When it comes to inclusion and diversity initiatives in the workplace, there are pros and cons to LGBT employee networks, writes Dr Marian Crowley-Henry, Maynooth University and Dr Ciarán McFadden, Edinburgh Napier University.

Inclusion and diversity initiatives in organisations of all shapes and sizes have become ubiquitous in recent times. They're more salient in the context of other social inclusion endeavours such as the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo campaigns. 

With regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees in the workplace, a one-size-fits-all approach tends to be endorsed, with employee networks being established in different organisations. Indeed, the role and value of these organisational LGBT employee networks can be a very positive influence on the workplace experiences of LGBT employees. These groups can serve as an antidote to the loneliness and isolation that heteronormativity provokes.

Heteronormativity institutionalises the apparent "normality" of a heterosexual orientation and justifies prejudice or "othering" against anyone outside of the categorisation. In this vein, the heterosexual orientation is prioritised as "normal" and any non-heterosexual behaviour is deemed deviant, different, or strange.

LGBT employees may therefore feel relationally removed, distant and "different" to those around them in those organisations, which are traditionally and institutionally heteronormative. Due to formal, informal, overt or subtle discrimination, LGBT employees may perceive that they are at the periphery of the organisation, in the minority and part of the out-group rather than the in-group.

Being socialised as a minority group, LGBT employee engagement may therefore be impacted due to experiencing or perceiving unwelcome or insulting comments or prejudices. For many of these, the role and value of organisational LGBT employee networks, where their very existence is acknowledged and respected, is welcomed.

LGBT employee networks allow lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees to finally experience shared identity with similar others within the organisation. These networks, in turn, have a purpose in the promotion of the LGBT employee voice to ensure their concerns are appropriately aired and managed.

The LGBT employee network represents a form of collective power against hegemonic heteronormativity in the workplace, and are valuable identity-reinforcing and identity-valuing domains for LGBT employees.  

Box ticked. The organisation is displaying a keen awareness of the diversity inherent in its workforce and is providing work-based social networks to recognise and celebrate issues and concerns that may be of particular relevance to a work group. Great initiative on the part of the organisation….Or is it? Could LGBT employee networks in fact be a tool which reinforces and heightens sexual identity concealment and causes friction within the LGBT employee workplace community?

Having a "one-size-fits-all" LGBT employee network blatantly ignores the inherent diversity across and within each sub-category in the LGBT grouping. For instance, many of the experiences and issues faced by gay and lesbian employees differ from those of bisexuals (who may more easily conceal their bisexuality and pretend to be heterosexual at work) and from those of transgender employees (who have issues primarily related to gender identity, alongside sexual orientation).

However, all are lumped together as a highly visible network of seemingly homogeneous employees who can talk openly of the issues they face in work and life. In such attempts to be inclusive, the individual voice is once again silenced by playing to the masses and homogenizing the needs of a cohort which is internally highly differentiated.

Moreover, the individual work-private life identity separation of everyone identifying with a particular sexual orientation (or gender for transgender employees) is silenced. The assumption is that if you identify as LGBT, you will join an employee LGBT network. This is not the case in reality.

In our study on LGBT voice and belonging in the workplace, we found that employee networks can cause stress among those LGBT employees who wish to not disclosure their sexuality at work, and only heighten their withdrawal and silence of voice in the workplace. This is contrary to the expectation that employee networks supporting LGBT employees reduce stigma.

While LGBT employees have been shown to experience separation and isolation due to their sexual orientation and the social perceptions of this from the mainstream workforce, this affects their voice and silence in the workplace in different ways.

The perceived stigma that some individual LGBT employees feel when proactively publicly disclosing and voicing their sexual orientation at work results in many concealing their sexuality. For these, LGBT networks are not a desirable solution. Those LGBT employees that do not reveal their sexual identity in the workplace, but prefer to separate work and private life, would therefore not want to join a network that may "out" them.

Others may believe that joining a network would over-emphasise their sexual identity, whereas they would prefer to normalise it. Others again may wish to prioritise their professional identity in the workplace without emphasising the possible baggage of a minority sexual orientation distinction.

While those LGBT employees who have not disclosed their sexual identity may feel like an outsider and on the periphery, reactions from colleagues after coming out may solidify and strengthen that feeling, and cause them to hesitate in promoting their sexual orientation through membership of a designated employee network.

Coming out, then, is not just about disclosing one’s sexual orientation; it is also about potentially solidifying the isolation that LGBT employees already feel in the highly heteronormative workplaces.

And let’s not get started on GDPR issues regarding membership of such employee networks, where LGBT non-disclosing employees may be inadvertently identified by others in the network who are happy to be "out and proud". Issues surrounding privacy and GDPR may be of particular concern where someone wishes to separate their sexual identity from their work identity.

The separation and isolation from the mainstream workforce that lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees can experience due to their sexual orientation is in need of further analysis, in particular about how this can affect their voice and silence in the workplace. In response to perceived threats and actual experience of stigma in the workplace, there is a need for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) voice in organisations

But the complexities and concerns for LGBT employees in publicly voicing their sexual orientation at work must also be taken into account to ensure ALL LGBT voices matter.

Dr Marian Crowley-Henry is a Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the School of Business at Maynooth University.