A positive spiral towards workplace inclusion

Published: 2020-07-02

More and more companies adopt policies towards LGBT+ inclusion. However, in many companies there seems to be a gap between these policies and how they are perceived. Alumni Ann Huang and Sara Jarrolf Prager looked into this gap: What’s the actual perception of workplace inclusion among LGBT+ employees?

Meeting Sara and Ann from the Master’s in Management programme via Zoom, they are in the middle of their transition between student and work life. As newly graduated, they look back at their master’s year:

“I will really miss LUSEM. Our class was international and diverse, students came from different cultures and educational backgrounds, it created an encouraging atmosphere where we learnt from each other”, Sara says.

Studying within this diverse yet inclusive setting, they explored diversity through managerial dilemmas during the programme. This made Sara and Ann wonder what workplace inclusion might look like from an LGBT+ perspective.

“When we dug into the topic we found that it’s theoretically very understudied. Practically speaking there are tons of companies that are formally adopting policies and practices towards LGBT+ inclusion and equality. However, within the companies themselves seemingly small things are still happening under the radar such as micro aggression or negative joke”, Ann explains.

Browsing the internet in late December, Sara and Ann came across Accenture, a consciously inclusive consultant company they found inspiring.

“We thought it would be amazing to write the thesis in collaboration with this company, but then again it will probably never happen”, Sara says laughing.

But it did. Four months later they had interviewed eleven LGBT+ employees at Accenture Nordic about their perception of inclusion and diversity, and presented their key findings in their Master’s thesis.

A sense of belonging

“There is a delicate balance between how to make people feel accepted and belonging to the greater community and still retain a certain degree of uniqueness”, Ann says.

During the Zoom conversation they share their screen, and the words Belongingness and Uniqueness are shown in big bold letters in their playful and pedagogical presentation. Enthusiastically, Sara and Ann walk through their results.

In the participants’ own words, full inclusion occurs when all employees feel accepted for who they truly are. Surprisingly though, in contrast to previous research, they found that too much emphasis on their uniqueness as LGBT+ could backfire and decrease the perception of inclusion, triggering an opposite effect.

 You can’t really see the perception of inclusion as a collective term, instead you need to dive deeper, listening to the employees individually to see how they perceive it.

Ann Huang

Impacting perception of inclusion

Sara and Ann found that employees brought different kinds of cultural lenses which impacted their perception of inclusion at Accenture. Their subjective reference points and what they compare to, impacts their perception of how much focus on inclusion and diversity is enough. However, regardless of how much focus the interviewees considered there should be on LGBT+ inclusion and diversity, not being part of the norm, induces lower feelings of inclusion among many.

A heteronormative climate made the interviewees feel like they always need to assess situations.

“Is it safe to come out now? Are my colleagues or clients comfortable with me sharing my sexual identity? It puts the employees in a situation both draining and annoying”, Sara explains.

Notably, only the ones in the company who had not come out, recalled negative experiences regarding LGBT+ comments.

“There is a problem there: those who are not yet out, are the ones who hear the negative comments and then of course they don’t want to be out – it could lead to a negative spiral”, Sara observes.

 We want to motivate companies to really focus on openness to come out, it provides not only individual outcomes but also organisational ones.

Ann Huang

The positive spiral of openness

Eagerly they continue through the slides on the shared screen, showing outcomes associated with the perceptions of inclusion.

Initiatives for inclusion and diversity at Accenture have helped many of the interviewees expressing their full selves, allowing them to focus on the job at hand. A more open climate may lead to a sense of belonging without having to feel singled out because of personal sexual orientation.

Whilst a constant adaptation to the norm drains, openness at the workplace puts their minds at ease. In contrast to the negative spiral, this is a positive one – once they feel comfortable coming out it brings other outcomes: they have more mental space and energy, feeling more engaged at work.

The key takeaway from this thesis is that in order to foster an inclusive workplace there has to be top-down as well as bottom-up engagement.

A top-down, bottom-up solution

What surprised Sara and Ann the most during the interviews was the complexity of how to create an inclusive space at work. Most of the interviewees see Accenture as a very positive workplace, but they see the modes to move forward differently. In some way, the complexity seems to be a key finding itself. A combination of active leadership, LGBT+ role models, as well as sparking up bottom-up influences seems to be the way ahead.

Uncovering privileges and closing gaps

Finishing up, Ann and Sara reflect back on the semester, realising that the process has led to personal outcomes as well.

“The thesis process helped us to see and reflect upon our own privileges and to be empathetic towards others. For me, it was an eye-opener, and it shouldn’t have to be this way", Ann finishes while closing down the presentation.

Hopefully, the results of their thesis can be an eye opener for other companies, closing the gap between organisational policies and the perception among employees.

Read more about the Master's programme in Management

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Image of Ann Huang and SaraJ arrolf Prager

Ann Huang

Educational background: Psychology.

Next step: Moving to Malmö, preparing for her next step working with inclusion and diversity.

Sara Jarrolf Prager

Educational background: Human Resources Development.

Next step: Moving to Frankfurt for a trainee position within HR at European Central Bank.

What does it mean?

LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. The plus encompasses other identities included under the queer umbrella.