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Rice research on why fighting workplace discrimination of LGBTQ+ employees boosts business

Supporting the LGBTQ+ community is crucial to Houston business success. Ylanite Koppens/Pexels

Being gay, lesbian or bisexual in the workplace often means facing choices that are deeply unfair. Choose to come out and risk being stigmatized or hide your orientation and prepare for a career weighted with the immense stress of secrecy. Theoretically, there are good reasons for businesses to embrace a workforce with diverse sexual orientations.

First, much workplace discrimination is illegal, and litigation is pricey. More importantly, disdaining 5 to 15 percent of your workforce (the estimated percentage of the workforce population who are gay, lesbian or bisexual) means lagging behind the competition in the ability to recruit and retain top talent. But in reality, the legal protections prohibiting discrimination against employee's sexual orientation is often limited and what should be the rational business choice isn't always made.

In an article published in The Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Rice Business professor Michelle "Mikki" Hebl explores the gamut of workplace challenges for gay, lesbian and bisexual workers. Misconceptions about these employees, she found, are still widespread. First of all, employers and coworkers who stigmatize homosexual or bisexual employees often misunderstand their orientation as a choice. The subsequent treatment based on this misinformation can be viciously destructive.

A common misperception is that sexual orientation can be easily concealed. To the contrary, many gay, lesbian or bisexual workers are actually outed by coworkers, Hebl notes. Because of this possibility, gay, lesbian and bisexual employees often spend an inordinate amount of their work time and energy simply managing their coworkers' response to their sexual orientation.

And while some people characterize sexual orientation as just a political issue, those who are gay, lesbian and bisexual employed in a toxic workplace are often not seen simply as undesirables. They can be considered actual threats, their sexual orientation capable of somehow altering the identities of fellow workers. In some cases, associations with HIV and AIDS can lead to gay, lesbian and bisexual workers being treated as physical risks.

Because of these obstacles, many workers are forced into painful choices at work. Do I put my partner's photo on my desk? Do I mention my weekend plans?

To reduce this burden on productive workers, Hebl writes, businesses should codify their formal rules about managing harassment. Informally, companies need to create a culture in which people of different sexual orientations are supported rather than punished for their sexual orientation.

But companies should know this road won't always be easy. Some workers will balk at a more diverse environment. The existence of clear policies, moreover, doesn't guarantee that subtle forms of discrimination won't take place. But the consequences of not establishing policies are considerable, including litigation and high turnover rates.

In the best of all worlds, the burden of change should not be on the gay, lesbian and bisexual workers themselves. But it's not a perfect world, so Hebl also proposes strategies to help employees maximize workplace acceptance.

These days, evidence suggests that in some cases, disclosing one's sexual orientation has benefits. Especially in supportive organizations, it often makes sense for people to reveal their sexual orientation after a period of time and with the support of other employees.

At the same time, Hebl notes, employees may be likely to bully gay, lesbian and bisexual employees whose orientation is the only thing that's is known about them. Thus, gay, lesbian and bisexual workers face a challenge well-known to other minority employees: delivering exceptional work and displaying exceptional character in order to attempt to allay discrimination.

From an institutional perspective, employers can support their individual gay, lesbian and bisexual employees in myriad ways. Companies can create a welcoming culture by offering same-sex partner benefits. Anti-discrimination policies, frequently voiced, send a message of safety to gay, lesbian and bisexual employees. Such measures require both awareness and real commitment, but the extra efforts pay off well beyond the day-to-day business of hiring and retention. They also encourage open-mindedness, creativity and commitment — and in the end, a more competitive work product.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom in 2018. It's based on research by Michelle "Mikki" Hebl, Eden B. King, and Charles L. Law. Hebl is the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology at Rice University and a professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Houston-based imaware, which has an at-home COVID-19 testing process, is working with Texas A&M University on researching how the virus affects the human body. Getty Images

An ongoing medical phenomenon is determining how COVID-19 affects people differently — especially in terms of severity. A new partnership between a Houston-based digital health platform and Texas A&M University is looking into differences in individual risk factors for the virus.

Imaware, which launched its at-home coronavirus testing kit in April, is using its data and information collected from the testing process for this new study on how the virus affects patients differently.

"As patient advocates, we want to aid in the search to understand more about why some patients are more vulnerable than others to the deadly complications of COVID-19," says Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, in a press release. "Our current sample collection process is an efficient way to provide longitudinal prospectively driven data for research and to our knowledge, is the only such approach that is collecting, assessing, and biobanking specimens in real time."

Imaware uses a third-party lab to conduct the tests at patients' homes following the Center for Disease Control's guidelines and protocol. During the test, the medical professional takes additional swabs for the study. The test is then conducted by Austin-based Wheel, a telemedicine group.

Should the patient receive positive COVID-19 results, they are contacted by a representative of Wheel with further instructions. They are also called by a member of a team led by Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist and laboratory scientist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, to grant permission to be a part of the study.

Once a part of the study, the patient remains in contact with Fischer's team, which tracks the spread and conditions of the virus in the patient. One thing the researchers are looking for is the patients' responses to virus complications caused by an overabundance of cytokines, according to the press release. Cytokines are proteins in the body that fight viruses and infections, and, if not working properly, they can "trigger an over-exuberant inflammatory response" that can cause potentially deadly issues with lung and organ failure or worse, per the release.

"We believe strongly in supporting this research, as findings from the field can be implemented to improve clinical processes-- helping even more patients," says Wheel's executive medical director, Dr. Rafid Fadul.

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