LGBTQ Advocates Gear Up for Workplace Inclusivity Conference
HR leaders and LGBTQ advocates gathered in October to help Mossier develop its upcoming Proud to Work MN conference. (Photo courtesy of Mossier)

LGBTQ Advocates Gear Up for Workplace Inclusivity Conference

Minneapolis LGBTQ activism nonprofit Mossier is hosting the first ever annual Proud to Work MN conference on Friday. The event will teach Fortune 500 HR reps how to create more open workplaces, and why companies should care.

Pride Month has begun. And while the Twin Cities’ signature parade and festival won’t happen for a few weeks, one organization is doing its part to honor the LGBTQ community this week. On June 7, Minneapolis-based nonprofit Mossier is hosting Proud to Work MN, a first-of-its kind full-day conference aimed at improving Minnesota’s standing as a top destination for LGTBQ talent in the workforce.

Through 11 workshops and panels, HR leaders from more than 25 Minnesota-based Fortune 500 companies will learn how to make workplaces more welcoming to LGBTQ individuals.

“There’s been a lot of progress in the LGBTQ space in the last 20 years… we’ve had some really big wins,” says Nick Alm, Mossier executive director and co-founder. “[But] what is shocking to a lot of people is that… roughly half of LGBTQ talent is still closeted at work. In 28 states you can be legally fired for being gay.”

Minnesota does have laws in place to prevent workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, Alm says policies generally aren’t enough to make individuals feel truly safe about coming out. Companies need to do more. That includes introducing gender-neutral restrooms, pronoun training, updating dress codes, and more.

“Private corporations have done a lot, but they’re really not prepared for a 21st century workforce that they are now starting to hire,” says Alm. “Designing and creating strategies for recruiting and retaining LGBTQ talent is not developed at most companies.”

Making the Business Case

Alm hopes Proud to Work MN can help change that within Minnesota. He says organizations haven’t made sufficient efforts to convince businesses why LGBTQ workforce openness matters to them economically. But Mossier is serving up two good reasons backed by data: employee productivity and workforce shortage.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) found that people who are closeted at work are 25 percent less productive than non-closeted/LGBTQ individuals, and that adds up to millions of dollars in profit losses. Alm says if big business leaders—predominantly white, heterosexual men—knew that, they’d be more inclined to act on improving workplace culture.

“At the end of the day, no matter how straight you are, how white you are, whatever, money talks,” says Alm.

And while the productivity element has long been an issue, new factors are pushing companies to finally look in the mirror. There’s increased sociopolitical pressure to diversify, as activism around diversity and equality has risen. Then there’s the workforce shortage companies across the country are facing today. Alm calls the labor issue the “cherry on top,” and he’s not the only one who realizes it’s useful leverage.

“The workforce shortage is forcing employers to have to think in different ways… they’ve done everything they can to attract and retain the [traditional] type of workforce” says Tiffany Orth, senior manager for the Twin Cities organization Make it MSP, a Proud to Work MN sponsor. “[So now] whether it’s LGBTQ, people of color, women, people with disabilities, formerly incarcerated individuals—they’ve got to look at all these non-traditional or underrepresented communities.”

Adds U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (DFL-Minn.), who’ll give opening remarks at the conference via video recording: “Most Minnesota companies tell me one of their biggest challenges is finding the skilled talent they need to fill the great jobs that they’re creating. So, making sure they have workplaces that are open and accessible places for LBGTQ people to work is just really important and smart.”

Recruiting and retention will be a key focus of the conference. According to a study by the HRC, of the 46 percent of people who are closeted at work, 73 percent are more likely than non-LGTBQ individuals to say they’ll leave their companies within three years. Additionally, unemployment within the transgender community is three times higher than the national average—meaning there’s a significant population being underutilized.

A primary conference panel, “LGBTQ Recruitment and Retention,” will address these issues generally, while breakout sessions will tackle specific aspects, such as the experience of a transgender employee who comes out, understanding the LGBTQ talent pool in rural areas, and understanding what LGBTQ youth looks for in terms of feeling comfortable at a company.

Challenges to Change

But Alm recognizes there are obstacles in the way of actual change.

For instance, since it’s not legal to ask someone their sexual orientation in a job interview, companies don’t know who among their workforce is LGBTQ. This may have been a good thing at one point, but Alm believes it actually hurts the LGBTQ community now because it means companies aren’t including LGBTQ in their efforts to diversify, since they don’t have data to show they need to—as is the case with other diversity categories, like gender and race, for which federal laws demand tracking.

Alm hopes Mossier can help inspire that to change in the legal arena, while it simultaneously more directly tackles another challenge: changing culture.

“At the heart of all this, it's just a deeper issue of ‘how do you foster a culture that is accepting of a difference in the various identities so that people can bring their whole selves to work?’” says Orth. “That’s not an easy thing.”

That’s why Alm asked the panelists for Proud to Work MN to come with tangible, concrete tips and examples of what has worked for improving the workplace, and what hasn’t. He wants the approximately 150 attendees expected to attend to leave the conference equipped with the facts and figures to get the conversation started and begin rolling out initiatives.

“We want to put the pressure on companies to compete on this topic,” says Alm. “And once we get that going, that inevitably is going to produce outcomes for [the LGBTQ] community.”

Smith praises Mossier for helping lead the charge toward LGBTQ workforce equality. She’s glad to see so many businesses signed on to participate.

“Minnesota is in the forefront on this, and we want to stay in that forefront,” says Smith. “Everybody should have the freedom to be who they are, and to be able to work in places that where they can be open about who they are.”

The Proud to Work MN conference is being held Friday at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management – 3M Auditorium. It will kick off with a reception at 8 a.m. and Smith’s remarks will be presented at 9 a.m. More information can be found here.