Europe must take action to protect LGBT people in the workplace

This article, originally posted in Social Europe, is based on a comprehensive overview of surveys on the working life experiences of LGBT people in the EU. 

17 May is International day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people face distinct disadvantages in the labour market ranging from discrimination in recruitment, wages or promotions to harassment and bullying in the workplace. Such problems are present across the entire EU and on average, 19% of LGBT employees feels discriminated at work.

Conditions in some countries are worse than in others. Initiatives aimed at addressing prejudice tend to be implemented in countries that are already more tolerant towards LGBT. By contrast, governments and the social partners are largely inactive in countries where there is more acute prejudice; if any action is taken, it tends to come from NGOs. Reaching consensus at EU has proven to be problematic, as shown by the recent failure to find agreement on a list of actions to promote LGBTI equality at a March meeting of the council of employment and social affairs ministers (EPSCO).

Legally protected but discriminated against

In the EU, the Employment Equality Directive (2000/78/EC) and Employment and Social Security Directive (2006/54/EC) forbid discrimination in employment based on – among other grounds – sexual orientation and sexual identity. Despite the legal protection that LGBT people enjoy, a new Eurofound paper presents overwhelming evidence that they face discrimination in recruitment and employment.

The Eurobarometer survey from 2015 shows that in northern and western Europe people seem to be more comfortable with having LGBT work colleagues. However, LGBT colleagues experience more issues in eastern and southern EU Member States. In all countries, the unease felt by having a transgender colleague is even stronger than in the case of gay men, lesbians or bisexuals.

These differences in public attitudes are reflected in reported incidents of discrimination. The Fundamental Rights Agency’s (FRA) EU LGBT survey 2012 has revealed that one in five (19%) LGBT employees in the EU felt discriminated at work in the 12 months preceding the survey. Generally, Baltic and Balkan Member States had the highest proportions of LGBT employees who felt discriminated at work. A body of national surveys and academic research also indicates that LGBT employees face distinct disadvantages at the workplace compared to their heterosexual colleagues.

Figure 1: Proportion of LGBT employees who felt discriminated at work (in 12 months preceding the survey) and who always hide or disguise being LGBT at work (in 5 years preceding the survey) per country (EU28, 2012)


Source: FRA LGBT Survey 2012 data explorer

Secret at work

Many LGBT employees are forced to hide their sexual orientation at work due to fear of discrimination and harassment. The extent of discrimination reported by LGBT respondents is particularly alarming since almost a third (29%) always hide their sexual identity and orientation at work. The number of respondents who felt able to disclose their sexual orientation or identity at work was lowest in Baltic and Balkan EU Member States. Hiding one’s sexual orientation is often stressful and may have a negative impact on the individual’s productivity, self-esteem, depth of friendships, and ability to work as part of a team.

The social stigma attached to being LGBT can be so acute as to even discourage victims of discrimination or harassment from coming forward. For this reason, traditional measures of discrimination that are applied to that based on sexual orientation are likely to under-report the severity of the issue. This lack of reliable information forms a barrier in addressing the discrimination of LGBT people on the labour market.

Actions of social partners and governments

In order to address the position of LGBT people in society and in the labour market, the European Commission published in December 2015 a list of specific targeted actions aimed at combating LGBTI discrimination in the EU in 2016–2019. In February 2016, the Permanent Representatives Committee of the Council of the EU reached an agreement on a list of actions to promote LGBTI equality. However, in March 2016, the EPSCO Council was unable to reach majority support for the text. Nearly all Member States supported the list of actions, however Hungary prevented the conclusion of a final agreement in the Council. According to the Hungarian representative, LGBTI “is a complex, politically highly sensitive issue for many member states, it touches upon questions belonging to the exclusive competence of the member states, like family law, and it has an effect on the member states’ constitutional rules, principles and values”.

The report of The Network of Socio-Economic Experts in the Non-Discrimination Field from 2010 concludes that the policies aimed at improving access to work for LGBT people are inadequate throughout Europe. The amount of attention social partners and governments pay to LGBT issues in the labour market varies between the Member States.

In northern and western Europe, in countries such as Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden, there is a pro-active and comprehensive approach to preventing and combating discrimination of LGBT people in the labour market. In some other countries, such as Belgium, Germany, France and Italy the promotion of rights of LGBT workers is less common or involves only specific actors. The situation is different in many new Member States. The governments and social partners in Cyprus, Czechia, Hungary, Latvia, Romania or Slovakia have not taken any significant actions that would address the situation of LGBT employees. In these countries, LGBT people do not exert sufficient influence in social partners organisations so advocacy aimed at promoting LGBT rights in the labour market is therefore mostly driven by NGOs.

A variety of initiatives can be identified around Europe aimed at combatting discrimination against LGBT people – action plans or public commitments, awareness campaigns, training activities, workshops, networking activities for employers or LGBT employees, sharing of good practices or help for victims of discrimination. In Germany, Netherlands and Spain, guidelines and checklists were developed advising how to address LGBT equality issues in collective agreements.

Action is lacking where it is needed the most

One significant issue is that social partners’ and governments’ initiatives are lacking especially in countries where public attitudes towards LGBT people are relatively more regressive. This is not simply due to a lack of political will, but also to lack of knowledge about the labour market situation of LGBT people and their high level of invisibility. Such a situation is worrying because the promotion of LGBT rights in the workplace happens least in countries where it is needed the most. This, in turn, contributes to maintaining social stigma.

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