Misunderstandings in the workplace can often be benign, but unfortunately can happen easily. An offhand comment from a colleague about what you did over the weekend can be nothing more than a friendly conversation-starter, but unknowingly and inadvertently trigger deep-seated, identity-related anxieties.
Such moments in the workplace can be especially stressful for members of the LGBTQ community, as seemingly innocuous questions may set off a host of questions over how a person should respond. For example, if a colleague asks a closeted gay man what he and his wife did over the weekend, he may ask himself: “Should I explain that I have a partner? Should I come out to my colleague? How can I quickly sidestep this conversation?”
According to expert Dr. Atira Charles, CEO of The Charles Consulting Group and an expert working with BiasSync, an organization addressing issues surrounding diversity, inclusion, authenticity, bias, and identity, “micromoments” in the workplace can be tough to navigate. As in the example above, conversations about what one did over the weekend can cause our cognitive processes to spiral, with the mind rapidly calculating the potential consequences of what the “right” response may be.
When it comes to one’s personal life, assumptions are often made due to societal norms associated with gender. However, while more employees are self identifying as part of the LGBTQ community, including the addition of persons identifying as queer/questioning, intersex, asexual and other (i.e. LGBTQAI+), has made it easier for individuals to live more authentically, a person’s comfort around their sexual identity may still be a sensitive topic in the workplace given, societal bias against identifications that may go against perceived norms.
“Identity,” Dr. Charles says, “no matter what it is, is self-defined.” So while a colleague may not understand the nuances of a colleague’s personal life, it is often extremely personal to the individual and therefore requires extreme cognitive processing and navigation to answer in a way that maintains their own comfort, while not making their colleague uncomfortable.
According to a 2018 study by the Human Rights Campaign, 35% of LGBTQ employees feel compelled to lie about their personal lives while at work and ultimately, will leave a workplace if they don’t feel included. Additionally, the study found that unwelcoming work environments cause LGBTQ people high levels of stress, which ultimately lowers productivity, with 30% of LGBTQ people feeling distracted, unhappy, or depressed at work.
Policy vs. Initiative
Most company policies include strong language about the consequences of discrimination based on gender or sexual identity. However, Dr. Charles points out, while these policies are in place to protect people, very few companies take ongoing, proactive measures to make everyone feel included.
“Companies often spend more on landscaping than they spend on diversity-based initiatives,” she says. “This is important because employees look at how you resource things as messaging of how much you include them, hear them, value them and see them.”
As a result, while organizations may have a detailed anti-discrimination policy it can mean little without proactive measures to enforce those policies. “Leaders need to declare their top commitment of creating a culture of inclusivity and then actually bring in the experts to help evaluate the existing systems in place and to help educate people,” Dr. Charles says. “It’s one thing to have a leader say, ‘we believe in this,’ but it’s another to have the directors, managers, employees, and all the way down, actually believe it.”
At the same time, inclusion policies play an important role in making people feel comfortable in the workplace. “A company should be explicit about its inclusion policies,” says DeVere Kutscher, VP of strategic partnerships, training, and certification at BiasSync. LGBTQ people “don’t want to be just ‘tolerated’,” he says. “They want to be embraced and to know, most importantly, if I come out, is anything going to change?”
The Importance of Data
Another challenge is an organization’s lack of data. Without raw numbers, the LGBTQ community’s arguments for stronger inclusion policies fall flat. “It’s so important for us to have these metrics to bolster the argument,” says Sabrina Kent, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. (NGLCC). “I can tell you about my experience, which will resonate with some in the LGBTQ community. I can say ‘70% of the employees in this company say they would be uncomfortable sitting next to someone who is transgender.’ That is a problem we need to address.”
The first step to addressing the problem, Kent says, “is by capturing that data to understand where we need to implement the appropriate education.”
BiasSync Co-Founder and CEO Michele Ruiz agrees. “We firmly believe that you can’t understand what’s going on in your organization until you look at what the data shows,” she says. “BiasSync uncovers what is not known.”
It is going to take more than inclusivity training and data for the LGBTQ community to feel truly connected to the rest of the company, experts say. Organizations need to ask, “Are we creating a space for people to have a basic need met?,” Dr. Charles says. “Everyone deserves to be in a place where they do not feel judged simply because of their identity. People should not have to check their identity at the door to make them feel comfortable,” she says. For example, on using a person’s preferred gender pronouns: “If people are saying, ‘I am this,’ then you say, ‘Okay.’” - It’s about basic respect for how a person wishes to be called.
At the same time, Dr. Charles says, it’s not always the responsibility of an LGBTQ person to educate you on who they are. That responsibility, she says, falls on all of us, especially allies to the LGBTQ community. “It’s important to respect individuals for who they are and who they want to be.”
Younger people are playing an increasingly important role in educating older generations on LGBTQ issues. Having grown up in generally more open environments and accepting sexuality as a fluid dynamic, people of high school age and older, the latter which are now beginning to enter the workforce, will act as allies to the community and mentors for their older colleagues and managers.
“Each generation has a different knowledge set; each generation was born into a different historical context,” Dr. Charles says. “I am a firm believer that our younger generation workforce are actually the best allies and resources to help teach the older generation in the workplace.”
Every generation of allies has a duty to understand, educate, and correct people’s misperceptions of the LGBTQ community. “Just listening is important,” says NGLCC’s Kent. “But it is also important to take action. When you see injustice happening around you, it’s your duty to call it out. Otherwise, you’re not an ally -- you’re a bystander.”
Learn more about reducing LGBTQ related bias in the workplace by watching our video webinar – visit: https://bit.ly/2ByiZOG
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