Alicia Case hosts the Publicis Égalité drag pageant

He went to work every day and pretended to be someone he wasn’t. For part of his professional life, 25-year-old Amir Diwane says, “I invested so much energy into hiding myself.” 
“It’s called ‘gay gauge,’” he says, a kind of personal litmus test he applied at every stage of a new job. “When you interview for a job, you have to sense how gay you can be at work. I’ve had jobs in the past where I felt, ‘I’m too gay here, I won’t get the respect I deserve.’  So you hide yourself to protect yourself. But, when you’re hiding a part of yourself, you can’t be fully invested in your work.”
Diwane, now a senior operations coordinator at Publicis Health, says the policies and practices put in place to protect and support LGBTQ employees by his current employer allow him to bring his “full self to work every day.”
But Diwane’s work experience is one that eludes many LGBTQ employees across the U.S., who are subject to strikingly different employment protections depending on their location. At the federal level, there are no explicit non-discrimination statutes that cover LGBTQ employees in the U.S. Additionally, in 30 states there are no explicit state-based regulations that protect LGBTQ employees from being fired because of their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity. 
According to a 2014 study conducted by The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group in the U.S., 53% of all LGBTQ workers nationwide “hide who they are in the workplace.”

The study found that employee engagement suffers by up to 30% as a result of “experiencing a negative workplace environment and/or feeling compelled to be closeted,” a significant business impact. Employee retention was also a factor with 26% of employees indicating that they stayed in a job because “the environment was accepting,” and 9% left a job because it “was not accepting.”

In the absence of federal — and in many cases state protections — what can employers do to ensure a positive workplace environment for LGBTQ employees? “It’s always possible for an employer to provide more protections than the law does,” says Karen Loewy, senior counsel for Lambda Legal. “They absolutely have the ability to make clear what’s accepted in their workplace and to make it a clear term of employment that if you engage in discriminatory behaviors, you’re jeopardizing your own job.”  
Employers, explains Loewy, need to have a clear reporting mechanism for cases involving claims of discrimination. The company’s non-discrimination policy should appear in employee manuals and should be posted in public spaces, such as the lunchroom. “But an employer also needs to make it clear that the expectation is not just ‘you’re not going to be jerks,’” Loewy added, “They need to take affirmative steps to ensure inclusion, not just prevent discrimination.” 
For Loewy, brands and agencies in healthcare and pharma have a particular responsibility to combat anti-LGBTQ discrimination. “We have studies about the reluctance of LGBTQ people to seek healthcare and treatment because of the amount of discrimination they have experienced,” she says.

“It’s important for these companies to ensure equal treatment and culturally competent care,” she adds. “You should be sending that message of inclusion to all the folks you interact with, the people you work with, and the people you serve. Making that mission explicit is going to be good for your business, aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do.” 

Alicia Case, global communications manager at Publicis Health and global co-lead of Égalité, Publicis Groupe’s business resource group for LGBTQ employees and their allies, says that more than ever, businesses need to step in where the federal government or states haven’t. “Companies can make up the difference when a state is lagging behind,” explains Case, who has been recognized as a 2018 Champion Ally by Out and Equal Workplace Advocates.    

Amir Diwane held by Publicis Health chairman, Nick Colucci at Publicis Égalité’s charity drag pageant last year

Publicis Health prides itself on scoring a perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2018 Corporate Equality Index survey, the fourth year the agency has scored 100. The survey aims to identify what companies do to foster “diverse, engaging and inclusive work environments for their LGBTQ talent.”
“We take great pride in setting the tone,” says Case. She points to recent policies introduced by Publicis Groupe, including the creation of “gender confirmation transition guidelines” that ensure transgender employees, managers and teams are well-educated and comfortable throughout the entire process.”

In addition, new transgender candidate interview guidelines are in development. These include referring to candidates by their preferred pronouns, providing gender-neutral bathrooms, and flagging potential discrepancies that may arise with background checks under a different name.   

But what differentiates Publicis Health as an employer of LGBTQ workers, Case says, is “we’re here not only to protect you, but we’re here to celebrate you, too. What makes us enviable and awesome is our charity employee drag pageant [held every June; Nick Colucci, now chairman, Publicis Health, was a judge last year], transgender lunch-and-learns, and programs on the history of LGBTQ culture. We want to create a space for people of all backgrounds to work here.”

“When somebody has to come to work and hide who they are, that takes brain power and takes away from creativity,” she explains. “People who can be themselves do their best work, and they’re more passionate about what they do. So, the client is going to be more engaged because they’re working with people who are more engaged. It’s a better ROI for the organization.” 
“We’re proactive not just for our employees, but because this is a connection point with our clients,” adds Case. “We’re saying, ‘We believe in the same values as you,’ which gives us an edge down the line.”   
Case’s colleague Diwane has a succinct message for other employers: “I’m not going to hide. We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”