HR | Atlantic - Positive Change at Work

Beyond Legal Equality

Jan 11, 2012

Barrier between people imageThe employer obligation to prevent discrimination in the workplace goes beyond direct comments and actions, to the workplace culture and atmosphere.  Matt Walters looks at workplace diversity and the effects of presumptions of sexual orientation in the workplace.

In terms of legal protections for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people (LGBT), Canada has a lot to be proud of.   LGBT people are protected from discrimination and harassment under human rights law and under the Charter.  Canada is one of only a handful of countries where same sex couples can legally marry and enjoy the full benefits of that institution.

Legal protection for LGBT people is one thing, but it is quite another for members of that community to feel like full, open participants in society.  In the employment context, the onus falls on management to ensure that LGBT employees feel not only valued and respected but also that they can be open with their colleagues about their identities and personal lives.  Research suggests that this area still needs attention in Canada.

In 2011, Angus Reid released a poll suggesting that while 93% of those polled believed that their employer’s overall attitude towards LGBT people in the workplace was tolerant and 72%  believe that the attitude towards LGBT people in the workplace has improved over the past 5 years, 34-40% of LGBT people polled experienced discrimination during their professional lives.  Further, while 71% of gay men and 80% of lesbians reported being “out” at work with their peer employees, only 58% of gay men and 59% of lesbians were “out” to their human resources department.  Even fewer respondents were “out” to their management or subordinates.”  Only 23% of bisexual men were “out” to their peer employees.

These statistics indicate that many workplaces may not project the comfortable atmosphere for LGBT people. This needs to improve because employers are not only obliged to provide a psychologically safe working environment, but such an environment will also remove a significant stressor that may well distract employees from having the strong communications line needed for successful organizations.

Discriminatory behavior can be as explicit as direct and blatant homophobia or as subtle as quiet disapproval informed by particular moral codes.  Jokes and comments about LGBT people can obviously create a hostile work atmosphere for LGBT employees.  But an LGBT employee can be made uncomfortable by knowing that their immediate manager personally disapproves of homosexuality on a moral basis.  It would obviously make an LGBT employee wary to know that their immediate supervisor is an active participant in groups or organizations that expresses such sentiments.  In such circumstances, the LGBT employee would have to wonder about chances for promotion within the company.

An LGBT employee whose manager has expressed disapproval over “the gay lifestyle” does not feel valued. This is a challenging scenario for the employer.  An employer does not have the power to change the moral judgments of its employees.  Furthermore, it would not be appropriate for an employer to replace discrimination against LGBT people with discrimination against people of particular faiths or sects which hold a negative view of homosexuality.  (Not  all religions condemn homosexuality).  In such situations, it will be imperative for the employer to communicate and enforce a policy that one’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with job performance, and that every employee is to be valued and appreciated for what they contribute. Neither sexual orientation nor religious conviction can be allowed to be the basis for performance management or career decisions.

Being “out” at work does not mean that intimate details of your life are suddenly made public; it simply chips away at the presumption that everyone is heterosexual.  This presumption is the elephant in the room for creating an atmosphere where LGBT people can be open about who they are.

Consider a conversation between co-workers where one mentions that he spent the weekend at his mother-in-law’s place.  In the absence of an indication that the co-worker is gay, there is a typical presumption that the co-worker’s spouse is a woman, and follow-up questions may be along the lines of “What does your wife do?”  While the questioner may be accepting of LGBT people,  the presumption that the co-worker is married to a woman has created in the mind of the LGBT colleague a dilemma as to whether to counter the presumption.  The presumption of heterosexuality implies a normative position: heterosexuality is “normal”, homosexuality is “abnormal”.

In 2009, the Catalyst Group released a report, Building LGBT-Inclusive Workplaces: Engaging Organizations and Individuals in Change which identified three barriers to a less-inclusive workplace:

  1. Lack of knowledge and awareness;
  2. Discriminatory behaviours; and
  3. Exclusion from important connections.

According to the Catalyst Group, the first barrier manifests itself as a reliance upon stereotype and misconceptions, particularly in how a successful manager or leader should be; the stereotypes of LGBT people (which is frequently promoted by the media) does not fit the mould. The general response to discovering that someone who does not conform to this image is in fact LGBT is surprise.  The LGBT community is as diverse and varied as the heterosexual community.   Stereotypes are not only inaccurate, but potentially damaging.

The good news is that these stereotypes can be effectively countered in the workplace by raising diversity awareness.  Diversity awareness does not need to be a formalized process; often it can come by day-to-day interaction with LBGT colleagues, and leaders promoting an inclusive vocabulary,  and social and management interactions that avoid the presumptions of sexual orientation.

Diversity training can clearly assist with quashing discriminatory behavior in the workplace.  Further, procedures should be established so that discriminatory behavior can be reported.  More importantly, it should be clear that action will be taken against anyone found to be participating in discriminatory behavior.

Finally, LGBT employees can feel excluded from networking and other business functions.  There is also a general lack of LGBT role models in the Canadian workplace.  The lack of such role models reinforces the sense that openly LGBT people simply don’t make it into those positions, which can create more of an imperative to remain closeted, particularly if one wants to advance in the company.

There is also a concern that a company’s clients may not react favourably with LGBT employees.  Similarly, an LGBT employee may be reluctant to accept a promotion that involves moving to a jurisdiction with fewer legal protections for LGBT people or same-sex couples.  If a promotion requires a gay employee to relocate to a state in the US that does not require employers to provide equal benefits to same-sex couples, then the employee may be hesitant to relocate.  The presumption of heterosexuality informs this policy because it does not acknowledge that there is a barrier to relocating.

An employer can effectively counter this by developing policies that eliminate barriers to advancement for LGBT employees.  For example, an international company can decide to partner with a benefits company that provides coverage for same-sex spouses, regardless of the jurisdiction in which they live.  Many Fortune 500 companies in the US offer comprehensive benefits to same-sex couples.  This practice removes some of the stress associated with relocating to one of the 18 states in the US that have constitutionally banned same-sex marriage and same-sex partnerships in that at least the couple’s benefits will continue.

Organizations should also make a point of communicating their inclusiveness policies externally as well as internally.  This helps clients understand that they may be assisted by employees who are not heterosexual. Organizations may also signal its diversity policy through sponsorship or support annual pride celebrations or other LGBT events in the local community.

It is the personal choice of every LGBT employee to decide how “out” he or she will be at work.  Employers cannot force its employees to come out, but employers need to create an inclusive and accepting work environment by removing the  presumption that its workforce is uniformly heterosexual. The legal victories provide the framework for inclusiveness, but through policies, training and role modeling, employers must make inclusiveness a reality in the workplace. All employees need to be and feel to be valued.


contributed by Matt Walters, articling clerk at MacLeod Robinson MacLean

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