The benefits of diversity may be obvious in broad strokes, but research suggests that having more LGBT employees can also positively impact your bottom line.

"There's an interesting financial case to be made in terms of the social strides being made around LGBT rights," says Michael Gold, an editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). In fact, according to recent research from UCLA, nearly all (92 percent) of companies with anti-discrimination policies credit the policies with having a positive impact on annual sales. In addition, executives say the policies lead to better recruitment and retention of top talent.

Yet today, as many as 53 percent of LGBT workers remain in the closet--largely for fear of damaging their career prospects--and what's worse, executives are failing to recognize a connection between LGBT inclusion and economic returns.

In a recent  global study from the EIU, "Pride and Prejudice: Attitudes and Opinions Toward LGBT Inclusion in the Workplace," just 17 percent of 1,021 respondents agreed that financial performance was a potential benefit of LGBT inclusion, despite the fact that 90 percent said they recognized the business advantage of diversity in general. The EIU surveyed business owners across eight sectors in 104 countries. It's worth noting that most respondents were male, with an even split between companies seeing less than $500 million in annual revenue and more than $500 million in annual revenue.

"When you're looking at LGBT anything in the workplace, you can't separate the business world from the broader world," notes Gold, who wrote the report. "Just starting to talk about it matters."

Significantly, in regions generally perceived to be more tolerant, fewer executives believed that more money needed to be invested in raising the visibility of LGBT workers. Just one-third of respondents in North America and Europe agreed, compared to 44 percent in the Middle East and Africa. Conversely, fewer business leaders in the Middle East and Africa perceived LGBT employees as needing more protection.

Simply knowing more LGBT people may play a part in breaking down barriers of discrimination. "Executives I meet will be in disbelief that their companies have any LGBT employees," said Ma Baoli, the founder of Blued, China's largest gay social networking app, in an interview with the EIU. In North America, just 12 percent of executives said they had no identified connection to an LGBT person, whereas that figure is four times higher in the Middle East and Africa, according to the report. "Opposing discrimination isn't simply opposing LGBT discrimination, but opposing hatred towards anyone different than yourself," Baoli said.

A variety of initiatives do exist to help promote LGBT inclusion in the workplace. For instance, the Stanford Graduate School of Business recently announced the launch of an LGBT Executive Leadership Program, a week long summer program that gives LGBT professionals the opportunity to network and improve their leadership skills for $12,000. Similarly, Accenture has a global "LGBT Leaders Learning Training," based on a program originally developed by Stonewall, the LGBT nonprofit, which provides such executives with tools and mentorship to build their careers. (Accenture is also one of the few companies that offers to fully fund an employee's gender reassignment surgery.)

Still, such programs can be slippery, as Gold notes. "It can feel a little token when you read about ghettoized policies," he says. "It's that question of: Do you want to be singled out, or do you want to be treated like everyone else?"

Overwhelmingly, respondents agreed that corporate culture is the most important factor for promoting inclusion, and two-thirds say it's up to the C-suite to drive change.

If you're at a loss for where to begin, consider implementing a rock-solid, anti-discrimination policy--in writing. Trevor Burgess, the first openly gay male head of a U.S.-listed bank, C1 Bank, made a concerted effort to replicate the language of the Civil Rights Act with his: "My first official act was to update the nondiscrimination policy and bring it into this century," he told the EIU.

Published on: Feb 25, 2016