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.
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.