5 ways accounting firms can better support LGBTQ+ employees

Creating a real sense of belonging for LGBTQ+ employees benefits individuals, clients, firms, and the profession.
By Hannah Pitstick

IMAGE BY ENJOYNZ/ISTOCK
IMAGE BY ENJOYNZ/ISTOCK

Over the past few decades, there has been an evolution in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) support within public accounting firms. In the beginning, that support focused primarily on the basics, like equal access to employee benefits and the ability to be out at work, but today firms recognize that truly supporting LGBTQ+ staff requires a multifaceted approach.

The goal is to create a welcoming workplace where LGBTQ+ employees feel safe and respected as their whole selves, said Chris Crespo, CPA, inclusiveness director at Ernst & Young LLP. Crespo is also a member of the AICPA LGBTQ+ Initiatives Committee, and she was co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Networking Group, which preceded the committee. Accomplishing that goal may require employee resource groups and learning about various identities and intersectionality, which means overlapping disadvantages related to race, gender, and class, within your community.

A welcoming workplace isn't something taken for granted. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 46% of U.S. employees who identify as LGBTQ+ remain closeted at work.

"Sometimes you compartmentalize your life, and it's easy to say I have my gay life, I have my church life, and I have my work life, but we need to give people the space to not compartmentalize," Crespo said.

While the ethical case for supporting LGBTQ+ employees should stand on its own, there's also a clear business case. Analysis from Credit Suisse has found a correlation between LGBTQ-friendly companies and stock performance, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation research has shown that LGBTQ-inclusive companies are more successful at attracting, retaining, and engaging talent.

"From personal experience, I was much more productive, comfortable, and happy at work when I wasn't trying to hide the fact that I was married to a man," said Nick Moore, CPA, senior manager in the audit methodology and standards group at Grant Thornton LLP and co-chair of the AICPA LGBTQ+ Initiatives Committee.

As part of an effort to improve LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion across the profession, the AICPA created the LGBTQ+ Initiatives Committee in 2021 out of an existing LGBTQ+ networking group formed in 2018. The committee aims to expand U.S. efforts to globally support LGBTQ+ AICPA and CIMA members, amplify LGBTQ+ voices in the profession, increase the pipeline of LGBTQ+ individuals into staffing and leadership roles, and promote education on how organizations can better support the LGBTQ+ community.

"The goal of [the committee] is making sure our profession is inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, so they're not thinking of us as a stodgy old profession that might not be welcoming to them," Crespo said.

About 1 out of every 6 Generation Z adults (those ages 18—23 in 2020) identifies as LGBTQ+, according to Gallup research. Crespo argued that firms should never leave such a large group out of the pool for consideration.

STRATEGIES TO SUPPORT LGBTQ+ EMPLOYEES

If your organization is looking to increase its support of LGBTQ+ employees, consider the following strategies:

Start with the basics

If you are starting from scratch, a good first step is to make sure you're supporting the basic needs of your LGBTQ+ employees, including things like ensuring the safety of your employees, shielding them from discrimination, and making sure they have equal access to company benefits.

Look at your employee benefits plans to make sure they're inclusive of LGBTQ+ employees. Some changes you can make to render them more inclusive might be as simple as updating a few words. For example, you might change the words "husband" and "wife" to "spouse" or "partner," and you might consider making the language throughout your benefits plans and onboarding documents gender-neutral.

In addition to spousal benefits, firms might consider increasing support for things like adoption and fertility treatments. For example, EY has a program called Pathways to Parenthood that was initially rolled out to support couples with medical infertility, which inadvertently excluded same-sex couples and single people. It was later expanded beyond infertility to also help LGBTQ+ employees.

An increasing number of firms are also offering transition benefits for their transgender employees. Grant Thornton has offered such benefits for more than five years and produces a transition guidebook to help not only the staff member who is transitioning but also everyone around them. For example, the guidebook helps educate the co-workers of the person transitioning so they will understand the importance of affirming the transitioning person's gender identity and pronouns.

"There's still stigma around [transitioning] that we're trying as a community to get rid of," Moore said. "The benefits and guidebook help show the employee who's transitioning that we're here to support them directly, as well as indirectly, by educating the people around them, so they feel comfortable."

Firms can also support the basic needs of their LGBTQ+ employees by making sure their company policies shield them from any form of discrimination or harm. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (U.S. 2020), that it was illegal for an employer to discriminate against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but that ruling did not close all the gaps for employment discrimination. Firms can review their company policies to make sure their employees are protected against discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

Look at what others are doing and ask for help

Plenty of resources and groups now exist to assist firms with LGBTQ+ support and inclusion. Several accounting firms, including EY and Grant Thornton, use the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index (CEI) as a template to determine areas for improvement.

"The Corporate Equality Index lets us not only benchmark against other organizations but also continues to show us how we should be evolving," Crespo said. "We've had that 100% rating on the CEI since 2005, and we actually helped a lot of others get that rating as well because we were able to show how we got through some of the things that were more difficult to do, and that includes our competitors, because a rising tide raises all boats."

In addition to looking through the CEI criteria and filling any gaps at your firm, you can also reach out to local and national LGBTQ+ organizations, such as Out & Equal, Pride at Work, the Transgender Training Institute, and PFLAG, or contact someone on the LGBTQ+ Initiatives Committee.

"Don't do it on your own, and don't assume you know exactly what needs to be done," said Jean-Marie Navetta, director of learning and inclusion for PFLAG National. "There are people who want to help you; it just takes some humility to ask for that help. It doesn't mean you're bad or not progressive; it just means you're getting to it now."

Form employee resource groups and listen

Employee resource groups, including those for LGBTQ+ employees and allies, are a great way to promote visibility, allow employees to network with one another, and generate ideas and feedback for how the firm can better support them.

"Giving voice to people is just as important as visibility," said Ozoemena Nnamadim, CPA, Deloitte & Touche LLP senior consultant, accounting and reporting advisory, and co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Initiatives Committee. "The first step is naming and acknowledging that there are queer people in this space, and the other side of that is actually giving voice and providing opportunities for insight, sharing ideas, and being a thought leader and partner along the journey of inclusion."

Firms should consider having a member of their leadership team participate in employee resource group meetings, as Moore said they do at Grant Thornton. That leader can then take any feedback or ideas back to the C-suite, helping to ensure necessary changes are implemented across the firm.

Encouraging allies to join your firm's LGBTQ+ employee resource group is a great way to increase the amount of support within the firm, as well as offer a way for closeted employees to join as an "ally" until they feel comfortable enough to come out at work. (See the sidebar, "How to Be a Good Ally at Work.")

It's also very likely that individual employees will be involved in multiple employee resource groups, so firms should encourage groups to work with one another to make sure initiatives are intersectional.

"Intersectionality considers sexual orientation and gender, along with race, religion, ability, military service, and more," said Steve Kampa, CPA, CGMA, partner with RSM US LLP (RSM). Kampa co-chaired the LGBTQ+ Networking Group along with Crespo. "All of these things create additional ways for people to connect across the firm, rather than just their roles within audit, tax, or industry."

Move beyond compliance to create a sense of belonging

Firms do need to go beyond the basics if they want to create a genuine sense of belonging for LGBTQ+ employees in the workplace.

Firms may consider investing in training and mentorship programs to equip employees and leaders at all levels with the skills they need to navigate difficult conversations and understand emerging issues within the LGBTQ+ community.

"[An accepting environment] starts at the top, but that has to be genuine and pushed down, because if I don't feel like I can talk about what I did over the weekend with my husband, it doesn't work," Moore said.

Firms can increase a sense of belonging by encouraging employees to include their pronouns in their email signatures, increasing the visibility of LGBTQ+ leaders within the firm, holding events for significant days such as National Coming Out Day and Transgender Day of Remembrance, and simply treating LGBTQ+ employees as they would any other employee.

Take action to support the broader community

Firms that want to attract a broad range of talent and portray a genuine image of diversity and inclusion need to follow through on their words by supporting the broader LGBTQ+ community and taking action to increase LGBTQ+ equity.

"In more than half the country, there are no [state-level] protections from discrimination for things like public accommodations and employment, and we are seeing more and more organizations get on board with advocacy and signing on to support legislation and legal briefs," Navetta said.

Navetta added that firm leadership needs to recognize that when employees are forced to work with companies, clients, and vendors who may not be as inclusive of LGBTQ+ individuals, the firm's employees are placed in a very difficult position.

"If you do not support your LGBTQ+ employees when those situations arise, you are putting them in a terrible situation where they cannot perform at their best," Navetta said.

Firms committed to supporting LGBTQ+ employees consider whom they're working with, where company funds are going, and how they can improve the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals beyond their organization, according to Navetta.

"Firms should be visible in their support," Navetta said. "There is a lot of conversation about 'rainbow washing,' about the organizations who show up in June, turn their logos rainbow, and then on July 1, it's all over. Recognize that your words and visual signs of support need to be backed by action."

How to be a good ally at work

Firm leaders are in the best position to make systemic changes in support of LGBTQ+ employees, but anyone can take steps to improve the day-to-day work life of their LGBTQ+ colleagues. Chris Crespo, Steve Kampa, Nick Moore, and Jean-Marie Navetta offer their top tips for being a good ally at work:

Don't make assumptions

One simple way to be a better ally in the workplace is to avoid making assumptions about someone's sexual orientation or gender. When meeting someone new, Crespo likes to start the conversation by saying, "Hello, my name is Chris Crespo. I don't like pronouns at all, so you can use any pronouns that are respectful. What are your pronouns?"

Along with asking about pronouns, you can try to avoid assuming someone's sexual orientation by asking how their spouse or partner is doing, instead of their wife or boyfriend, for example.

If you hear something, say something

Another way allies can support their LGBTQ+ colleagues is by speaking up when someone says or does something offensive in the workplace and they might not be aware.

"Be that voice to say, 'I understand you might not know what you said, but did you know that is not OK?' " Kampa said.

Be open and curious

PFLAG describes allies as people who know that they don't know everything but are willing to learn.

"Be willing to ask questions, be willing to be curious, and don't be intimidated by what you don't know," Navetta said. "Admitting you're learning doesn't mean you're a bad person, and it doesn't mean you won't understand, so don't let it shut you down. It's in silence that people feel excluded; it doesn't happen when people are able to talk about stuff."

Support the right companies

When you are thinking about donating your time or money to a specific company or organization, consider whether their policies provide protections for the LGBTQ+ community. If not, you may want to help get LGBTQ+-friendly policies on their radar, Moore suggested.

Be active

In addition to being willing to learn, Navetta said, allies should be active in their support. While that support should be more than placing a rainbow sticker on your car, it doesn't have to be extreme activism either.

"It could be making sure that if you have people on your team who are queer, you are asking the same questions about their weekends and families that you are about everyone else," Navetta said.


About the author

Hannah Pitstick is a content writer for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.


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AICPA RESOURCES

Articles

"LGBTQ Initiatives Committee Works for Change," AICPA Insights, Feb. 1, 2022

"Q&A: Advocating for Justice, Diversity, and Inclusion," JofA, June 12, 2020

"When a Colleague Announces They're Transgender," CPA Insider, June 18, 2018

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