RSS icon

Top Stories

Open the Corporate Closet to Sexual Orientation Issues

August 1, 1995
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Diversity, Featured Article
By now, everyone in Corporate America knows it's unacceptable to make disparaging remarks about women or African Americans or Hispanics or any other recognized minority group. We know how important it is for employees to feel valued regardless of their gender, color, religion or age. Pejorative terms are a no-no. Sexist jokes are intolerable. Racial humor isn't funny anymore.

We're spending a lot of time and effort creating workplaces that value diversity because we don't want to lose talented employees to the competition or underuse anyone's skills or unique perspective. Besides, a diverse work force helps us do business in a diverse marketplace. Respecting individuals and valuing differences boosts the bottom line.

But there's one minority group that's continually overlooked in our diversity discussions. A group whose challenges and unique perspective are so misunderstood that many people in human resources simply choose to ignore them. Unlike other minority workers, these employees are still the target of toxic humor, if not outright discrimination, harassment and scorn. Who are they? They are the countless gay and lesbian employees who spend each day working just like any other employee, but not necessarily being treated like one.

"Equitable treatment of this employee group is not just a matter of benevolence and good will—it's a matter of intelligence and good business."

HR can't afford to allow this attitude to continue. Companies that ignore gay and lesbian workplace issues are bound to end up paying the same penalties they would if they overlooked the special needs of any other minority group. Their ability to attract talented employees will suffer. They'll lose employees they already have to the competition. Recruitment and training costs will escalate. Morale and productivity will slide downward. You see, equitable treatment of this employee group is not just a matter of benevolence and good will—it's a matter of intelligence and good business.

Companies are ignoring gay and lesbian voices in the diversity discussion.
Claire Dobson [pseudonym], a lesbian who works for ComEd, a Chicago-based utility, describes her workplace in this way: "Gay jokes are common around here. I know how the others think." Which is why she chooses to keep her personal life a secret from co-workers, why she eats lunch alone every day and why she forgoes opportunities for professional networking.

Same goes for her colleague Tony Morrow [pseudonym], a manager in a nuclear power station who supervises 14 male, "blue-collar" types. "If these guys knew I was gay, I'd be ridiculed constantly. I know other gay employees who have been openly harassed and called terrible names. There's no way these guys would give me a break."

What's going on here? Are we serious about valuing diversity or aren't we? We may mouth the right response, certainly. Yet countless employers continue to overlook the needs of a group of employees that may comprise anywhere from 6% to 12% of the work force.

Most workplaces have programs in place to increase the awareness of issues particular to minorities and the physically challenged. But not gays and lesbians. It can't be a numbers issue: James Woods, author of "The Corporate Closet," estimates that "As a group, lesbians and gay men probably outnumber Hispanics, Asian-Pacific Islanders, the disabled and others whom we have traditionally classified as minorities. If the standard 10% estimate can be believed, their proportion of the professional work force approaches that of African Americans, who represent 12.1% of the population—but only 5.6% of the professional work force." By choosing to ignore sexual orientation as a diversity issue, companies send a clear message: Diversity means valuing only those employees with whom we feel comfortable.

OK, for the sake of fairness, there has been an enormous shift in the last five years in the general level of awareness of gays and lesbians in the workplace and of the particular issues they face. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, D.C., since 1990, at least 130 private companies have added the words "sexual orientation" to their statements of non-discrimination. Furthermore, well over 60 companies have extended domestic-partner benefits to gay employees, including Lotus Development Corp., Levi Strauss, Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer.

But wait. Although 160 companies may seem like a lot, considering there were no benefits of this kind offered by private employers 10 years ago, the number is a drop in the proverbial bucket when you think about how many employers are out there. The fact remains that thousands of companies aren't dealing with sexual orientation issues in the workplace at all. And if they are, they're giving the topic short shrift. Wilmington, Delaware-based E.I. Du Pont De Nemours, for example, sponsors a five-day diversity-awareness workshop for managers. Only two hours out of the five days are focused on sexual orientation. "For being such a volatile topic, this is very little time," says Vicki Rollo, HR coordinator and diversity consultant in the company's Wilmington office. "Especially since a lot of people still think it's generally OK to discriminate against gays and lesbians."

Furthermore, even though the company has prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation since 1992, no one has been held responsible if the policy has been violated. Rollo feels this gap in accountability may be blamed on ineffective communication: The message was to be disseminated from the top of each division and trickle down throughout the ranks until it reached the general employee population. Yet after speaking with employees at the diversity workshops, it was clear to Rollo that the message was never received by most.

When diversity awareness workshops skim over sexual orientation issues, when domestic-partner benefits aren't even considered an option, when communication efforts neglect to mention that gays and lesbians should be treated equally, it's difficult not to point fingers. And, unfortunately, those fingers point directly at HR.

Why does HR have blinders on?
Before we can even begin to address what HR should do to make the workplace more open and accepting of gay employees, we have to begin to address the reasons why HR has been ignoring this group in the first place. After all, you can't expect companies to create more supportive environments for their homosexual employees if the people in charge of corporate culture don't realize how unsupportive the environment is to begin with.

Ask most companies and they'll report difficulties—if not downright gaffes—in addressing gay and lesbian workplace issues. "I've been disturbed to learn of the poor way our HR people have dealt with issues related to sexual orientation," says Bill Therrien, vice president of human resources for The Prudential in Newark, New Jersey. He's learned from gay employees that HR people are often the first to tell those employees not to reveal their sexual orientation because it could hurt them—this, instead of trying to help gay employees or find ways to make the corporate culture more accepting. "HR people should be in a better position to handle these issues than that," he says.

Horror stories about HR's mismanagement of the unique needs of gay workers in other organizations support Therrien's notion. Woods, who was the first gay man to take advantage of domestic-partner benefits offered by his employer, the City University of New York, explains that when he went to human resources to sign up for these benefits, the personnel officer shuffled him into an office and closed the door. "He assumed that I'd be ashamed of my sexuality and embarrassed to be taking advantage of this new benefit," he says. "Nothing could have been further from the truth."

Woods' story gets at the heart of the issue—gay employees want to be treated just like any other employee. They're not asking for extra perks. They're asking for equal protection from discrimination, for domestic-partner benefits and for the ability to discuss their personal lives as freely as heterosexual employees. Simply put, they want sexual parity—the same rights, benefits and respect that their straight co-workers take for granted.

A simple request. Yet HR professionals seem to be grappling with this issue. Remember the two employees from ComEd who firmly stated they would never reveal their sexuality for fear of ridicule? According to Stanley Graves, vice president responsible for HR at ComEd, the company is dealing with sexual orientation. "I know of very little discrimination against gays and lesbians in this company," he says.

Why is homosexuality, except in a very few companies, not recognized as a diversity issue that affects employees and the bottom line in the same way as any other diversity issue?

Let's set aside for a moment those hot buttons of religion and morality, for HR professionals and diversity consultants tend to agree that these concerns come from a very small percentage of workers. A far more prevalent reason why companies are overlooking homosexuality in their diversity programs is this: Most heterosexuals don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.

"As a group, lesbians and gay men probably outnumber most groups classified as minorities."—James Woods, "The Corporate Closet"

"My sense has been that HR people do not have a lot of knowledge about gay workplace issues," says Andrew Sherman, vice president of New York City-based The Segal Company, an international benefits consulting firm. Sherman, who has helped many companies develop domestic-partner benefits for use by gay employees, believes HR professionals "just aren't used to thinking about homosexuality."

Other professionals echo similar sentiments: "Most people don't know how they really feel about homosexuality until they are confronted with it," Therrien says. And when they are, because they haven't been thinking about their real beliefs about homosexuality, they're frequently caught off guard.

Heather Wishik, an attorney and diversity consultant based in Brookline, Massachusetts, agrees. "Recently an HR director told me he was 'fine with gay issues,' that is, until he was approached by a lesbian employee who was seeking child-care benefits for the child her lover was having through artificial insemination. This triggered all these in-the-gut beliefs he had about gay people not being good parents," she explains. "You see, we're all a bit like Velcro®. A lot of prejudicial stuff sticks to us and not much of it comes from formal learning."

Another reason HR professionals have been able to neglect homosexuality as a workplace issue is, quite frankly, that gay employees haven't pushed the issue. Though actual numbers are hard to come by, Woods estimates that at least two-thirds of gay individuals make a conscious effort to hide their sexual orientation from co-workers. A lesbian who works for a Northern California computer company, for example, brings a gay male friend to all company events and introduces him as her boyfriend. Even though she's one of the company's top salespeople, she believes if her sexuality were known, it would be "career suicide." "I don't have a choice but to lie," she says, "even though I feel like such a hypocrite."

More and more gay employees, however, are saying this kind of deception isn't worth it. They're coming out and forcing HR departments to recognize them (see "Gay Employees Are Coming Out and Demanding Fair Play,"). By all accounts, these demands will only increase. HR professionals who maintain that sexual orientation is not a business issue may soon be forced to rethink their positions.

HR's eye-opener begins with educating itself.
To stay competitive, your company is going to have to be inclusive of gays and lesbians. It's that basic. Take just one aspect of business—retention and recruitment. In a 1992 survey by Out/Look, a now-defunct gay lifestyles magazine, 32% of respondents said that sexual orientation issues influenced their choice of company; and more than half said it would influence future employment decisions. Joe McCormack, president of Los Angeles-based McCormack and Associates, the first openly gay executive search firm in the United States, says, "I have a data base of at least 1,000 resumes of gay and lesbian professionals who would trade their current jobs in a minute in favor of more gay-friendly companies."

Therrien and many diversity consultants believe that for the workplace to ever become respectful and inclusive of gays and lesbians, HR staffers must understand homosexuality and become more comfortable discussing the topic. And that, he suggests, comes only from training. Currently in the early stages of planning such training, Therrien says: "We need to concentrate on HR people before we go to the rest of the organization."

Amy Zuckerman, a diversity consultant with Santa Cruz, California-based George Simons, International, suggests training should start by raising the overall awareness level of homosexuality. This includes undoing misinformation and dispelling stereotypes. "Thanks to all the TV talk shows, everyone knows gay people exist," she says. "Unfortunately, the negative stereotypes prevail."

In her book, "Sexual Orientation in the Workplace," Zuckerman compares some of the gay "myths" with true facts about homosexuality—true facts that should be worked into training.

The first myth to conquer is one purporting that the only "real" men and women are heterosexual. As she states, studies of human sexuality have shown that 46% of people fall somewhere between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual. Because confronting stereotypes with facts is rarely enough to help people shed the deep emotional fears and suspicions they have grown up with, companies doing this kind of awareness training should include, as presenters, gay and lesbian employees. As Zuckerman explains, "Person-to-person connections go far in illuminating and eliminating stereotypes."

A second myth training should dispel is that the workplace is solely a professional environment, with no room for discussions or displays of sexual orientation. The fact is that people talk about and show their sexuality at work all the time, be it through discussions about their spouses and what they did on the weekend, to the rings on their fingers and pictures of loved ones on their desks. Don't confuse sexual orientation with sexual behavior. Gay people don't want to talk about their sex lives any more than straight people do. They merely want the ability to talk about loved ones without condemnation.

"Many people believe a people's private lives should be kept separate from their professional identity," Woods says. But the workplace is a social environment, and most employees could probably reveal several personal details about their co-workers, including where they live, who they live with, where they went on vacation last year, if they have any children and what their names are. When gay people talk about their lovers, they're not "flaunting" their homosexuality. They're merely discussing their lives the same way their colleagues do.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, training for HR people must include a discussion about the fear gay employees feel on the job, why that fear is so prevalent, and what HR can do about it. Keith Langeneckert, a diversity trainer with G & L Consultants in Boulder, Colorado, says, "The workplace is not a safe place for coming out. Gay employees fear the impact such knowledge would have on their physical safety, opportunities for promotion, merit ratings, salary increases and team cohesiveness."

Again, the situation translates into a chance for HR to impact the bottom line: According to a July 1994 U.S. Newswire report, the decline of a gay employee's productivity when subjected to a hostile work environment results in $1.4 billion in lost output a year. We simply can't afford to ignore the fear these employees feel.

Dispel the fear, address the backlash and begin the evolution to a truly diverse company.
Clearly, people can't do their best work in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. But fear among gay employees is widespread—due, in part, to the many stories circulating about the abuse suffered by gays and lesbians on the job.

For example, Ron Woods, an electrician with Chrysler Corp. in Detroit, has used America Online to publicize his trials as a gay man in a conservative workplace. Four years ago, after a photo identifying him as gay was published in a local newspaper, effectively "outing" him to co-workers, Woods was verbally harassed, physically attacked on Chrysler property three times—once by a manager—and made the subject of offensive graffiti scrawled on bathroom walls. Additionally, his work assignments began to change daily, something he says is virtually unheard of.

Woods, whose job performance and perfect attendance had been highlighted in a company publication, started losing sleep, missing work and making mistakes on the job. "I went from being a loyal, model employee to one whose nerves were so shot I could hardly make it to work." Eventually, his union intervened and secured a transfer for him to a new facility. But, he says, "Only a person who has been subject to the treatment that a gay man or lesbian must deal with could understand this situation."

Woods believes a non-discrimination policy directed toward gays and lesbians, something Chrysler doesn't have, would go a long way toward alleviating this kind of harassment. (A company spokesperson says the issue is addressed by its code of ethical behavior, which calls for all employees to be treated with respect.) But as Therrien says, "Even with our statement of non-discrimination, people have told me they don't think this is a safe place. Simply because a corporate office comes out with a policy doesn't dictate the way the whole organization will be. The fear remains."

In an attempt to address the fear issue head on, a Northern Colorado-based division of Hewlett-Packard Co. has developed what it calls the "safe place program." Developed by the company's gay and lesbian employee network, the program is designed to educate HR people about gay and lesbian workplace issues so that gay employees feel they have a safe place to go with their problems. "There's a huge spectrum of fear among gay employees," says Susan Phillips, HR manager. "They frequently don't believe they have an ally anywhere. This program is designed to overcome that."

To date, 12 HR staffers, who were hand-picked by the gay employee network, have completed the training. The training included a discussion of gay and lesbian lifestyles, a review of gay terminology, presentations by gay employees about the issues they face at Hewlett-Packard and society in general, videotapes and extensive discussions with gay people. Upon completing the training, each HR person receives a sticker to display in their office that says "Safe Place." This lets gay employees know that particular HR person understands their lifestyle, will maintain their confidentiality and can help them with any workplace issues related to their sexuality. According to Phillips, these "safe" HR people have helped employees with a full range of concerns, from finding a doctor who works with the gay community to assessing whether or not another Hewlett-Packard plant would be a comfortable place for a gay employee considering a transfer.

HP's program is modeled after a similar safe-place program developed by Basking Ridge New Jersey-based AT&T. According to Margaret Burd, national co-chair of League, the company's gay and lesbian employee resource group, the program involves no formal training for HR people. Instead, the safe-place stickers are distributed to anyone whom gay employees feel understands their lifestyle and would be a safe person to talk with. In the last 18 months, 30,000 of these stickers have been informally distributed, representing 10% of the company's domestic work force.

Through such efforts as those of AT&T and H-P, the workplace is slowly becoming more open to gays and lesbians. Unfortunately, any discussion about how HR can ready itself to deal with the diversity of gay employees would be incomplete without a discussion of how to deal with the inevitable backlash. AT&T, for instance, has been the target of an extensive letter-writing campaign by the religious right for its effort to create a more gay-friendly work environment. Apple Computer lost valuable tax incentives from the City of Austin, Texas, because of its domestic-partner benefits. In fact, any company that has dealt with gay issues in any form can probably tell you stories about backlash from both inside and outside the company.

"We're all a bit like Velcro. Prejudice sticks to us, and not much of it comes from formal learning."—Heather Wishik, Diversity Consultant

Unlike any other aspect of diversity, this one pushes all sorts of moral and religious hot buttons. The typical argument goes something like: "Gay people are sinners whom God will punish." Because some people believe individuals choose to be gay, they don't believe employers should take pains to include them in diversity programs, although it's far from clear that sexual orientation is a matter of choice. Even if it is, however, that doesn't argue against including them in diversity programs. Religion and marital status are choices too, remember.

"Backlash is an inevitable part of the change process," says Mark Kaplan, of Philadelphia-based Kaplan, Lucas and Associates, an organizational development consulting firm. Therefore, companies that are serious about including gay employees in diversity efforts shouldn't only prepare HR staffers through extensive training, but should also prepare upper-level executives to deal with any criticism of these efforts.

Employers who have been around the block on this one stress the importance of maintaining a business perspective on why the company has chosen to acknowledge and address the diversity of gay employees. "We're not trying to impart morality here," says Russell Campanello, vice president of HR for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Lotus Development Corp., the first publicly traded company to offer domestic-partner benefits to gay employees. "We're simply doing all we can to become the employer of choice for highly talented people. I don't believe the heterosexual community has a lock on intellectual capacity."

As a leader, Lotus had the foresight to see that homosexuality is merely another component of diversity in an already diverse work force. But companies that have yet to realize this have a great challenge ahead of them. Because this minority group is largely invisible and misunderstood, they've been facing the kind of harassment and discrimination that has long been forbidden for other minority groups. To properly address homosexuality as a diversity issue, you can't just take an existing awareness program, add sexuality and stir. You must make an extensive, concerted change effort starting with the HR department.

Despite the need for a more intense approach, in the long run, creating a workplace friendly to gays and lesbians really comes down to what HR is all about. As Wishik says, "Some HR professionals see gay workplace issues as some kind of leap or departure from what they've done with diversity in the past. But it's all about valuing people. It's worth the challenge it takes to address this issue."

Personnel Journal, August 1995, Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 42-55.

Recent Articles by Shari Caudron

Comments powered by Disqus

Hr Jobs

View All Job Listings