LGBT: Progress and Problems in the Workplace, Part 1

young black businesswomanBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

In light of the growing emphasis on how much progress has been made for LGBT professionals via diversity programs (particularly in the financial industry), and the better general acceptance of gay and lesbian individuals in the workplace, it’s easy to grow complacent about the need for continued progress.

Therefore, as part of The Glass Hammer’s coverage of Pride Month, we consulted with diversity experts and human resources professionals who weighed in on issues that LGBT professionals identify as ongoing challenges in the workplace—as well as suggested strategies that companies should consider for improvement. What follows is a special two-part series (read more Thursday) that summarizes their thoughts on current problem areas and opportunities for change.

Challenge: Continuing harassment or discrimination in the workplace. Laura S. Hertzog, Esq., director of human capital development programs at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says that one of the main issues that LGBT employees still face is very basic: harassment and discrimination.

According to the Catalyst report Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in the Workplace published in June 2012, close to 40 percent of “out” lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents said that they had experienced harassment or discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation—and nearly all transgender employees who responded (97 percent) experienced these situations in the workplace. In addition to noting these statistics, Hertzog says she has found in her work with clients that blatantly offensive comments based on sexual orientation are tolerated in workplaces that would never tolerate such comments based on religion and race.

Even companies with a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index could have a handful of managers or employees who hassle LGBT team members—even when corporate leaders and the HR team strongly articulate the commitment to LGBT inclusiveness in the workplace, says Stan C. Kimer, who now specializes in diversity management issues after a 31-year career at IBM. “This disconnect between leadership words and actions that may take place in the trenches then can lead to doubt among LGBT employees,” says Kimer. They can ask, ‘Is our company really inclusive and against LGBT discrimination, or just paying lip service?’”

Strategy for change: Zero tolerance for harassment. “Employers need to show the same kind of zero tolerance for harassment against LGBT employees that they show for other kinds of overt discrimination,” says Hertzog. As an example, she points out that just as an employer would never allow a racial slur, companies must also not allow use of slurs associated with LGBT individuals.

“It has been my experience that the negative impact of such slurs can be downplayed by employers and described as ‘horsing around’ or ‘locker room talk,’” says Hertzog. “While I would not agree that hateful language is acceptable ‘locker room talk,’ employers need to recognize that even assuming that it is, the workplace is not a locker room.”

Kimer emphasizes the importance of taking action if a manager or other employee does something inappropriate around the LGBT issue rather than making light of it. “If a manager makes an inappropriate remark about a person of color, they would be fired or demoted—do the exact same for any LGBT similar action,” recommends Kimer. “It should be just as unacceptable as racist or sexist management actions.”

Challenge: Lack of ability to address family needs in the way straight couples can. Hertzog notes that while a slight majority of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner benefits, many companies—even large ones—do not. She offers the following examples of how this inequity can affect LGBT employees: “If a lesbian employee’s partner gives birth to a child, the employee may not have the same kind of parental leave from the organization that would be given to a man whose wife had given birth. Similarly, a company may allow husbands and wives to provide insurance benefits to their partners, but not unmarried domestic partners.”

Strategy for change: Achieve benefits parity wherever possible. Liliana Perez, who is an openly bisexual commissioner on the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women, states that providing LGBT families with equal access to employee benefits remains one of the top workplace challenges. “LGBT employees thrive in corporate environments that acknowledge equal rights for all employees,” says Perez. “Companies must recognize the importance of extending the exact same benefits that heterosexual employees enjoy to LGBT employees as well. Furthermore, companies should highlight their efforts through social media and traditional press to develop an ‘LGBT Friendly’ brand.”

On the issue of benefits, Hertzog recommends that employers look at their policies and try to achieve parity wherever possible. She notes that while an employer cannot change federal laws such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by granting FMLA leave to domestic partners, there is nothing to stop companies from implementing internal policies that go beyond what the law requires. “Many organizations provide their employees with benefits that are more generous than required by state or federal law, and this should not be an exception,” says Hertzog.

Hertzog offers the following example: An employer may be situated in a state that does not allow lesbian and gay partners to jointly adopt, meaning that only one partner is legally the adoptive parent. However, an employer in such a situation who is looking to be LGBT-friendly could provide the non-adopting domestic partner with the same amount of parental leave for adoption that would be provided to a co-adopting partner in a heterosexual relationship.

This discussion will continue in Part 2 of this series on Thursday.