Companies, LGBT Employees Still Face Challenges to Open and Inclusive Workplaces

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By Genevieve Douglas  

 

When National Basketball Association player Jason Collins announced late last month that he is gay, he received overwhelming support from everyone from former teammates to President Obama. But is this attitude of acceptance also found in U.S. workplaces? And if not, what can HR do to foster a more open and inclusive work environment?

Collins's “coming out” may be a perfect opportunity for employers to communicate to their employees and management that harassment of or negative statements about lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) individuals are not tolerated in the workplace, Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resource Management, told BNA May 6.

“Corporate culture really has an impact on individuals' decisions about coming out in the workplace,” he added.

Workplaces where anti-gay rhetoric is abundant are organizations where LGBT employees will not come out, and may often seek employment elsewhere, Peterson said. HR must communicate that conversations that are disrespectful of LGBT individuals are unacceptable, regardless of the presence of LGBT employees, he said.

Brian McNaught, a corporate diversity consultant in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., told BNA May 3 that it is essential that employers make clear what is expected with regard to inclusiveness, and make clear the consequences if anyone creates an unwelcome work environment.

“Ignorance is the parent of fear, and fear is the parent of hatred. We fear what we don't understand,” McNaught said. “Management needs to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to increase their cultural competence so that they feel more confident,” he said.

Peterson recommended HR use employee research groups to “take the pulse” of an organization's company culture.

By making LGBT issues a part of diversity programming and education, HR is pro-active in letting everyone in the organization know that LGBT is part of the company's definition of diversity, he said.

Shaping Corporate Culture

Discrimination against LGBT employees can be as subtle as making them uncomfortable having basic “water cooler” conversations with co-workers.

A lot of people do not realize, until it is an issue, just how much day-to-day sharing takes place in the average workplace, Deena Fidas, deputy director of corporate programs for the Human Rights Campaign, told BNA April 30. Employees, both gay and straight, report that conversations about social lives, family, dating, and politics find their way into the workplace on a weekly, if not a daily, basis, Fidas added.

Mid-level management plays an important role in fostering a work culture where all employees feel comfortable sharing personal stories, but HRC has found that many do not encourage an open and welcoming environment. One major issue LGBT individuals experience in the workplace is the “mid-level management gap,” Fidas said. There may be supportive leaders at an organization, but that sentiment may not trickle down to LGBT employees' immediate supervisors, let alone their co-workers, she said.

“When LGBT people are closeted, or answer [personal] questions honestly and are then frozen out of the conversation, they can feel 'un-valued' or less engaged in their jobs,” Fidas said.


 

“Corporate culture really has an impact on individuals' decisions about coming out in the workplace,” Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resource Management, told BNA.

 

 


Peterson recommends a zero tolerance stance about discriminatory hiring decisions, promoting decisions, or treatment of an individual based on sexual orientation. This strategy--though potentially disruptive in the short term-- is worth the long-term gain in a company's core values and culture, he said.

Meanwhile, one of the more common objections to an open discussion of sexual orientation--and one that was raised following Collins's announcement--is the claim that one's religious doctrine is opposed to homosexuality. Peterson said that while employers should respect all religious viewpoints, they should not allow religion to be an excuse for intolerance.

“In practical terms, this means that every employee should be able to contribute to the success of the organization and be a full and practicing member of whatever faith community he or she chooses,” he said. “What it doesn't mean is that particularly religious workers should have the ability to force everyone else in the workplace to conform to the tenets of one faith tradition, including asking an LGBT colleague to retreat into the closet.”

It Gets Better for LGBT Employees

HRC's Corporate Equality Index, the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices related to LGBT employees, shows marked progress in the way sexual orientation is approached by employers.

For 2013, the CEI recorded the largest growth in the survey's history--with 54 new businesses opting in-- showing that commitment to LGBT equality in corporate America is trending up, according to HRC.

Additionally, HRC found that a record number of businesses in 2013, spanning most industries and major geographic areas of the United States, ranked as top scorers on this year's CEI.

Criteria for companies that rank highly include:

• providing equal benefits for same-sex partners and spouses;

• ending benefits discrimination for transgender employees and dependents;

• demonstrating firm-wide organizational competency on LGBT issues; and

• demonstrating firm-wide public commitment to the LGBT community.

 

According to HRC, 110 of the Fortune 500-ranked businesses achieved a 100 percent rating on the CEI.

Federal Protections on the Horizon?

Though many states have laws that protect LGBT employees in the workplace, no federal law exists at this time. However, members of Congress have again introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (31 HRR 430, 4/29/13), which would protect LGBT individuals nationwide, CJ Griffin, associate attorney in the employment litigation group at Pashman Stein in Hackensack, N.J., told BNA May 7.

If passed, ENDA would prohibit an employer from refusing to hire, firing, or taking any other adverse action against a worker based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to Griffin, currently whether or not an employee can be fired for his or her sexual orientation often is influenced by geography. Some 29 states have no job protection for LGBT employees at all, she said. For example, Griffin said, in Kansas, a worker can be fired for being gay and “they can write that on your pink slip and it's legal, unless you can try to craft some other argument (that it was sex stereotyping, for example),” Griffin said.

Large employers with employees in multiple states should have policies that are the broadest and most inclusive for LGBT individuals, Peterson said.

 


The 2013 HRC Corporate Equality Index is at http://www.hrc.org/corporate-equality-index/#.UYkGRaKG2z4.