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.

Take Action

Look at your company policies. Most large organizations (and many smaller ones) have nondiscrimination policies. If yours is among them, does the policy prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation? If so, be sure you follow the policy. If not, suggest to HR or senior management that the policy be expanded. A clear policy is an important foundation for everything else you do.

Review your benefit plan. Most employer-sponsored health care plans offer dependent coverage. Usually, however, dependents are defined strictly as spouses and children.

A growing number of companies, however, offer health coverage to domestic partners as well. If your plan offers such coverage, be sure your employees know about it. (Tell everyone about the coverage — not just those you think may be gay, lesbian or bisexual). If not, advocate to HR or senior management that such coverage be offered.

Having it offers a competitive advantage (Microsoft, IBM and General Motors are among the many companies that now offer the benefits.) And it's a matter or fairness: Married people are effectively earning more for doing the same work if health coverage is provided to their spouses without cost. And don't worry about costs. Numerous studies have shown that only a small number of employees accept the benefits (many partners are covered by their own employers) and the claims made by unmarried partners generally cost less than those filed by spouses.

Don't permit a hostile environment. Most people wouldn't think of telling a racist or sexist joke at work. Telling jokes about gays, however, is more often still accepted. It shouldn't be.

If you overhear such a joke, take the employee who told it aside and make it clear that such humor is unacceptable. Don't allow cartoons or images that impugn gay men, lesbians or bisexuals to be posted. And by all means, don't allow any derisive or hostile remarks to be made to employees known or suspected to be gay. If an employee tells you about such behavior, investigate promptly and confidentially.

Use inclusive language. If you or the organization is hosting a social event for employees and their families, be sure that invitations include "partners" or "significant others," and not just spouses. If employees attend these events with partners, be sure you introduce yourself and welcome the employee's guest.

If you have policies allowing employees to take time off to care for an ill spouse (and in many cases the Family Medical Leave Act mandates that you do) or for bereavement leave, be sure that partners or significant others are covered by the policy. An employee who loses a partner of 20 years should not have to be at work the next day because his partner "didn't count" — and it's happened.

Be consistent. If some employees have photos of their spouses or children on their desks, don't tell gay, lesbian or bisexual employees that photos of their partners are not allowed. (Yes, it happens). If winners of a sales incentive program are sent on a trip to Hawaii with their spouses or significant others, don't tell gay, lesbian and bisexual employees that their partners have to stay home. If … well, you get the idea.

Hold everyone accountable. You won't tolerate off-color jokes, obscene photos or lewd behavior from straight employees. Don't tolerate it from gay employees either. Gay people are entitled to equal treatment, but not special treatment.

Stay Out of Jail

Don't discriminate. Currently, there is no federal law that prohibits job discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, such discrimination is illegal in several states and many cities. Congress has considered federal law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, and most experts expect it to pass at some point. (Most Americans support the proposal). To be prudent, do not make decisions about hiring, promotion, overseas assignment or other work-related issue based on someone's actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Don't ignore harassment. Harassment law from any perspective is complicated. However, when it comes to issues related to sexual orientation it gets particularly complex.

There are two types of harassment at issue here:

1. Sexual harassment of an employee. There are two forms of such harassment: Demanding sexual favors or relations in exchange for promotion, job security or other work-related actions (known as quid pro quo harassment) or allowing an environment in which sexually explicit language, humor, images and so on are present (this can be seen as harassment because some employees feel they are working in a hostile environment). This kind of harassment is illegal no matter who does the harassing or is harassed; men harassing men or women harassing women is no more acceptable than men harassing women or vice versa.

2. Harassment based on sexual orientation. Sometimes employees are harassed based on their sexual orientation. In such cases, the harassment generally has nothing to do with sexual favors. Instead, employees are taunted, humiliated or even physically abused because they are gay, lesbian or bisexual (or perceived to be). Such harassment is similar to name-calling or threats to African-Americans, Latinos or women because of their race or gender. Currently, there is no federal law against harassment based on sexual orientation. However, it is illegal in some states and cities. And it's always bad business.

The prudent thing is to protect employees from harassment and promptly investigate any claims.

Bob Rosner is the co-author of The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: