The TUC conducted this research to investigate the extent to which the progress of recent decades in embedding formal legal protections for LGBT+ workers has translated into positive and inclusive experiences of the workplace. What we found was worrying: despite LGBT+ workers being protected by law from discrimination, harassment and bullying, too many still experienced the workplace as a negative or even harmful.
This research was qualitative: we wanted to dig beneath the surface of statistics and try to understand the reality of life being out as LGBT+ at work now. We were particularly keen to hear directly from people who are active in their trade unions, in order to help union reps and activists understand the issues and make sure they are ready to support LGBT+ members.
Many of the LGBT+ people we interviewed reflected that they have seen progress - although homophobia and biphobia are by no means extinct in the workplace. The LGBT+ workers we spoke to had low expectations, considering themselves fortunate when basic legal standards are met. It was noticeable that recruitment was a point of particular tension and worry: even those happy to be out in the workplace said they would definitely hide their identity when applying for a new role.
There was consensus among our interviewees that trans and non-binary staff face the greatest challenges in the workplace. Many felt that progress on trans inclusion in the workplace was going backwards. Many interviewees cited the toxic narratives about LGBT+ people that are prevalent in the media, believing that this climate is affecting LGBT+ experiences at work.
From the interviews, it was clear that inclusive workplace policies are necessary but not sufficient to create workplace change, and that culture is slower to improve. Acts of harm are very likely to go unreported to employers as they believe little will be done. Many described discriminatory and bullying experiences such as being outed by colleagues or being persistently misgendered - but said they would be very unlikely to make a complaint.
Overall, interviewees were positive about unions (as you would expect from a sample recruited through union networks with higher union membership than the general population). There was, however, some concern that unions and union reps may not have an up-to-date understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation issues. Some interviewees said that they might not approach their union for support with issues related to being an LGBT+ worker. There were also some examples of historic unsupportive practice by union reps cited.
A number of interviews focussed on the impact of employer-led diversity and inclusion networks (sometimes called LGBT+ networks, employee resource groups or affinity groups). Whilst these are very welcome sources of support and representation, interviewees reflected that these networks are dependent on workplace culture, and time to participate in these networks is not protected. We also note that, unlike unions, employee resource groups and networks exist at the whim of management and do not have an independent status.
The core conclusion of this research was the importance for employers and unions of focusing on building inclusive cultures at work. Managers in all workplaces need to actively, consciously and consistently create inclusive cultures, set behavioural expectations for everyone, and stamp out discrimination and bullying. This will create stronger, more successful organisations, with benefits for customers and clients too.
The TUC wanted to understand the experiences of LGBT+ workers in today’s workplaces, to develop recommendations for both policy change and practical actions that unions could take. We therefore took a qualitative approach, asking LGBT+ workers to answer a screening survey and then approaching a smaller sample to take part in more in-depth interviews.
We conducted 16 interviews. The interviews provided a relatively diverse - though not representative - group of respondents from across the UK, and of different ages, genders, LGBT+ identities, ethnicities, and across a range of job roles and sectors. Interviewees were more likely than the population as a whole to be members of, or reps in a union.
The interviews focused on the following key areas:
It should be noted that those who took part in this research were self-selecting. Those keen to speak to a researcher tend not to be those with the most difficult experiences.
Older LGBT+ workers in particular looking back over several decades of experience were very positive about the direction of travel. One of the most significant changes they described was the ability to be out at work, even despite the homophobia and biphobia they received.
“The top line is - it's nothing like it used to be. When I was training to be a teacher back in the 90s, the person assessing me looked me dead in the eye and said, “Look, I'm never going to pass you - I don't want your sort around children. I’m a headteacher and an Ofsted inspector - you don’t hear about gay men hearing that sort of thing these days.” Henry, headteacher
“I'd see some people I worked with out on the scene in Leeds, and we’d chat, but would absolutely never acknowledge it in the newsroom. I don’t think the younger generation now appreciates how different it was.” Andrew, journalist
This is not to say that homophobia or biphobia have disappeared from workplaces - interviewees could all easily recall recent instances, including many which would constitute gross misconduct. As well as homophobia and biphobia from colleagues, interviewees also reflected on the behaviour of customers or service users in their places of work and the response of their employer.
“Even before I was out to anyone - my headteacher said to me “no one would ever say it, but if you look like a lesbian, you’re not going to get a job in a primary school”. People don’t guess that I’m gay, so I hear the homophobia all the time. I just can’t believe it - I’m like - you’re just telling me how happy you are to break the law.” Layla, teacher
Biphobia was often discussed - by bi staff, and reps with experience supporting bi staff - as a real, and often growing issue in workplaces. Ella, a work coach with the DWP, discussed her experiences of biphobia when her colleagues, who had assumed she was gay, realised she was bi (see case study number 4).
One of the themes emerging from the research was that LGBT+ workers have very low expectations about how they should be treated at work. This meant that many respondents described basic equality, or the lack of harassment, as “very lucky”.
A headteacher told us they were
“very lucky to never have experienced bullying here”.
A trans engineer in a nuclear power plant said,
“the last time I was misgendered was about three years ago - I almost feel guilty, for how easy I’ve had it here”.
A physiotherapist wrote
“I have been fortunate enough to have a senior leader who identifies as LGBT. I know that if this wasn’t the case I feel I would have a negative experience, and always lived with a slight fear.”
A train driver told us
“My experience as a gay man has been overall very good. I've never experienced any direct discrimination. However, I have been subject to name calling and negative language.”
A lot of the interviewees reflected on the intersectionality of their experiences. Many white interviewees reflected that their experiences must have been easier than they would have had, were they BME - and made direct comparisons with how they’ve seen their BME colleagues and union members treated.
BME people were more likely to have had negative experiences, specifically the intersection of multiple discriminations.
“I’m currently unemployed, but the previous company I worked in didn’t end up well for me, I was abused - verbally and racially too - basically from, my POV, mainly the LGBTQ status.” Vee, hospitality
“I get parents on the phone, not realising I’m mixed race, so they say things they wouldn’t say otherwise. You get this insight into how people think. It’s the same as my sexuality - they don’t assume I’m gay - so you hear it all coming out. I’m always very calm these days - I just ask “tell me a little bit more about that - I don’t understand what you mean”. Mark, headteacher
Disabled interviewees reflected on how they experience mental distress or neurodivergence alongside their LGBT+ identities:
“Because she [my manager] gets my pronouns right, I trust her to understand my neurodivergence too. My old manager didn’t care about either.” Billie, call centre worker
“Before transitioning - I was very ill at that time. But actually I got very well supported - I could go and ask for the support, the time off - and they took me seriously. Because I was seen as a straight white man.” Cathy, civil servant
Want to hear about our latest news and blogs?
Sign up now to get it straight to your inbox
To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).