Unlocking the Corporate Closet

By Lucas, Jay H.; Kaplan, Mark G. | Training & Development, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Unlocking the Corporate Closet


Lucas, Jay H., Kaplan, Mark G., Training & Development


HUMAN RESOURCE PRACTITIONERS ARE HAVING TO DEAL WITH THE ISSUE OF EMPLOYEES' SEXUAL ORIENTATION. THE KEY TO HANDLING THIS SENSITIVE SUBJECT IS TO PRESENT IT AS PART OF ONGOING DIVERSITY EFFORTS. HERE'S HOW.

As a human resource manager, you may feel uncomfortable about dealing with employees' sexual orientation as part of workforce diversity. Coming to terms with this emotionally charged issue isn't easy.

Many HR managers ignore the issues that affect gay men and lesbians in the workplace, to avoid resistance from other managers and employees and also because they lack education about such issues. Consequently, HR policy decisions regarding homosexual employees may be based on stereotypes and misinformation. In such cases, a significant segment of the workforce--gay men and lesbians--becomes the object of discrimination.

How can you help make sexual orientation a valued aspect of workplace diversity? How can you keep the issue of sexual orientation on the table in discussions of employee policies and benefits?

One way is to integrate sexual orientation into ongoing diversity efforts, telling people that the reasons for valuing gay and lesbian employees are basically the same reasons for valuing women, religious minorities, and people of color in the workplace: so that all employees can contribute to their fullest potential, unhampered by prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination.

The key is to present sexual-orientation issues in the context of three Ps: presence, policy, and productivity. By emphasizing those key areas, you can keep discussions focused on the business implications of a diverse workforce rather than on people's emotions about homosexuality.

"Presence" makes it clear that gay and lesbian people do work in the organization. "Policy" involves reviewing organizational nondiscrimination policies as well as state and local laws that affect the workplace. "Productivity" emphasizes financial results and a discrimination-free, harassment-free workplace.

Barriers to understanding

Even when the issue of sexual orientation is presented in the context of diversity, resistance from some employees may arise for various reasons.

For example, many people believe that homosexuality is a matter of choice. The source of their resistance may be that they believe that gay men and lesbians could choose to be heterosexual if they wanted to.

One might ask why anyone would choose a sexual orientation that carries a stigma and creates challenges in almost all aspects of life, including friends, family, and work. The idea that homosexuals choose to be homosexual implies that heterosexuals also choose to be heterosexual. Typically, consciously making a choice isn't how people say they become aware of their sexual orientation. In fact, recent studies suggest that sexual orientation may have genetic roots. It's unlikely that the debate about choice can be resolved in a corporate environment. And it probably shouldn't be. Does it really matter whether gay men and lesbians have chosen their sexual orientation? They are present in the workforce, they can contribute to a company's productivity, and policies and laws govern the way they're treated in the workplace.

Resistance also may arise when people confuse sexual activity with sexual orientation. Some people think that when gay men and lesbians talk about their weekend activities with their partners, they are flaunting their sexuality. But a gay man who talks about weekend plans that include his partner isn't flaunting his sexuality any more than is a heterosexual, married man who discusses his weekend plans that include his wife. Resistance also occurs when people givereligious beliefs as the reason for discriminating against gay men and lesbians. Companies can't dictate employees' beliefs, but they can dictate acceptable behavior in the workplace. Rather than debating religious views, it is more helpful to ask how people's beliefs may affect their behavior at work toward homosexual employees.

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