So, you guys know I’m an HR superstar, right? Typical descriptors: whip smart, breath of fresh air, and of course far too modest. When I’m approached about moving to a new job, aside from the basics like pay, commute, and growth potential, the number one differentiator for me is that company’s reputation as a great place to work for LGBT employees. As both a lesbian and an HR pro, how you treat LGBT employees gives me a real sense of how dynamic and engaged your company is going to be. For me to think about helping your company, there better be a long history of both understanding and pushing for diverse work teams, including LGBT staff, or I just won’t bother. I have to be sure that, despite my minority status, I’ll be able to forge the social bonds that a strong HR leader uses to make real change, and I want know that the quality of my work will get noticed ahead of the lady in the picture on my desk.
For example, a few years ago a big sugar company here in Houston interviewed me and immediately offered me a role in HR. After they made the offer, I asked my basic test question, “Do you guys cover domestic partners on your health insurance?” The hiring manager blinked several times and said, “We’ve never had that problem here. I mean – I worked retail before, so there were a lot of those people asking for all sorts of things, but here that hasn’t been an issue. Why?” I explained that I was gay and that I couldn’t accept the job, but that I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about her company. And I left. And told everyone I knew that story. And stopped buying that brand of sugar.
The thing is, I knew fifteen minutes into the interview that I wouldn’t really be a fit at this company – it was old school to the max. Lots of unnecessary structure, a command-and-control HR and management mindset, and retention due to inertia rather than engagement. The fact that their HR manager apparently saw LGBT employees as a problem just confirmed that this company was not likely to ever to get it: A diverse population of people who are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work will work harder, produce stronger results, and generate higher profits than a bunch of people chosen primarily for the fact that they don’t make you uncomfortable. As an HR practitioner there, it would have been an uphill battle to attract change agents and engaged, smart leaders (gay or straight) to a company that just saw employee diversity as an obstacle, something to be controlled.
My thoughts as an out lesbian executive are focused on how I can best use my experiences to affect change and help build a dynamic, responsive workforce engaged around the company’s mission. I have it easy – I don’t have to lie about who I am, I don’t have to spend my energy strategizing how to get out of social events with coworkers, I can concentrate on my work. For every one of me – out, unapologetic, and confident, there is another person who stays in the closet for fear of losing their jobs or getting stuck at their rung on the career ladder. A recent report by the Human Rights Campaign examines the subtleties of effectiveness, retention, and workplace climate for LGBT employees. In addition to some heartbreaking stories, we get to see how, exactly, being closeted and/or discriminated against affects LGBT employees. The statistics are shocking. One in two LGBT workers hide their identity at work. In a world where nine out of ten employees say conversations about their social lives come up at least once a week, do you want that conversation to engage and deepen work bonds, or alienate employees who are actively hiding their real lives? Worse yet, though most LGBT employees have heard a joke or comment that made them uncomfortable, only 5% feel like it’s a good idea to bring the matter up with HR. Five percent, y’all. We in HR, who are often tasked with leading the way in matters of diversity and sensitivity towards differences, are trusted by five percent of LGBT staff. That sucks.
So what can you, the HR leader, do about it?
First, make sure you explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and that everyone knows and understands what you mean with that. When that rainmaker salesperson who is constantly testing boundaries lisps and goes limp wristed imitating a peer, shut it down. Second, include domestic partners in your health insurance, and make sure everyone knows that you do. Third, use language to show that you get it – spouse/partner instead of husband/wife, parent one/two instead of father/mother, etc. You might consider working towards fulfilling the criteria to make HRC’s Corporate Equality Index.
Lastly, you personally may need to get with the program. Read the report linked above and think about your workplace. Are you driving away fantastic, engaged, loyal staff because you’re not stepping up when someone says or does ignorant things? Are you inquisitive but cluelessly bigoted, like the lady who asked me recently, “When did you know there was something wrong with you?” Are you friends, actual friends, not just specimen friends, with any GLBT people? Do you talk about their lives with the same ease that you expect to be able to talk about your own? Do you know and enjoy their families, and do you know what their interests are beyond the homosexual agenda? Have you and your family been to dinner more than once at that friend’s house? Have they been to dinner at your house? More than once? Have you contacted your congressperson to advocate for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)?
Your company may be missing out. If you would rather work with people who are just like you, and you’re willing to forfeit profits and growth to do that, you’re probably reading the wrong blog anyway. But if you are ready to think through how a diverse and engaged workforce can help your company reach it’s true potential, the HRC report is a great place to start.