Pride in the Workforce
Exploring the workplace dynamics and barriers faced by LGBTQ employees
None of us, not a single one, is defined by a solitary characteristic. We’re all an amalgamation of many things, most of which can’t be seen on the surface. And for those that can be seen, well, looks may be deceiving.
I’m white and heterosexual. I was biologically born male and that’s how I’ve always identified. I’m a son, a husband, and a father. I’m a writer and an editor. I’m an introvert. I’m a Chicago sports fan, which means I’m also often a masochist. I vacillate between liberal and moderate on the political spectrum. I’m an atheist who’s also an ordained minister. I am all of these things simultaneously and yet not limited by or to any one of them.
So it goes for anyone who identifies as LGBTQ, who is much more than just lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning and/or queer, but is often overwhelmingly pigeonholed by their sexual orientation or gender identity, especially in the workplace where they may feel unsafe coming out to co-workers, colleagues, and managers, and they fear the reactions they’ll receive when they do.
If you’re straight and that seems silly, that’s probably because you never had to worry about what someone thinks or might say to or about you based simply on how you identify.
In an effort to be greater allies ourselves, IB spoke with a variety of experts — people who identify as LGBTQ, LGBTQ advocates and human resources professionals, and employment law attorneys — regarding the workplace dynamics and barriers that LGBTQ workers face and how every workplace can become more inclusive and equitable.
What Makes a Community
The phrase “LGBTQ community” connotes a unified group of people with something in common, but it’s as diverse and differentiated as any community.
“There is no such thing as the LGBTQ community,” notes Hayley Archer, an associate attorney with Hawks Quindel S.C. who specializes in labor and employment disputes. “Instead, there are countless communities, groups, needs, and experiences.”
Indeed, there’s not even universal agreement on which initialism should be used — LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA+, LGBTQIAP+, and so on. For reference, the additional letters that may not be as familiar represent the following: I generally stands for intersex; A can stand for asexual (a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction), ally (someone who is not LGBT but who actively supports LGBT communities, though this can be controversial), or both; P stands for pansexual (a person who experiences sexual attraction to people of all and/or many gender identities/expressions); and +, which generally means “not limited to,” or anyone who identifies as nonheterosexual or nongender-conforming.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) officially adopted LGBTQ as the acronym for their association, explains Lisa Koenecke, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professional speaker and facilitator. “I use LGBTQ+ in my book, Be an Inclusion Ally: ABCs of LGBTQ+, my articles, and my presentations. The + is meant to represent all identities in our community, including allies. I also reference TQBIPOC — trans, queer, Black, Indigenous, and people of color — in my education as well. Some will say GLBT, some will say gay. It is an ever-evolving acronym.”
“In general, I tend to use LGBT or LGBTQ interchangeably,” says Jason Rae, president and CEO of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “Much like most things, each person has their own preferences on which they may use. The Chamber participates with Community Marketing & Insights each year on its LGBTQ Community Study and in 2020, when it came to preferred terminology from respondents in Wisconsin, it was fairly close with 73.5% of respondents having positive responses to LGBTQ and 71.1% with positive responses to LGBT. LGBT has continued to remain one of the top two, but LGBTQ has gone from a 53.8% approval in 2015 to 73.5% favorability in 2020, a near-20-point jump. I think individuals are OK with people using either — as long as they understand what those letters mean.”
“I think the most standard acronym right now is LGBTQ, or perhaps LGBTQ+,” adds Patrick Farabaugh, publisher and editor-in-chief of Our Lives magazine. “The longer the acronym, while well-intentioned, often weakens the ability to understand it. In some cases, it also weakens the effectiveness of it.”
Barriers in the Workplace
According to Rae, a report issued in June 2018 from the HRC entitled a “A Workplace Divided” showed some troubling statistics, including that 46% of LGBTQ workers say they are closeted at work.
“Imagine going into work each and every day and having to hide a portion of yourself,” says Rae. “That’s just wrong, but unfortunately so many people do that. I heard a story recently from an individual about how they just came out at work after more than 20 years. For 20 years, they hid their spouse. They watched the pronouns when talking about the weekend. They didn’t put photos on their desk. They skipped out of after-work drinks.
“There was a fear on their part that if they did come out, they’d cause problems with relationships with co-workers, that they’d miss out on promotions, or even worse, that they’d be let go. No one should have to live in fear of who they are or who they love.”
Why does all of this matter, asks Rae? In addition to the human side of everyone deserving to feel welcomed and included, there is a business impact. Another HRC report called “The Cost of the Closet and the Rewards of Inclusion” showed that employee engagement suffers by up to 30% due to unwelcoming environments.
Each letter in the LGBTQ initialism faces unique issues, and only a few very general issues transcend the full LGBTQ community, notes Farabaugh. General homophobia/transphobia is still very prevalent. Larger corporate work environments have DEI efforts/policies in place, but those don’t prevent social and career barriers any more than they do for racial discrimination. This becomes even more prevalent in smaller companies, and businesses outside of Madison.
“Blue-collar jobs can be especially problematic when it comes to direct harassment,” says Farabaugh. “White-collar jobs often have what I consider ‘invisible walls and ceilings’ that limit an employee’s opportunity at the company. The trans community often runs into these walls the hardest and most frequently. LGBTQ people of color as well. The more marginalized someone is — for example, a Black trans woman — the more obstacles they are going to have in being fully valued by their employer and colleagues.”
When it comes to prominent workplace dynamics the LGBTQ community faces, Koenecke says representation is No. 1. “Living in a majority heteronormative society where assumptions are made daily becomes exhausting. How many people in leadership are actually ‘out?’
“When I am asked what I did over the weekend, not everyone is ready to hear that my wife and I went to the farmers market,” Koenecke continues. “There is a code shift that happens as if I am speaking another language because the assumption is that I have a husband, two kids, and go to soccer matches.”
A lack of understanding or acceptance might be the biggest barrier the LGBTQ community faces in the workplace, adds Koenecke. This starts with what or who the workplace values. “Are there pictures of the founders or partners hanging all over the workplace? Are these pictures mostly older, white men? I don’t mean to take anything away from history or your legacy, I can just tell you that it is hard for me to see myself as a ‘good fit’ rather than a ‘good addition.’”
Koenecke also asks what is the first thing your marketing says about your workplace? Do you value families? Do you have pictures of different races, body types, abilities, and same sex couples? “These are things we notice.”
In your mission/values statement, do you enumerate out sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity? If you state that your workplace is welcoming to all, do you just mean all who look and think like the leadership team does?
“Another barrier we face is application forms,” adds Koenecke. “Please understand that more people identify than just male or female. Pronouns matter! When someone must check ‘other’ as an identity, how would that make you feel?”
Speaking of pronouns, you may have seen some of your professional peers attaching them after their name in their email signature or on social media sites like LinkedIn.
Koenecke says she’s not a fan of mandating that all staff use pronouns in their signatures. Not everyone is ready to do so, and for some people it might not be safe. However, if company leadership uses pronouns, the LGBTQ community will recognize those efforts.
On the other hand, Rae believes everyone should use their pronouns and use the correct pronouns of others. Why does this matter? “Often, people make assumptions about the gender of another person based on the person’s appearance or name,” he says. “These assumptions aren’t always correct, and the act of making an assumption, even if correct, sends a potentially harmful message — that people have to look a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are or are not.”
Using someone’s correct personal pronouns is a way to respect them and create an inclusive environment, just as using a person’s name can be a way to respect them, notes Rae. Just as it can be offensive or even harassing to make up a nickname for someone and call them that nickname against their will, it can be offensive or harassing to guess at someone’s pronouns and refer to them using those pronouns if that is not how that person wants to be known. Or worse, actively choosing to ignore the pronouns someone has stated that they go by could imply the oppressive notion that intersex, transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people do not or should not exist.
There are a number of ways that people can use pronouns in the workplace, Rae advises. First, start with including them in your email signature. After your name, drop a “He/Him/His,” a “She/Her/Hers,” a “They/Them/Theirs,” or whatever pronouns you use. Include them on nametags you might have so that other employees and customers know how to address someone. When introducing yourself at a meeting, state your pronouns at the beginning. In a virtual space, include your pronouns in your name on Zoom.
“In my email signature, I have Lisa Koenecke (She/Her) What’s This?,” says Koenecke. The “What’s This?” hyperlink takes the reader to https://www.mypronouns.org/, where they can learn more about the use of pronouns.
Koenecke notes younger generations are using more nonbinary pronouns such as “they” and “them”; you might also start seeing “ze” or “zhir” being used more often.
“The terms ‘preferred gender pronouns’ or ‘preferred pronouns’ have been changed to just saying pronouns,” explains Koenecke. “As in, ‘My name is Lisa, and my pronouns are She/Her.’ When in doubt, just ask.”
Titles will be another piece of education for workplaces to prepare for, adds Koenecke. “Some of us will use the title Mx. rather than Mr. or Ms. or even Mrs.”
“Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go until there is full equality in the workplace, but we’re working every day to get closer to that goal,” notes Rae. “From co-workers mocking LGBTQ people, to hearing derogatory language against the community, to people using incorrect pronouns on purpose, all of those microaggressions hurt LGBTQ workers. From that same Human Rights Campaign report [referenced earlier], one in five LGBTQ workers report having been told or had co-workers imply that they should dress in a more feminine or masculine manner; 53% of LGBTQ workers report hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people at least once in a while.
“What saddens me from that report is the top reason LGBTQ workers don’t report negative comments they hear about LGBTQ people to a supervisor or human resources is because they don’t think anything would be done about it — and they don’t want to hurt their relationships with co-workers.”
According to Farabaugh, most of his friends of color have to “code switch” depending on the environment they are in to mitigate biases or prejudices. The same is especially true for LGBTQ people of color.
“Even white LGBTQ people have to read the room to determine how safe they feel bringing their whole self to any workspace because it can’t be assumed that everyone there welcomes them,” says Farabaugh. “Depending on power dynamics within the workplace, that can often create issues with career opportunity and with feelings of belonging. Without that, it can create retention issues, as the LGBTQ person may not be able to build as full of relationships with their managers and colleagues.”
Microaggressions are everywhere, says Koenecke. “Please don’t ask me what my husband does! Please allow me to add my spouse, Angela, to any forms I need to fill out. When you list husband/wife, that sends a clear message you might be outright prejudiced against the LGBTQ community.”
Knowing that she was underrepresented in the workplace, Koenecke says she made sure to join each social committee where she worked. This was her way to challenge the status quo and to make sure that there might be more equity rather than just equality.
Another workplace microaggression people may make without ever realizing it concerns baby showers. Not everyone wants to or is able to have a baby, Koenecke notes. “Whenever there is a baby shower, we make sure to never give blue, pink, or toys that are assimilated to one binary gender. We are not fans of gender reveal parties either. Let the child determine how they want to identify. They usually know by age 3!”
Workplace Policies and Legal Protections
Over the last few decades, many organizations have shifted to support LGBTQ employees and create more inclusive workspaces, notes Hayley Archer of Hawks Quindel. Still, discrimination and harassment plague all sectors of employment.
“Increased social acceptance and legal protections of LGBTQ employees are important, but not enough,” says Archer. “Employers seeking to create inclusive workplaces must invest time, money, and energy. The investment will be worth it — not just for LGBTQ employees, but for employees from other marginalized identities too. For one example, a 2018 study on gender-inclusive bathrooms published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that providing gender-neutral bathrooms helped women and people of color feel safer at work regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Archer recommends beginning the process of becoming a more inclusive workplace by reviewing existing company policies with a red pen and an eye toward gendered language. Confirm that benefits are inclusive of all employees. Be sure to check for language that unintentionally excludes LGBTQ people. Pay special attention to language around parental leave, adoption, and leave to care for dependents. Update all gendered language to make it gender-neutral, such as “husband” or “wife” to “partner” or “spouse.”
Additionally, the human resources department, the C-suite, and organizational leaders should actively communicate updated policies, expectations, and consequences, says Coreyne Woodman-Holoubek, founder of Progressive HR. “This should be often and through various channels, not an email ‘one-and-done.’ It is critical that employees, agents, contractors, and vendors understand that your organization has a zero-tolerance policy if there is discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation, etc.
“Policies should also include a commitment to further training of managers, supervisors, and employees that include not only harassment-prevention training that covers sexual orientation and gender identity, but also best practices for implementing and maintaining a diverse workforce with a culture of inclusion, acceptance, and belonging,” adds Woodman-Holoubek. “Train managers to understand that discrimination can still occur even without the intention to harm an employee because of his or her gender, and make sure they know how to respond appropriately when they get complaints.”
Woodman-Holoubek also recommends employers conduct a review of their job applications, sourcing and hiring practices, and ongoing workplace processes for any written or unwritten areas of potential discrimination. Employers should conduct an audit of how they respond to internal concerns and ensure that processes are equitable and decisions are being made in ways that are inclusive to LGBTQ employees.
“I support the contract of an inclusivity specialist to review policies, look over the training materials, and make sure your company is promoting the right messages to all employees, contractors, and vendors,” says Woodman-Holoubek. “Contractors and vendors are often a second thought when informing and educating on policy — being an inclusive workplace means involving all workplace stakeholder parties in change.”
Archer advises organizations to confirm that the wording in health insurance or life insurance never excludes same-sex partners. Ensure that employer-sponsored health insurance supports the needs of transgender people.
Woodman-Holoubek notes it’s important to update your sick and medical leave policy to include transitioning employees as well as to support gender transition treatments or surgery. It is also important to communicate this provision in employee literature so workers know this coverage is available without having to ask, as this may be uncomfortable for them.
Many organizations already have anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, notes Archer. However, workplace animosity is often subtler. Consider creating workplace policies that address exclusionary behaviors such as refusing to call someone by a chosen name or pronoun or asking questions about a person’s body. Designate gender-neutral restrooms at work with clear signage. Update uniforms and dress codes to be gender neutral. Normalize all people adding pronouns to email signatures and name tags — especially senior staff and managers — to decrease the chance of misgendering.
Archer suggests organization leaders consider sending out an anonymous climate survey to gauge employee thoughts on inclusivity. “You may be surprised how many LGBTQ people work there and how they really feel about the work environment.”
Archer also points out that policy changes alone are not enough. “Most people will not sit down and read through changes in the workplace policy. Communicate clearly to all employees, regardless of tenure, a commitment to a more inclusive workplace for LGBTQ people. Whether workplace discrimination comes from fear, ignorance, or bias, employers must take it seriously. Ensure that there is a procedure in place to stop discriminatory behavior and remedy the harm.”
Organizations aren’t entirely alone in addressing workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, but legal protections for LGBTQ individuals are in many cases a patchwork that the business community can bolster through proactive measures of their own.
According to Archer, the following legal protections are currently in place at the federal, state, and local levels:
Federal: Federal workplace anti-discrimination law protects employees from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination at work based on protected classes, which include race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. In June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity is unlawful because it is “based on sex.” This includes sexual harassment and discrimination hiring, termination, promotion, conditions of employment, or benefits.
State: In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to enact legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment both in the public and private sector. Like Title VII, the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA) prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination hiring, termination, promotion, conditions of employment, or benefits. Although the WFEA prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, it does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.
Local: Madison’s prohibition on employment discrimination is broader than federal or state laws, and includes (among many other things) sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, political beliefs, domestic partnership, and physical appearance.
Archer acknowledges these legal protections are a good start, but there’s still much room for improvement.
“First, the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act falls short,” says Archer. “It must be updated to explicitly protect transgender people.
“Second, Title VII applies only to employers with 15 or more employees. This leaves a large section of the LGBTQ workforce without federal protection from discrimination and harassment. Employees who work for small businesses deserve legal protection from discrimination.
“Third, LGBTQ people need legal protection that extends past the workplace. Currently, there is no comprehensive federal anti-discrimination law in housing, education, federally funded programs, health care, credit, or public spaces. As a result, many LGBTQ people find themselves navigating a patchwork of state and municipal laws to determine their rights.”
In January 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to implement the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, a landmark civil rights case in which the Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender. In doing so, Biden directed agencies to interpret the ruling to apply to other laws that prohibit sex discrimination but that do not explicitly prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.
This is an important change, says Archer, but an executive order is not enough to protect LGBTQ people in the long run. “Congress must codify anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people by passing the Equality Act, which would update and expand federal anti-discrimination laws to prohibit discrimination based on general identity or sexual orientation in employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service.
Finally, laws are necessary but not sufficient to truly protect marginalized people from discrimination, harassment, and violence.
“One need only look at the long and continued history of racism in the United States,” notes Archer. “Still, every employer can address harassment in the workplace, help LGBTQ people — and all marginalized identities — feel supported and included in the workplace, and move society one step closer to equality.”
Out and in the Spotlight
On TV, image is everything.
As progressive as Madison can be, it’s still a relatively small market, so being LGBTQ and out isn’t necessarily an easy decision if you’re a local television personality.
Blaise Keller, a meteorologist for WKOW-TV, has referenced his husband on air, but that wasn’t always the case.
“One barrier that I faced and that other LGBTQ persons have faced, which may be the biggest barrier, is coming out,” explains Keller. “Being able to come out is to be able to live your life as your true identity. At my first station, it was hard for me to call my then-boyfriend ‘my friend’ on TV, which played into my decision to approach my then-boss to talk about me coming out on air.”
Keller acknowledges being nervous to come out, both behind the scenes and on air, but seeing experienced broadcast journalists like Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow who were out and doing very well in their careers helped. He notes he’s also been fortunate to work at stations, currently and in the past, where management was supportive of his coming out or continuing to be out on air and behind the scenes.
For Keller, the act of acknowledging his husband still comes with some difficulties.
“Though I’m married to a man, I identify as bisexual,” he says. “When getting to know new co-workers, they sometimes assume I identify as gay. When correcting them, a few past co-workers have asked about my past with women, which is usually, ‘How many women have you dated before?’
“Specifically to me and the way that I identify, I don’t think these types of situations will get fewer over time; however, I’d like to imagine or hope that they’d change as more people — those who identify as LGBTQ and those who don’t — understand bisexuality. I’ve also had co-workers refer to my husband as my partner even after I’ve called him my husband.
“What I’ve come to find out is that coming out never really gets easier; the first time coming out is very nerve-wracking and scary for so many different reasons, which never really goes away,” continues Keller. “Personally, I still get a little nervous when coming out to new co-workers. That being said, if someone comes out to you, they trust you. Listening to them and being supportive of however they identify is one of the biggest things you can do.
“For some LGBTQ persons, coming out is not always a positive experience,” Keller adds. “They may be coming out to you because they could be looking for the support they otherwise did not receive from another person. I think a way that we, as a whole, can be better allies to any minority group is to listen.”
Becoming an Ally
When it comes to being a workplace that’s an ally to your LGBTQ employees and colleagues, don’t assume that your company is getting it right, says Farabaugh.
“Don’t assume that a policy is doing the work to change hearts and minds,” explains Farabaugh. “Know that most blue-collar jobs get more wrong than they do right, right now. I know a number of LGBTQ people in Madison who work in the building trades and they are still regularly experiencing homophobia and transphobia from both their co-workers and their company’s clients. Health care is a major issue. Has an employer invested any effort in ensuring that the provider they are using has the cultural competency to provide care without biases/prejudices to an LGBTQ person, and especially to a transgender person?”
First and foremost, says Rae, all people need to commit to continuous self-education on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and to apply that inclusion lens to everyday work and life. Attend conferences, events, and workshops that allow you to learn more and hear from others’ lived experiences and familiarize yourself with terms and practice them. This shows a meaningful commitment to DEI.
“What people shouldn’t do is expect others to teach them,” notes Rae. “It isn’t every LGBTQ person’s job to always educate you on LGBTQ issues. Your own continued self-education is key.”
Rae explains it’s also imperative that companies focus on their supply chains and ensure they are using diverse suppliers. “This is one really impactful way that companies in the area can have an impact and be an advocate for inclusion. Make sure that you are using minority-owned, women-owned, LGBTQ-owned, disabled-owned, and other businesses in your supply chain. This is a direct investment in diverse communities and shows your employees that you value the contributions made by diverse-owned businesses.
“In everything with diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is crucial to apply and use the platinum rule,” adds Rae. “We all know the golden rule, but we should be living by the platinum rule — treat others as THEY want to be treated. It should no longer be ‘treat them as YOU want to be treated’ but as THEY want to be treated.”
Where to File?
Employees who feel they have experienced discrimination can file a complaint with:
- The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), https://www.eeoc.gov/filing-charge-discrimination;
- The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division (ERD), https://dwd.wisconsin.gov/er/civilrights/complaint.htm; or
- Madison’s Equal Opportunity Division (MEOD), https://discrimination.cityofmadison.com/Home/ComplaintView.
An employment attorney can help employees determine the appropriate venue to file a claim.
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