How to Prevent Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Your Workplace

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) made employers sit up and pay attention when it filed two lawsuits alleging sexual orientation discrimination. Both cases claim that the plaintiffs were subjected to harassment by their supervisors because of their sexual orientation, as well as the fact that they didn’t conform with their employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences or stereotypes.

Sexual orientation is not specifically listed as a protected class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; however, the EEOC argues that sexual orientation is a subset of sex discrimination-making it a protected category. But what’s the EEOC’s rationale?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) lays it out stating:

  • Because the way we think about sexual orientation cannot be understood without referencing a person’s sex, it becomes discrimination when workers are treated less favorably.
  • Sexual orientation discrimination is rooted in noncompliance with sex stereotypes and gender norms, and the courts have already ruled that employers cannot make employment decisions based on these stereotypes.
  • Sexual orientation discrimination punishes workers because of their close personal association with members of a particular sex, such as in marital and other personal relationships.

Many states and cities have adopted specific laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace, but what if yours hasn’t yet? What can you do to maintain compliance and create an inclusive environment for every worker?

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5 Ways to Prevent Sexual Orientation Discrimination

1. Establish Clear Policies That Prohibit Discrimination

The first thing you will want to do is establish clear anti-discrimination policies that prohibit harassment and discriminatory behavior based on an employee’s sexual orientation. According to IndustryWeek, “Employers should explain that employees may oppose same-sex marriage rights, but they do not have the right to harass others based on their sexual orientation.”

2. Provide Anti-Discrimination Training

In conjunction with policies, employers should provide employees-especially supervisors and managers-with discrimination prevention training. The training should cover a variety of topics including:

  • How sexual orientation and gender identity are covered under the laws
  • The right way to treat and accommodate transgender employees
  • Your company’s responsibilities when third parties make discriminatory requests

3. Communicate with Transitioning Employees

Discussing sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace, specifically transgender employees, the National Law Review suggests that employers, “Communicate with a transitioning employee regarding a transition plan, including how the person wants to be recognized informally and formally, personnel document updates and when and how any information will be shared with others in the workplace.”

4. Have a Plan in Place to Investigate Claims

It’s one thing to have anti-discrimination policies, but you have to be committed to following through on them. Make sure that you have a plan in place for investigating claims of sexual orientation discrimination and that you follow through with disciplinary action. Also, inform employees about the process and what they can expect to encourage them to come forward.

5. Aim for Gender Neutral

To ensure your workplace is respectful to your employees’ gender identity, aim to be consistently gender neutral. For example, if your business necessitates a dress code, don’t require women to wear skirts and men to wear pants. Additionally, make sure that you have gender neutral restrooms so that employees have a space to feel comfortable.


While federal laws might not yet recognize sexual orientation as a protected class, the EEOC along with many different states are moving in that direction.

To ensure your business maintains compliance, along with creating an inclusive culture, it’s important to adopt specific anti-discrimination policies, offer training, respect transitioning employees, investigate claims, and be as gender neutral as possible.

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