Do your co-workers have pictures of their spouses and children on their desks? Do people talk about their weekend plans at the water cooler or in the elevator? Does the company host social events that include spouses? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then sexual orientation is an issue in your workplace.
This issue can be either a big positive or a big negative. If it’s a positive, people feel included and respected. They are more productive and more committed. If it’s a negative, people feel excluded and disrespected. They are less productive and far more likely to quit and go work for your competitor. They’re also more likely to file potentially costly harassment lawsuits.
Huh? How did we get from baby gifts to turnover and lawsuits? Here’s how: your heterosexual employees take for granted that they can comfortably share important elements of their private lives at work. All those normal activities from pictures to weekend plans are reflections of that comfort. That’s as it should be.
In many workplaces, however, gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals do not feel comfortable sharing anything of their private lives. Although they may have been with a partner for years (or – in several states — be legally married to a same-sex spouse), they do not have any pictures on their desk. If they talk about weekend plans at all, they probably talk about “I,” but never “he” or “she” and probably not “we” because it invites too many questions. They probably attend social events alone, or they come with a friend of the opposite sex. In short, while their heterosexual colleagues have one life, they have two lives: work life and personal life.
OK, but how is this your problem and not something for the U.N. Human Rights Commission to address? It starts as a productivity issue. Gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals still in the closet at work expend an enormous amount of psychic energy protecting their secret. If you doubt it, try this experiment: Go an entire day without saying or doing anything that reveals your sexuality. You’ll see “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in a whole new light. Odds are that you’ll be exhausted at the end of the day. You’ll have devoted a lot of thought and energy to protecting yourself that would have been better served solving a work problem.
So, if it’s that much work to stay in the closet, then why not just be honest? A growing number of gay people are honest – out of the closet and comfortable being themselves. But many gay people are afraid to be honest, and for good reason. Gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals know too many friends who’ve been passed up for promotions or fired or worse. They know people who’ve been called names, robbed, beaten up, and splashed with acid. Yes, at work. What started as a productivity issue has become much more.
People faced with quiet indignity or violent hostility have three choices: They can put up with it, fight back, or leave. Fewer gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals are putting up with it. Many take the issue to court. Others leave for jobs where they are accepted. It turns out that losing gay employees may be a real loss to your organization. The University of Southern California’s Kirk Snyder did a five-year study of 3,500 professionals in more than 2,000 organizations and discovered something dramatic: Employees who work for gay managers have 25-30% higher workplace satisfaction and morale. Snyder attributes this difference to seven characteristics generally shared by gay executives: inclusion, creativity, adaptability, connectivity, communication, intuition and collaboration. Does it really make sense to let talent like that walk out the door – or sue you?
You may have religious beliefs that homosexuality is wrong, or you may simply be uncomfortable with the idea. We’re not asking you to change those beliefs, but we are asking you to recognize that as a manager it’s often your job to set aside personal feelings and treat people fairly. That’s good business sense. (And in this case, the greatest beneficiaries may the least visible – those who actively suppress their sexual orientation at work.) Here’s how to do it:
• Look at your company policies. Most large organizations (and many smaller ones) have nondiscrimination policies. If yours is among them, does the policy prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation? If so, be sure you follow the policy. If not, suggest to HR or senior management that the policy be expanded. A clear policy is an important foundation for everything else you do.
• Review your benefit plan. Most employer-sponsored health care plans offer dependent coverage. Usually, however, dependents are defined strictly as spouses and children. (Of course, as noted, in some states same-sex couples may be legally married.) A growing number of companies, however, offer health coverage to domestic partners as well. If your plan offers such coverage, be sure your employees know about it. (Tell everyone about the coverage, not just those you think may be gay, lesbian, or bisexual.) If not, advocate to HR or senior management that such coverage be offered. Having it offers a competitive advantage (Microsoft, IBM, Disney, and General Motors are among the many companies that now offer the benefits).
• Don’t permit a hostile environment. Most people wouldn’t think of telling a racist or sexist joke at work. Telling jokes about gays, however, is more often still accepted. It shouldn’t be. If you overhear such a joke, take the employee who told it aside and make it clear that such humor is unacceptable. Don’t allow cartoons or images that impugn gay men, lesbians, or bisexuals to be posted. And by all means, don’t allow any derisive or hostile remarks to be made to employees known or suspected to be gay. If an employee tells you about such behavior, investigate promptly and confidentially.
• Use inclusive language. If you or the organization is hosting a social event for employees and their families, be sure that invitations include “partners” or “significant others,” and not just spouses. If employees attend these events with partners, be sure you introduce yourself and welcome the employee’s guest. If you have policies allowing employees to take time off to care for an ill spouse (and in many cases the FMLA mandates that you do) or for bereavement leave, be sure that partners or significant others are covered by the policy. An employee who loses a partner of 20 years should not have to be at work the next day because his partner “didn’t count.” It’s happened.
• Be consistent. If some employees have photos of their spouses or children on their desks, don’t tell gay, lesbian, or bisexual employees that photos of their partners are not allowed. (Yes, it happens.) If winners of a sales incentive program are sent on a trip to Hawaii with their spouses or significant others, don’t tell gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees that their partners have to stay home. If … well, you get the idea.
• Hold everyone accountable. You won’t tolerate off-color jokes, obscene photos, or lewd behavior from straight employees. Don’t tolerate it from gay employees either. Gay people are entitled to equal treatment, but not special treatment.
Real Life Example
Gays were frequently the butt of jokes. Disparaging comments were common. No one at the office was “out” so the salesperson at the high-tech company decided not to let anyone know she was a lesbian. “I truly believed that if I came out, I could lose my job,” she said. “At a minimum, I wondered about the territories I would get.”
So she lived in the closet. She never mentioned the partner she went home to every night, the one offering encouragement, a sympathetic ear about difficult clients, and occasionally a shoulder rub. She never talked about her weekends or holidays. She often had lunch alone.
But professionally she was excelling. She surpassed sales goals and earned a bigger territory. The promotion required travel and, because everyone assumed she was single, she was asked to travel on weekends. Soon she was among the company’s top salespeople. And the lying began.
Her job performance caught the attention of the CEO, who invited her to his home for dinner. In a panic, she called a good friend, a gay man with a partner of his own, and asked him to go with her as her “date.” After that, her friend was her date for all company social events. People even began asking when they were going to get married.
Then she won a sales contest. The prize was a trip to the Caribbean. She took the trip with her friend; her partner stayed home. But that trip put a strain on her relationship and on her friend’s home life. She was the company’s top salesperson, producing more revenue than anyone else, but she quit; the strain had gotten to be too much.
“My boss never knew why I left,” she says. “He still calls once in a while and tries to get me back. I loved that job, but I could never go back. Life is too short.”