By Melissa J. Anderson

This Monday marked National Coming Out Day, an opportunity for LGBT individuals and straight allies to “come out” in support of LGBT inclusiveness. Also this month, the Human Rights Campaign, Out and Equal, and The Center for Work Life Policy released reports on LGBT workplace inclusiveness.

For the companies scoring 100 on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, the importance of inclusive workplace policies for LGBT individuals is clear. But, as President of the HRC Joe Solmonese wrote in the report [PDF], inclusion on the index is more than just a “stamp of approval.” It’s a tool for companies to improve LGBT diversity efforts in the long term.

He explained:

“The CEI provides employers with clear standards that they must meet, creates competition (that had previously not existed) to expand LGBT-inclusive policies and progressively raises the bar, pushing corporations to earn their ratings with increased commitment to equality. Ultimately, the strength of this model made the trend toward equal workplaces snowball.”

ING’s Rob Leary, chief executive officer, ING Insurance U.S, agreed that providing metrics is a key benefit to the index:

“Participating in the survey allows us to annually review our LGBT workplace policies and practices, ensuring we continue to improve how we maintain an inclusive environment for our employees. It also provides us with an opportunity to benchmark our efforts against other leading companies.”

The index provides not just an internal yardstick for companies to improve themselves, but a way to measure how they’re doing compared to the competition. And as we slowly creep out of the recession, that competition is heating up for high-performing staff, who are beginning to consider switching jobs.

LGBT Inclusion as a Workforce Retention Driver

While HRC’s CEI is a great way to measure workplace policy, Shareen Pathak at Fins points out that actual LGBT workplace inclusiveness is a bit more complex. She writes:

“Wall Street firms try very hard to make sure their policies are inclusive and non-discriminatory. And, after all, what matters most in most finance positions is hitting numbers, not race, religion or sexual preference. But at the same time, the survey is only an assessment on policies prohibiting discrimination — not really an evaluation of a company’s enforcement of those policies.”

For a better look at how companies are actually treating their LGBT employees, it is useful to look at data coming from employees themselves. The 2010 Out and Equal Workplace Survey showed that both LGBT and straight individuals felt that workplace inclusiveness has for workers. According to Harris Interactive®, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, and Witeck-Combs Communications:

“The survey also shows how conditions in the workplace have improved in the past decade for LGBT workers. For instance, only about one in five – or 18% – of both heterosexual and LGBT adults agree it would be very difficult for an employee to be openly LGBT in their workplace. For the LGBT adults, this is an 11% improvement from 2002 when 31% of LGBT adults agreed it would be very difficult.”

But not all of the data is positive.

The study showed that, “only 44% of heterosexual adults agree LGBT people are treated fairly and equally in their workplace.”

Additionally, in a discussion of ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that has been stalled in Congress since 1994), they wrote, “More than three out of five – with 62% – heterosexual adults did not know that under federal law today it remains legal for an employer to fire someone because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Almost half – or 47% – of LGBT adults also did not know.”

Employee Engagement and LGBT Inclusiveness

As The Center for Work Life Policy’s study revealed, if LGBT employees are not out at work, they tend to be less engaged than those who are. Sylvia Hewlett, Karen Sumberg, and Lauren Leader-Chivee wrote in the Harvard Business Review:

Only 21% of closeted LGBTs trust their employer, compared to 47% who are out. …Only 23% of closeted LBGTs claim to have an entrepreneurial spirit, compared to 35% of their out co-workers. More than half (52%) feel stalled in their career, versus 36% who are out, and only 48% are satisfied with their current rate of promotion, versus 64% of out workers. Less than 60% deem themselves “very loyal,” compared to 70% of their non-closeted colleagues. The most telling statistic: Those who are not satisfied with their current rate of promotion or advancement are three times more likely than those who are satisfied to say they intend to leave their companies within the next year.

But it doesn’t stop there. According to the Out and Equal survey, straight individuals want to see LGBT-friendly workplaces as well. According to the study, “78% of heterosexual adults agree that how an employee performs at his or her job should be the standard for judging an employee, not their sexual orientation.” Also, “62% of heterosexual adults agree that regardless of their sexual orientation, all employees are entitled to equal benefits on the job, such as health insurance for their partners or spouses.”

As Selisse Berry, Founding Executive Director, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates wrote in a recent Huffington Post article, “The most successful organizations recognize the importance of having a diverse workforce as a core piece of their talent management strategy – one that includes people from different communities, from all sexual orientations and gender identities.”

Today’s employees want to see inclusive workplaces – they want their fellow employees to receive the same benefits and rights as everyone else, whether LGBT or straight. And as the economy improves, they’re willing to vote with their feet.