Under the rainbow: Creating intentional allyship in the workplace 

During Pride Month, social feeds in many parts of the world burst into a kaleidoscope of colours, and companies unfurl their rainbow flags in a show of support for LGBTQ+ employees, partners and customers. This reaffirming annual celebration has become a public badge of corporate allyship with the LGBTQ+ community — or more accurately, communities.

At first glance, external advocacy seems like the perfect way to express support for our LGBTQ+ employees as visibility moves societies in the right direction. However, that vibrant external colour should reflect an internal narrative of allyship, permanent introspective work and deep commitment within the organisation. It is internal commitments and practices that most increase equity, inclusion and well-being — and enhance quality of life for LGBTQ+ employees. It may not be as loud and proud but arguably has a greater impact on the everyday lives of LGBTQ+ stakeholders. In our diverse sociopolitical world, this is very important.

The reality is that not every company in every country can engage equally in public advocacy without pushback, or even outright repercussions. Fortunately, real allyship isn’t only about “talking the talk.” It’s also about “walking the walk” through meaningful understanding of the realities in each country for developing programmes, policies and career opportunities within the confines of the law.

The most important litmus test of true allyship is the internal environment a company cultivates for its LGBTQ+ stakeholders. Without those practices, external gestures may well be seen by employees as empty talk.

Allyship amid turbulent sociopolitical winds

Your perspective on progress toward LGBTQ+ equity probably depends a lot on where in the world — and history — you are standing. Organisations should certainly stay aware of the challenges derived from sociopolitical strife and develop global policies and programmes to mitigate the effects of polarisation. Many places have experienced troubling social backlash, rolling back of rights and general destabilisation of psychological safety over the past few years.

At the same time, other areas have seen significant progress in attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights. For example, Singapore lifted a ban on same-sex sexual activity in 2022, after de facto decriminalising gay sex in 2007 — as did three Caribbean states: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, and St. Kitts and Nevis. As of this writing, more than 38 countries recognise same-sex marriage — and support for LGBTQ+ communities’ rights sits at an all-time historical high.

The enhancement of new regulations has been a game-changer for LGBTQ+ employees and their families. It appears that these regulations have not only protected LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination but have also created an environment that fosters their personal and professional growth. By having access to equal opportunities and benefits, LGBTQ+ employees can now develop fulfilling family lives, thrive in the workplace, pursue local and international careers, and build financial security on par with their cisgender and heterosexual colleagues. This progress marks a significant step toward a more inclusive and equitable society for all. The future holds great promise.

What is the role of employers?

Employers are the linchpin in the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights. Positioned uniquely at the intersection of societal change and individual well-being, you have the power and responsibility to create an inclusive culture through policies, advocacy and action.

This is the leadership stakeholders are looking for. According to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer, businesses are the most trusted institutions, ahead of NGOs, government and the media — placing them in an optimal position to drive genuine support and change.

Our 2024 Global Talent Trends research, however, reveals that trust in organisations has eroded somewhat since the height of the pandemic, so it’s all the more important to preserve it. That research found that “employees’ trust in their organisation is the strongest variable in influencing how energised they feel at work, their sense of thriving, and their intent to stay.”

Companies should be ready to offer external advocacy and support where possible. But as we laid out above, internal actions can have a true impact on LGBTQ+ employees’ daily lives. Equalised pay, comprehensive and inclusive benefits, career equity, mental health and wellness, along with a culture of support and an emotionally safe environment, are essential elements of a truly inclusive workplace — and areas in which companies have the greatest ability to make change. Those core policies serve as the foundation upon which authentic allyship is built, allowing for a safer, more supportive environment for LGBTQ+ employees, irrespective of the external sociopolitical landscape.

External allyship

Often symbolised by participation in Pride parades and the display of rainbow flags, external allyship serves as a public declaration of a company’s commitment to LGBTQ+ rights. These gestures can be impactful and world changing; however, their significance is magnified when they mirror the internal activities and values of the organisation.

Internal allyship

The true measure of a company’s commitment lies in its internal practices — DEI and workplace policies (for example, global transgender and gender-diverse workplace policy) that ensure fair treatment, support, and equal access to resources and opportunities for LGBTQ+ employees. This aspect of allyship focuses on creating a workplace that not only talks about inclusivity but embodies it through actionable policies and practices.

Congruence between brand and employee experience

The interplay between a company’s brand identity and its internal culture is crucial. In many ways, it mirrors the model we use here at Mercer to show how external brand experience and internal employee experience work together in a symbiotic way.
This graphic depicts the relationship between brand experience and employee experience. Employee experience encompasses total well-being, digital and physical workspaces, work and work models, and rewards and growth. Brand experience encompasses brand equity, customer experience, ESG and Good Work commitments. At the intersection of brand and employee experience sits human-centric values.
By the same token, we can think of external and internal allyship as part of a similar model.
The graphic shows the relationship between external allyship and internal allyship. External allyship encompasses marketing and brand initiatives, participation in external events, government policy support, legal advocacy, mission and purpose statements, partnering with external organisations and supplier diversity. Internal allyship encompasses health equity, mental health and well-being, mentoring, ERGs and BRGs, career equity, bias training, culture of inclusion, performance management and ratings, financial wellness and equity and pay equity. At the intersection of external and internal allyship is purpose and values.

It’s important for organisations to navigate the delicate balance between external visibility and internal action but always to be sure substance underlies flash. Ensuring that your internal policies reflect the inclusive messages portrayed externally could strengthen the credibility of the company’s allyship, strengthen the employer deal and enhance your overall brand.

Note the inclusion here of purpose and values as a linchpin. By embedding allyship into the company’s purpose, organisations can ensure that their support for LGBTQ+ employees is both intrinsic and intentional. What matters here is having a strategy and working incrementally toward your purpose in a way that bridges the say/do gap. By doing so, you not only demonstrate a commitment to LGBTQ+ rights but can also create an environment of psychological safety and equitable well-being that can help those stakeholders feel they belong and will be safe with you. This inclusive environment would allow them to contribute their unique perspectives and experiences, leading to enhanced creativity, innovation and productivity within the workplace.

Actionable steps for creating a more inclusive, equitable work environment

Develop a performance management system that actively mitigates any kind of unconscious bias. Conduct regular pay equity audits and internal labour market (ILM) mapping. Training managers on fair assessment practices and the implementation of a feedback system that allows for multiple perspectives can help achieve this.

When compared with their peers, LGBTQ+ individuals face significant challenges with regard to creating long-term financial wellness, saving for retirement and accumulating generational wealth. By adopting a more flexible, employee-driven approach to financial wellness, you can help to balance this scale.

Create structured career development programmes that are accessible to all, including LGBTQ+ employees. This could involve mentorship programmes, professional development opportunities and clear pathways for advancement within the company.

Offer health and wellness benefits that explicitly or implicitly address the unique needs of LGBTQ+ employees. Consider a global review of benefits eligibility, mental health support, family-building support, access to specialised LGBTQ+ healthcare providers and clinics in network, and inclusive provisions within health insurance policies, such as comprehensive care for transgender and gender-diverse people.

Actively work to build an organisational culture that celebrates diversity and fosters inclusion. This can be achieved through regular diversity training sessions, celebrating LGBTQ+ events and history, pursuing Good Work initiatives, and establishing employee resource groups (ERGs) for LGBTQ+ employees and allies. Develop global workplace LGBTQ+ policies to ensure an inclusive and safe environment.
By taking these steps and adapting to local legal and social contexts, companies can not only affirm their commitment to LGBTQ+ rights but also enrich their workplace culture, driving engagement, innovation and loyalty among all employees. This holistic approach can ensure that the workplace is inclusive not only on paper but also in practice, fostering an environment where everyone, regardless of identity, can thrive.

Taking a leap of faith

One last thought: We know measuring the impact of policies and practices that support LGBTQ+ employees can be challenging, especially in environments where they may be reluctant to self-identify. While a true measure of allyship isn’t always visible in numbers, you can use a myriad of agnostic metrics as a guiding star. It’s important to continuously measure your efforts so they can be managed. Regular employee surveys, focus groups, ILM mapping, audits and anonymous feedback mechanisms can provide insight into the effectiveness of your inclusivity initiatives, even if the direct impact on LGBTQ+ employees isn’t immediately apparent.

When companies take the leap to prioritise internal allyship, they send a powerful message — that they’re committed to creating a workplace where everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, can thrive. This commitment, rooted in action and guided by purpose, is what truly transforms the workplace and society at large.

An internal-first approach isn’t just a strategic choice but an imperative for companies seeking to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community — not just in the bright light of June, but throughout the year, under the ever-watchful gaze of the rainbow.

Under the rainbow

Creating intentional allyship in the workplace

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About the author(s)
Harrison Pope
Diego Ramirez
Eric Tsytsylin
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