Making Sexual Orientation Part of Diversity

By Winfield, Liz; Spielman, Susan | Training & Development, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Making Sexual Orientation Part of Diversity


Winfield, Liz, Spielman, Susan, Training & Development


When diversity training includes the issue of sexual orientation, all employees can experience safe, equitable, and productive work environments. Here's an overview and some training tips.

Companies that do good also do well. So say many studies and a lot of literature. But most organizations must have strong financial justifications for doing the right thing. That's where numbers come in.

In 1992, 1.5 million households in the United States were self-identified on a U.S. Census Bureau survey as homosexual domestic partnerships. It's logical to conclude that such nontraditional families are part of both the workforce and the consumer market. What does this mean for organizations?

The most successful ones understand both the nature and needs of their workforces and their markets. That's one reason diversity awareness is becoming a high business priority. One aspect of workplace diversity is the rights of employees whose sexual orientation is gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It's important not to ignore the issue of sexual orientation when designing diversity training.

The issue of sexual orientation is an emotional one. Some heterosexuals find it difficult to treat gay and lesbian co-workers fairly. Many gay and lesbian employees fear being "discovered" and losing their jobs. People who work in environments permeated by fear and distrust aren't likely to experience great job satisfaction. And it's likely that they'll be less productive. Organizations must create and enforce policies that ensure safe and equitable working environments for everyone.

Getting past the barriers

Why might fearful employees be less productive? It takes energy to hide one's true identity - valuable energy that could be directed toward one's work. In a 1992 survey by Out/Look, 28 percent of gay men and 38 percent of lesbians who responded said the need to hide their sexual orientation was a constant source of stress on the job.

In addition, people who are reluctant to discuss their personal lives may be viewed by co-workers as "not part of the team." In team-based work environments, such distrust can hamper productivity.

One way to combat homophobia and heterosexism (the assumption that everyone is or should be heterosexual) in the workplace is through education and training. The oganization can back up the education in a variety of ways: using inclusive language in all company communications (for example, using the term "partner" instead of "spouse"), offering benefits to same-sex partners, and publicly supporting gay and lesbian issues.

The education and training must be sensitive not only to gay and lesbian workers seeking support, but also to others. Usually, heterosexual resistance to accepting gay men and lesbians in the workplace is due to religious or moral beliefs. The training must respect people's values, but it also must send a message that the organization appreciates all aspects of diversity. Can you imagine being allowed to discriminate against workers who are divorced?

A tolerant atmosphere that reflects all kinds of diversity can improve the productivity of all workers, according to Brian McNaught in his book Gay Issues in the Workplace (St. Martin's Press, 1993). McNaught says that people who have completed diversity or inclusive training (diversity training that includes the issues of sexual orientation) are less likely to engage in prejudicial behavior. That, in turn, frees people from having to react to bias at work. There is less drain on everyone's energy and potentially more productivity.

The training content

In inclusive training, it isn't necessary for the facilitator to be gay or lesbian. But McNaught and other trainers say their willingness to tell their own stories about being homosexual is an effective element of their programs. They can show that they're as normal as anyone else and that they're competent professionals who also just happen to be gay. …

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