from leaders, thinkers and doers on the vanguard buildinghuman centered workplaces of the future. Along the way, you'll hear conceptsthat will stop you in your tracks, concepts that inspire you to ask yourself, what's the most futureforward way to approach my people leadership? We all knowthe future of work isn't waiting around, so let's get on with the show. Hi Everyone, welcome to technically people. Welcome to the show. Have areally exciting a conversation upcoming with a guest, too, is a firebrand, I would say. Lorraine Vargus Townsend, served as the chief people officer,accompanies like a Cloud Guru mendics and Athena Health and one of the manythings that she's really good at is breaking HR and she does so in orderto build equity for all people, and today she's going to share her thoughtsspecifically around making workplaces better for Lgbtq plus employees, I would say, andgetting to know learning. She is not patient about making all of this happenfor good reason. Two Thousand and twenty was the most deadly year for transgenderand gender nonconforming people since two thousand and thirteen, when the Human Rights CampaignFoundation began tracking these known deaths. Second, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, twenty two percent of lgbtq plus Americans haven't been paid equally and haven'tbeen promoted at the same rate as their peers. These two points of discriminationare more pronounced for lgbtq people of Color. So that's the landscape. I wantto welcome Lorraine officially and thank you...

...for being here today. Thank youso much for inviting me. What an introduction. Those stats just start gettingmy blood boiling right at the beginning. Yeah, that's right, pretty,pretty astounding top to bottom. So tell me, Laren, something that peoplegenerally believe to be true Aboutdi that you are vehemently opposed to? Yeah,thanks for that. I feel like the most incorrect place to start for Dand I efforts is focusing all your energy around recruiting and hiring, and Ithink that's surprising to most h our professionals and certainly to business leaders. ButI guess the main point of that is that you could recruit from a hugepool of diverse people and you could close all those hires on a particular daylike, for instance, the day before you produce your diversity and inclusion reportfor external publication, and it will look like you're very diverse. However,there's a good chance that the people inside your organization who are already working foryou are not experiencing the kind of environment and culture that helps them to thrive. So, rather than focusing on bringing in more diverse people, I thinkit's really important to talk to all of your diverse employees to understand how theyfeel more welcome and more celebrated inside your organization, and one really easy wayto do that is to ask them how they're doing, ask them how theyfeel and get a pulse check on what needs to be changed so that everyemployee inside your organization can prosper. Yeah, as far as this idea of doinga pulse check on your employees, for so many leaders, that isnot going to be a comfortable conversation. Fifty nine percent of non lgbtq plusemployees say that it's quote, unprofessional to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity inthe workplace. So given a there are...

...some feelings, hesitations, fears aroundthe conversation. Tell us even give us some talk points about how leaders canbroach the subject. I get that it can be uncomfortable, especially if youdon't want employees to feel like you're singling them out, but at the sametime you want to know what their experiences I think my biggest advice here isjust be brave and start the dialog, and I mean honestly. If you'rethe frontline manager for an employee, you have to be able to have thesekind of brave conversations anyway. But what you have to be ready for whenyou start that conversation is that you might get some answers that you're uncomfortable withand so getting into the right mindset to say there's no answer here. Thatcan be taboo because when you start asking questions you might start to uncover thingslike pay an equity or promotion discrimination or bad behavior at work. And Iguess what I'm saying is just be brave and do it anyway. So somequestions to help you start a dialog would be how does our company support ordiscourage your professional growth or your prosperity in your career. Something else that's easyto ask to any employee is how can we be a more inclusive workplace foryou personally? Another question I love is, Hey, what gives you the Sundaynight dread? We've all been in that situation where it's Sunday night andyou can't sleep and you're just stressed about going to work. I think asa manager, as a leader, it's important to understand how your employees arefeeling on Sunday night. So, I mean, what I'm giving you arenot any magical queer questions. These are just questions about building a culture ofbelonging that whatever you uncover will make your workforce safer and more inclusive for everysingle employee. Yes, and actually that reminds me of a previous podcast wedid with Shannon Hogue, who's talking specifically...

...about language in job posts. HerCompany, carrot, helps companies mitigate bias and their recruitment efforts. Found thatif you're using this hyper masculine language like coding, Ninja en x, youare likely to turn off women candidates, but if you use words like collaborationand communication, you will bring in women candidates and also not turn off malecandidates. So there is a thread there that runs throughout the life cycle ofthe employee, for sure. Oh my gosh, tiffany it like you can. We can all imagine those times that we're in these big all hand meetingsand it's like the rally cry to pump you up and you have this typicalexecutive later who's like talking about going to war or like all the stuff,and you just see half of the audience just go like, Oh, thisagain. You're so right. It's important in job description language. It's importantwhen you're trying to attract candidates. It's also important for the people that youhave working inside your building. Today it's so normative and it's like industry jargonat this point. So I think it's great to be aware of how languageaffects people of underrepresented groups. Let's talk about audits. I know you've donemany throughout your career and I wanted I want to see if you can sharesome things that you've learned over the years. Well, I think one of thethings that makes me an odd person in hr is that audits just bringme so much joy and happiness, and I know that's unusual and it doesn'tsound exciting, but it's my favorite place to start because that's the place whereyou can start to uncover by us, and in particular, I think myfavorite place to start when it comes to audits is how you fire people.You might be surprised about what your data tells you there. It's really importantto remember when we're talking about inclusion and belonging in safety, dignity and respectbeing at the heart of what you do... really critical. And when isthat more important than when you're separating with an employee. I think that matterswhether the termination is voluntary, involuntary, mutually agreed upon or whatever iteration ofparting ways you can come up with. So I led this audit for acompany once that had a really diverse footprint on paper, but their separation auditrevealed some surprises. In this case, even though the leaders were super diverse, women and men were treated differently during their performance improvement plan process. Thiscompany gave men almost twice the time to correct their performance issues than they gavewomen, and when I started sharing that data out, people were shocked byit because that was not how the company felt about it's in particular, hrpeople get really uncomfortable when you start to dig in on findings like this,not only because they own the separation process but also because they feel guilty,they feel complicent, and as an HR leader I can tell you that thereare many good intention hr folks who will succumb to the pressure of an angrybusiness leader who is ready to pull the plug on someone, and it takesreal courage to dig in your heels and stand up. But the number oneway you can fight this kind of systemic problem at work is with data,and it's about having the data. When you're not in the heat of themoment, that's when you have the biggest opportunity to really make a change.So audits are the sexiest work in my book. Yes, so I thinkit probably would sound peculiar for people to hear you say that it's give youjoy and they're sexy, but these often depressing findings are a path we toopositive change. So imagine you're an HR leader and you're facing a angry businessleader who's like fire this person tomorrow. If you already have the foundation ofsaying like Hey, we have a performance...

...improvement process where that has been flawed, that we have not applied equally to women versus men, and so Iget that you want to terminate this person tomorrow, but we have a processto protect and there's credibility in that process us. That will help us ensureparody and equality across all folks that our organization. So hold your horses.We're going to dig in, we're going to start to see how we canturn this person's performance around and we're going to give people an equal chance becauseit's the right thing to do, because that's the right way to treat peopleand that's what we want our company to be known for. So you havea lot more power when you sit in the data then just going like,oh, how many conversations have you have to have you documented a thing intheir last performance review? Like no one wants to, no one wants tohear that and no h our person wants to have that conversation. Yeah,heavy documented a thing. That's very different from do you have data. So, just to shift gears a little bit, I wanted to talk to you aboutthe nuances, the overwhelm, the stress and the fear that an employeefaces when they decide to come out at work. We know forty six percentof lgb teach you, plus workers are closeted, and that's again according toHRC. And also I think it's important to to mention that concealment is actuallynot even an option for transgender employees who have begun transitioning. So it's anotherlayer. Unless they leave the company, it's another layer of stress that's placedupon the employee. So give us a sense of the experience in a waythat will help people leaders empathize and even protect people. Thank you. Ithink this is such an important topic and I wonder if people minimize this nowbecause it is so usual to encounter lgbtq...

...employees at work these days. Butcoming out is not a oneandone experience and in fact, every time we havea new boss and new coworker, every time we change jobs or companies,every time we have our own relationship status changes, like get divorce or marriedor have expand our family, we have to ask ourselves this question, likeis it safe for me to come out right now with this person, withthis company, in this organization, and how much energy will this take?Like we really do have to spend time every single time assessing the situation.So it's really draining sometimes. I started my career at Dell. I rememberbeing in my s and there was a colleague who I liked so much andI really looked up to. I worked with her really closely and I wasso scared to come out to her and I did this whole weird thing likehey, can we have dinner next week? And we went to a benegains.I don't even know if people know what benegains is anymore, and theyhad better. Ben Agains is a stable of American culture. Oh good,but I took her to dinner to come out to her and I think shewas really afraid of what I would like. Why I was asking her to goto dinner. It was so formal, but you know what, it wasterrifying and up until that moment I had been using they and them pronenouns to talk about my partner because that was the way I could not revealher gender because I was really scared of rejection. And it's maybe not somethingthat people think about, but it is just as scary to come out toyour peers as it is to your boss. And even though you're in a companythat's affirming, you still have this whole case by case process that youhave to go through. With every coworker...

...and that's tough. Yeah, Ithink case by case in terms of every coworker, but case by case interms of every situation and conversation. And as I've moved up in my career, that hasn't changed. That kind of pressure and stress and awkwardness happens whenyou're talking to a board member or when you're talking to a CEO. It'sjust as stressful every time, and every time I'm assessing the person, I'mdeciding if it's worth the risk to get a little bit personal. And that'sonly if they didn't force me into coming out by making an assumption based onmy appearances or off the fact that I'm a mom. And those conversations alwaysstart with the same tired question of like, so what is your husband? Doyou sit there and you just go like crap, okay, well,my wife, or you go next topic please. The point is, everytime you assume, you put us in a position to have to assess beforewe answer the question. Yeah, and I also just want to build onthe fact what you said about your being a leader. The leader is goingto be more as visible than an in the trenches employee. They're going tomaybe be thinking about modeling and in my mind it I think it might evenbe more of a kind of pressure cooker situation. And just to support thatwith a stat less than point three percent of fortune five hundred board directors wereopenly lgbtq, plus in two thousand and twenty completely. I will say,though, that if you're in a position like that, if you're lucky enoughto be in one of those top jobs and you're an out or relatively outleader, you make such a difference to your queer employees and I can tellyou the pressure cooker does not necessarily come from your employee base. Your employeebase is looking at you and going like, oh my gosh, I can doit too. I see someone that...

I can aspire to or something thatI can believe in, or I know that there's someone at those top layerswho's watching out for me. It's so important, if you're comfortable and youcan, to be out at those top layers because visibility matters. So thepressure cooker comes from the traditional seats of power board members and billionaires who aremaking decisions on behalf of your company, for sure. Yeah, and ina previous podcast we also talked about people disclosing chronic illness or invisible disability totheir employers and the fear surrounding that. The idea also came up that leadership, if they were to model talking about their own chronic illness or invisible disability, it could make a world of difference for those people in companies that arealso living with those chronic illnesses absole. So let's get a little Wonky,policy wonky and talk about the policies that Lgbtq plus employees need. Yeah,I think what's really important is to look at your benefits policies to make surethat they're really equitable for all different kinds of families and to make sure thatall of your policies are prioritizing safety first. And I'm saying policies, but Imean policies, processes, benefits, norms. You got to look atall of that. So, for instance, if you offer maternity and paternity leave, why not simplify with a more equitable parentally of policy? Just becauseyou don't push a baby out of your body doesn't mean that you don't deservethe same amount of leave and bonding time and paid benefits. So at aprior company of mine. They offered adoption and fertility support to help employees growtheir families, but what they didn't consider was surrogacy, and it was reallypersonal to me because, maybe miraculously,... my family it takes it tookthree women to make a baby, so neither my wife nor I could carryour child, so we had to hire a surrogate. So while the fertilitybenefit was great, I had similar legal costs to adoption and many of themedical cost that my family incurred were not covered by our insurance. So Iwas able to use my position of power and influence as an HR leader toeducate the company on surregacy and how Queer families, and especially notably, gayfathers, have to find alternative routes to starting our families. But we deservethe same support and benefits and bonding time as our straight counterparts. Yeah,I appreciate your bringing up so many different scenarios that I don't think our topof mind, like surregacy and the implications that has from the benefits perspective toour listeners. And one couple things that I thought were particularly enlightening surprising areyour points about bereavement and travel. Oh Yeah, yeah, these are hothot spots for me too. Lots of Queer folks are separated from their biologicalfamilies and supported by the families that they choose as they grow up and growtheir life. So when you turn your bereavement policy into a math equation thatfactors in a blood relation and time, you're judging your employees and you're makingit unsafe when your best friend or a parental figure dies or gets ill,the last thing that we want to navigate is your judgmental policy that will askme to prove my relationship to them or dictates the amount of time I getto grieve and heal from such a monumental loss. So I would say treatyour employees like adults who can be trusted to determine the amount of time thatthey need to grieve. This is not the business of the HR community.And another one around travel that you asked about. This is also a hotspot for me and it's something that I...

...recently have been thinking about because ofmy move from Boston to Austin. So you might be surprised if about howunsafe it still feels for Queer and employees when we're traveling. So my wifeis Gender Queer and we have a daughter, so we're both super protective, andwe were driving across the country to move from Boston to Austin. Youknow, we spent a considerable amount of time researching what cities we could feelsafe in, what hotel chains might be the most comfortable for us once wecross the Mason Dixon Line. Basically, and you might not realize it,but Queer folks like us, we still feel threatened and many states and cities, and so when you ask your queer employees to travel, you also needto be thinking about the burden that it places on them and give them opportunitiesto say no without consequences when it comes to physical safety. There goes theELM. I have a wonderful view of the GRANDVILLE I'LL STA and some blackoutcurtains to I think we call that character. Yes, yes, yes, it'squaint and cozy real estate talk. Okay, so we're pulling out atheme, which is this idea of things that people in general may not considerwhen they're thinking about what Lgbtq plus employees and human beings need to contend with. And I know from your personal experience you can share another pretty astounding reality. Yes, you're talking about having to adopt my daughter. So I thinklots of people don't realize that even in states where our relationships are protected,we still need lots of support and oftentimes... help to protect our family ways, and it's really critical now since Ruth Bader Ginsberg died when we were consideringthe move to Texas. It just happened that was exactly where our BG diedand I can't properly tell you what kind of panic that inspired in the queercommunity, but it did accelerate our process of doing a second parent adoption forour daughter. So in in Massachusetts our family felt really safe. We havesame sex parents on the birth certificate. Gay Marriage is legal in the Commonwealthand it was way before it was federally protected. But outside of that progressivebubble we just weren't sure what we could continue to count on. And insecond parent adoption you're basically taking legal action to give both parents equal and protectedrights to their child. So it might sound crazy, but a lot ofus have to adopt our own children, are biological children, and that's normalto us and it's infuriating and it's something that you have to be in acertain position of privilege to be able to do as well. So it's alsoqueer folks have hurdles to get pregnant, to start their family that come infor in the form of monetary, monetary obstacles, but that continues throughout thelife of building our families all the way through to having access to lawyers tobe able to protect our families even if our family status gets overturned. Yeah, so I just wanted to give listeners a little bit of extra context here, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but for same sex couples that areraising a child together, the law will often recognize only one legal parentsand that recognition is automatically extended to the biological parent. So with a secondparent adoption, the adopting parent gains legal...

...rights, parental rights, while thequote Unquote First Parent, or the biological parent in many cases, does notlose their parental rights. Do I have that to have that right? Absolutely. That sums it up and I think one of the things not to doif you hear that some of your gay friends or employees are going through thesecond parent adoption process, please don't congratulate them on going through that process,because it is actually not a celebration. That's not a celebration like congratulation you. You adopted your child. This can be a very invasive process that,frankly, it's just not it's not just I think first of all, Iwill not congratulate you. I will instead say I'm so sorry. Then Ithink that infuriating is actually the only saying. RESPEC wants to that. Yeah,can I give you an example of some of the documents. Are thethings that we have to create to protect our families, because I think it'simportant for people to know we need to go and create all of the legalpaperwork as if our marriages weren't legal. And in some states and in somecases administrations, administration changes, we're told to go really overboard. It's aboutcreating wills, trust, advanced directives, durable powers of attorney, both forhealthcare for finances, a HIPPA release forms, hospital visitation forms, funeral and bodydisposition forms, and we have to be very specific in these documents.It's just not safe to generalize by saying I grant all of these privileges tomy spouse, because in some cases our spouse might not be recognized. Wehave to add language in our documents that say something like, regardless of therecognition of the legal status of my marriage...

...or my relationship. These are mywishes and I know that employers and organizations and even many of my straight friendshave no idea the hurdles that we have to go through in order to protectour families. Yeah, and I was reading that courts are not required touphold those particular agreements. I understand that that written agreement actually just sort ofdemonstrates your intent if a custody dispute were to emerge. And that's just sortof one example of what seems pretty broken. There is still so much work todo and I think we can't get complacent and we do need to betelling everyone who will listen what we still have to face. And one ofmy favorite things to say is the gays are not okay. We are stillnot okay, even though we can get married, even though we might haveto name two same sex parent names on a birth certificate or might be ableto have insurance for our families. There is still so much work to do. M since, honestly, just you can rewind the podcast and go backto the beginning, statistics about two thousand and twenty being the deadliest year onrecord, according to HRC. I wanted to give our listeners a side note. You've heard me refer to HRC statistics and I'd like to go one stepfurther and direct listeners to the HRC corporate equality index, which is a nationalbenchmarking tool with regard to corporate policies for lgbtq plus employees. But it rankscompanies across criteria like workforce protections and inclusive benefits, and it ranks them ona scale of zero to a hundred points, and those companies that earn a hundredpoints become, I'm a best place to work for LGBTQ plus equality.So for our listeners, if you're interested... participating, I would urge youto visit the site. I think it also matters for the tea profession whenyou consider that twenty five percent of lgbtq plus employees say that they stay ina job if it is lgbtq plus inclusive. So we use that index. I'lltell you, when we're looking at jobs, when we're thinking about whereto go next, your queer employees do go look at that. That isa factor. Excellent okay, so you have it. So how about wedive in now to our two minute takeaway. If you had to choose a fewof the most important points, either from our conversation or about this topic, that you want people to understand or do, what would they be?I guess. First of all, I would say when it comes to belongingand inclusion, diversity is the outcome, not the goal. So the goalis creating the most inclusive and safe environment for all employees. So tackle thatfirst and start with how you fire people. That will probably open your eyes andgive you a taste of where to go next. Another thing I wouldsay is talk and listen to your queer employees about how they can feel moresafe, more included and more celebrated at your company. When you exclude peoplebecause you're not sure about how to start the conversation, it's cowardly, butit's also psychologically damaging. Don't forget that lots of US went through times inour life where we were rejected, where we were ostracized or even when wewere shunned. There are deep emotional scars. They're another thing. Don't assume someone'sorientation or gender or force them to come out with your assumption. Pleasejust ask about their partner if you feel some really deep urge to ask.Don't ask about someone's husband or wife, ask about their partner. Let peopleknow what your pronouns are and ask them...

...what their's are. And then,finally, go look at your heteronormative policies, your parental leave, your family policies, travel and bereavement, and go rewrite with them with an eye forinclusion. And don't forget that your queer employees and our families, we needgood legal benefits. So please, please, think about that as you're designing yourbenefit plans for next year and beyond. So learing, I just can't thankyou enough. I have a feeling listeners might want to connect with youor are learn more about you. Tell me what's a good way for themto reach you. Yeah, I think the best way is linkedin. I'mthe only Lorraine Vargus Townsend on Linkedin and I also intend to be writing abit more on the medium, so you can find me there too. Yeah, fantastic listeners, go check out loraine on Linkedin and on medium. Andas far as this podcast, please go ahead and subscribe on your podcast playerof choice. And you can do that by visiting technically Peoplecom so thank you, community for being with us today and we'll talk to you next week.Are you an employer of choice and do you want the most talented candidates toknow it? Built in is accepting submissions for its annual best places to workawards. The program honors tech companies that go above and beyond for employees,offering exceptional perks, benefits and company cultures. Get noticed get on the winners listnow. It's the first place in Deland professionals go to research employers wherethey're ready to make a move, and this market you can't afford to misstop talent. So don't miss the deadline. November twelve. Two Thousand and twentyone visit employers. Stop built incoms breast places to work. You've beenlistening to technically people, a community conversation about the future of work. Ifyou want to hear more cutting edge ideas...

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