Dealing With Sexual Orientation at Work

Do your co-workers have pictures of their spouses and children on their desks? Do people talk about their weekend plans at the water cooler or in the elevator? Does the company host social events that include spouses? Has anyone ever stopped by your desk to collect money to send a gift to a newlywed colleague or the parents of a new baby?

If the answer to any of those questions is "yes," then sexual orientation is an issue in your workplace.

That issue can be either a big positive or a big negative. If it's a positive, people feel included and respected. They are more productive and more committed. If it's a negative, people feel excluded and disrespected. They are less productive and far more likely to quit and go work for your competitor. And they're more likely to file potentially costly harassment lawsuits.

Huh? How did we get from baby gifts to turnover and lawsuits? Here's how: Your heterosexual employees take for granted that they can comfortably share important elements of their private lives at work. All those normal activities — from pictures to weekend plans — are reflections of that comfort. And that's as it should be.

In most work places, however, gay men, lesbians and bisexuals do not feel comfortable sharing anything of their private lives.

Although they may have been with a partner for years, they do not have any pictures on their desk. If they talk about weekend plans at all, they probably talk about "I" but never "he" or "she" and probably not "we" because it invites too many questions. They probably attend social events alone, or they come with a friend of the opposite sex.

In short, while their heterosexual colleagues have one life, they have two lives: work life and personal life.

A Productivity Issue

OK, but how is this your problem and not something for the U.N. Human Rights Commission to address? It starts as a productivity issue. Gay men, lesbians and bisexuals still in the closet at work expend an enormous amount of psychic energy protecting their secret.

If you doubt it, try this experiment: Go an entire day without saying or doing anything that reveals your sexuality. You'll see "don't ask, don't tell" in a whole new light: Odds are that you'll be exhausted at the end of the day. And you'll have devoted a lot of thought and energy to protecting yourself that would have been better served solving a work problem.

So, if it's that much work to stay in the closet, then why not just be honest? Many gay people are afraid to be honest — and for good reason. Gay men, lesbians and bisexual know too many friends who've been passed up for promotions or fired. Or worse. They know people who've been called names, robbed, beaten up and splashed with acid. Yes, at work. What started as a productivity issue has become much more.

People faced with quiet indignity or violent hostility have three choices. They can put up with it, fight back or leave. Fewer gay men, lesbians and bisexuals put up with it. Many take the issue to court. Others leave for jobs where they are accepted. Can you afford to fight a lawsuit or have good people walk out the door?

You may have religious beliefs that homosexuality is wrong, or you may simply be uncomfortable with the idea. We're not asking you to change those beliefs. But we are asking you to recognize that as a manager it's often your job to set aside personal feelings and treat people fairly. That's good business sense.

Here's how to do it.

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