We Strive for 'Corporate Equality.' But Do Our Efforts Go Far Enough to Make LGBTQ+ Employees Feel Welcome to Be Themselves in the Workplace?

I spoke with the leader of Zebra’s Equality Alliance (ZEAL) to get his take on how companies’ efforts are measured and how progress should really be benchmarked.

Zebras at a 2021 Pride event
by Laura Kennedy
June 01, 2022

Earlier this year, it was announced that Zebra Technologies received a score of 95 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2022 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), which measures how over 1,200 U.S.-based companies promote LGBTQ+ workplace equality through corporate policies, practices and benefits. As noted in the press release, ‘this year’s CEI reflects growth across every measurement category, from the adoption of inclusive non-discrimination policies to equitable healthcare benefits for transgender employees.’

That is certainly cause for celebration.

Yet, something kept bugging me as I was digging through the Index and looking at the ranking criteria and company comparisons. I kept thinking about how easy – or difficult – it really is to measure ‘growth’ in terms of inclusion and diversity. Sure, you can pull numbers that show the diversity of employee demographics and compare them year over year. You can even quantify how many new policies, programs, and benefits have been launched. But does this type of growth lead to palpable changes in how people feel? Do members of the LGBTQ+ community see a noticeable difference in how they’re treated at work? Do they feel welcome to be their authentic selves?

I chatted with my friend and colleague Mike Stent about this, as Mike has been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights for some time and an advisor on many of Zebra’s inclusion and diversity (I&D) initiatives. He has also been plugged into organizations outside Zebra that are focused on moving the needle in terms of ‘corporate equality.’ 

Here’s a bit of our conversation:

Laura: What is your take on the CEI? Not the results, per se. But the way the Index serves as a change agent for the LGBTQ+ community by enabling companies to benchmark and strengthen their advocacy and inclusion efforts?

Mike: Beyond being a tool for LGBTQ+ people to evaluate a company’s inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community, the Corporate Equality Index serves as a great framework for companies to self-assess the adequacy of their policies, benefits, and culture of inclusion with the lens of LGBTQ+ employees and their families. The Index is a compilation of criteria across four key spectrums:  

  1. Workplace protections in the company’s policy.
  2. Inclusive family benefits for same-sex marriages and partnerships and transgender healthcare needs
  3. Inclusive cultural elements, such as education programs, employee resource groups, and transgender transition guidelines,
  4. Matters of corporate social responsibility and citizenship, such as LGBTQ+ recruiting, supplier diversity programs, and philanthropic partnership with LGBTQ+ organizations

While comprehensive, the program is also flexible enough to enable companies to focus their efforts on the guidelines where it can make the most meaningful impact on the LGBTQ+ community.   

The CEI was truly operationalized 20 years ago to enable a change in the corporate community, and it has done just that. It has guided companies on how to enable LGBTQ+ inclusion while at the same time making companies’ levels of inclusion visible to the broader LGBTQ+ community.  

Laura: As you know, Zebra received a high rating for the four core pillars: non-discrimination policies across business entities, equitable benefits for LGBTQ+ workers and their families, supporting an inclusive culture and corporate social responsibility. Since getting involved with Zebra’s inclusion networks in 2019 and joining Zebra’s I&D team in 2021, I’ve realized just how much we’re doing in each of these areas. But I’m curious what is most notable to you in terms of Zebra’s I&D efforts in support of the LGBTQ+ community.

Mike: In 2019, when we launched the ZEAL Inclusion Network, Zebra’s LGBTQ+ employee resource group (ERG), we knew we needed to start from within – focusing on the buildout of Zebra’s culture of inclusion for its LGBTQ+ employees. But how do you build a culture of LGBTQ+ inclusion when very few employees are “out” at work as LGBTQ+ or visible in the workplace as allies? This involves starting a conversation and bringing Zebra’s out LGBTQ+ employees and visible allies to the front of this conversation.  

We started monthly coffee chats right from the beginning, with a broad range of educational and uplifting topics aimed at both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ Zebra employees. We talked about the challenges the LGBTQ+ community faces at work, the importance of allyship, how to use your LGBTQ+ qualities to enable your success and tie each of these back to the workplace. We told the stories of Zebra’s LGBTQ+ employees and allies through formal panel discussions and informal chatter. And we leveraged reputable third-party data like the Human Rights Campaign’s A Workplace Divided study and research conducted by the UCLA Williams Institute to tell the story behind why LGBTQ+ inclusion is important and the impact being authentic about one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity can have on a workplace.  

Doing these things made the message real, but at the same time gave a voice to those in the community as well as allies of the community. Over time, more of our LGBTQ+ employees have gained (and are gaining) the comfort to be their authentic selves in the workplace and are thriving as a result. Our allies are also becoming more and more visible, which furthers the level of comfort that our LGBTQ+ folks have in being out.  Today, when you walk the halls of a Zebra facility, you’ll find symbols of LGBTQ+ Pride (i.e., the Pride flag) hanging at employee cubicles and workstations.  You’ll see emails with the ZEAL logo and/or Ally Pride flag in people’s email signatures, along with their pronouns. These may seem like small things, but they have made a huge impact in driving the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community and its allies from within Zebra’s workplace, giving permission for Zebra’s LGBTQ+ people to be their authentic selves.  

Laura: I know you and other members of the ZEAL Inclusion Network have been petitioning senior leaders for some of the benefits that are now being offered and remain staunch supporters of the programs and policies Zebra has put in place to ensure workplace equality at all levels. Can you talk a little bit about how far the company has come since ZEAL was formed – or perhaps even before then?

Mike: The company has come a long way! When we launched ZEAL, we defined a mission statement for the inclusion network as well as several objectives, one of which was focused on connecting Zebra with the needs of the LGBTQ+ community. We – ZEAL members – have become consultants on all things LGBTQ+ for leadership. We have given guidance to the art of the possible in this space, which really helped us codify what good work was already happening at ZEAL and celebrate this progress in the LGBTQ+ community at large.  

As we embarked on the CEI journey, what we found was , in many ways, our business leaders were already on the forefront of this before we even started looking at the CEI. We already had inclusive policies and our benefits program was already robust in this space. We had launched supplier diversity programs and included LGBTQ+ as a core part of inclusion and diversity training. With ZEAL, we gained an active ERG along with greater engagement with LGBTQ+ philanthropy. More recently, the ZEAL and in-house HR Rewards teams have worked together to institute a transgender inclusion program company wide, including policies, guidance for someone transitioning, and resources for all employees to leverage.  

But going beyond our accomplishments that brought us to where we are today in terms of the CEI, it’s helpful to look at the broad tone of inclusion at Zebra. As ZEAL wrapped up its third year as an inclusion network, we took a step back in one of our coffee chats and asked the participants to reflect on four questions under the lens of where we were three years ago (answering as though it was Spring 2019):

  • What was the tone on LGBTQ+ inclusion?

  • How many LGBTQ+ people did you know at the company?

  • How many LGBTQ+ allies did you know at the company?

  • In what way was Zebra engaged with the LGBTQ+ community at large?

We then asked for participants to answer those same questions under the lens of how they feel today. Without hesitation, the participants (both LGBTQ+, allies, and others looking to learn more) confirmed it: there is a night-and-day difference. There is a strong tone of LGBTQ+ inclusion and, as a result, more LGBTQ+ employees are out at work than ever at Zebra and their allies are visible, helping to enable this. This comes through from the presence of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the company’s broader HR strategies, but also in the way our employees come to work as out LGBTQ+ and proud and visible allies.    

Laura: What would you say are Zebra’s priorities right now in terms of corporate equality specific to LGBTQ+ employees’ needs? Or perhaps, where should we be focusing?

Mike: Our focus over the last three years has rightly been more internally focused as we grow and nurture a culture of inclusion for our LGBTQ+ employees. While we need to continue efforts in this regard, our focus is slowly pivoting to also look externally. Now that we have established the underpinnings of an LGBTQ+ inclusive organization, it is time to be more visible as an LGBTQ+ inclusive organization in the broader LGBTQ+ community. This means engaging with our customers on LGBTQ+ inclusion, recruiting top LGBTQ+ talent, and being present in the LGBTQ+ community at large.

In 2021, we started to tap into this external focus with our first-ever panel discussion focused on LGBTQ+ inclusion with two key customer accounts, a new role on the Business Advisory Council for an LGBTQ+ outreach partner, oSTEM (Out in STEM), and sponsorship of a local LGBTQ+ intramural sports team. This year, we will continue to grow these activities and are particularly proud to make our mark in the community adjacent to our headquarters as we serve as the premier Diamond-level sponsor for the Pinta Pride Project’s Buffalo Grove Pride Parade.  

Laura: You work with a lot of organizations, so you have visibility into what other companies are doing to move the I&D needle. Do you see evidence of progress in terms of how policies and programs are changing people’s attitudes? Is there more widespread acceptance and tolerance of all people in today’s workplaces?

Mike: There has been a lot of progress in workplaces on LGBTQ+ inclusion and equality. The CEI reported nearly 1300 companies on its Index, up from 13 companies when the CEI was first published in 2002. Moreover, companies are driving much of the narrative on LGBTQ+ inclusion. While laws and regulations can sometimes be slow to keep up with the pace of change, companies can often affect change more quickly through the development of inclusive policies and practices. But there is still more work to be done. It doesn’t stop with the company’s practices. All employees have to engage in inclusive behavior.  In 2018, the Human Rights Campaign published a study revealing that 46% of LGBTQ+ workers are not out at work and, in 2013, the UCLA Williams Institute published a statistic suggesting that LGBTQ+ workers in an inclusive and friendly environment are far more productive. But with the narrative in the ongoing “culture wars” we see brewing, it is that much more important for companies to take the right steps to enable a place where all employees can feel safe to bring their authentic selves to the workplace every day and achieve personal success.  

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Editor’s Note: 

You can view the full CEI online at www.hrc.org/cei. You may also find these resources and stories helpful:

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Laura Kennedy
Laura Kennedy is currently a Sales Learning & Development Specialist at Zebra where she is responsible for delivering sales enablement and training programs for the global channel partner community. Laura also acts as the EMEA Regional Lead of ZEAL (Zebra Equality Alliance), the LGBTQ+ inclusion network at Zebra, helping to promote and foster an inclusive workplace where everyone can feel seen, respected, valued and heard.