Fitting In: The LGBTQ Employee & Business Culture

By : Steve Yacovelli
Comments: 0
Steve Yacovelli

Steve Yacovelli

Imagine: It’s your first day on the job, and your friendly HR person gives you a pamphlet on what you should look like at work. In this “look book” it defined what your hairstyles should look like (men: short!), the amount of jewelry you can wear (women: very little!), what to do with body art you might have (cover it!), types of clothing style (no pants for women!), even the amount of cologne or perfume you can wear (very minimal!).

Now imagine you’re a transperson sitting in that HR office who is just starting to transition. What do you do? You don’t want to potentially lose the new job you fought so hard to get, but you want to be authentic to yourself and who you are as a person. Or consider you’re a cis- or gay man who doesn’t necessarily conform to the gender stereotypes of “masculinity,” or a cis- or lesbian woman who doesn’t conform to the stereotypical “femininity.” What do you do when that “look book” is shared with you, defining what your “work self” should be?

This scenario hits on a real issue that we LGBTQ employees face: fitting in to our respective corporate cultures. A 2014 Human Rights Campaign study found that 53% of LGBTQ employees nationwide are closeted on the job. Interestingly, the same study found that, while 81% of non-LGBTQ employees feel that LGBTQ coworkers should not have to hide who they are at work, more than half of these same people said they would feel uncomfortable hearing about an LGBTQ colleagues discussing their dating life.

The scenario above is real (it happened to me), and I’m happy to say this organization has since evolved to where they’ve changed their corporate policies on dress to be more inclusive of gender identity and individualism, while still maintaining a professional workplace. But so many businesses have not (as the HRC study indicates), and as LGBTQ employees we need to be more aware of our corporate cultures and how we fit – or don’t fit – into it.

Once you personally define the corporate culture, think about the “external” personality your business promotes. As an Inclusion &Change Consultant, I have the opportunity to glimpse into many corporate cultures (I’m sort of like an organizational anthropologist – think Jane Goodall, but in cubicles instead of the jungle, and more smartly dressed). I’ve seen businesses with corporate values like “We Promote Work / Life Balance!” yet expected employees to work 60+ hours a week. I’ve seen organizations say, “We Celebrate Diversity!” yet all senior leaders were middle-aged white dudes.

For me, I like to look at a corporate culture and see how inclusive it is to all people, but especially to the LGBTQ community. In my experience there are Five Top Indicators of an Inclusive Business Cultureto explore when seeing if an organization is inclusive and therefor embraces LGBTQ employees being authentic and true to themselves at work:

  1. Leadership: What does the leadership look like? What do they do(and not just say) to promote inclusivity? Is their language truly inclusive or is it more heterosexist?
  2. Corporate Policies: Does the organization include policies referring to same-sex couples (married or otherwise)? Does it include healthcare specific for trans employees?
    What’s the company’s Non-Discrimination Policy: does it include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity and gender expression”?
  3. The “real” Corporate Values at play:Using the criteria above, what are the company’s real values, the ones on display every day? Are they the ones listed on the company’s website, or are they really different?
  4. Inclusion Support (HR, D&I, ERGs): Is there a Head of Diversity & Inclusion in the company? What do they do? Does “diversity” really mean, “Let’s Celebrate a Specific Group Each Month!” or does it go deeper? Does the company have an Employee Resource Groupdedicated to LGBTQ employees and their allies?
  5. External Efforts … Does the business market to the LGBTQ community? When same-sex marriage became legal what did you company do? When certain groups threaten the rights of LGBTQ people outside of the workplace does the company (and corporate leadership) stand up or remain silent?

Great organizations like Human Rights Campaign and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates look at criteria like those listed above to help people – both customers and employees alike – find who really supports inclusivity.

While we can legally get married on Saturday, we can walk into work on Monday, put that new wedding photo on our desk, and (in most states) legally get fired for being LGBTQ that afternoon. While many of the Fortune 500 have corporate policies that prevent this, only 17 percent of the U.S. workforce works for one of these businesses. Until a federal non-discrimination law exists protecting LGBTQ employees across the country, we need to decide where we’ll collect our paychecks and focus our work energy: an organization who accepts and celebrates our uniqueness and that of others, or one who wants us to conform to the definitions located in their corporate “look book.”

Share this story: