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At the 2010 Leading Diversity Summit in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to chat with Pat Baillie, the Associate Director of Training and Professional Development at Out and Equal Workforce Advocates to talk about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues in the workplace, and where they fit into the overall picture of Diversity and Inclusion work.
Tell us about Out and Equal.
Out and Equal Workplace Advocates is a nonprofit organization that has been around for about 11 years. We’re based in San Francisco and our primary focus is to work on LGBT equality in the workplace, specifically the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity and policy benefits–and the culture of the workplace to better the bottom line.
What is the state of LGBT issues in the workplace?
In almost 30 states, you can still be fired for being LBGT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) and there is no federal protection. There has been an attempt to try to get federal protections for LBGT employees and we hope to have that pass, because it would really make a difference. If you are working in California, the laws are good; if you get transferred to Texas, you could be fired from your job. So, it is important at this point to get the passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Then, the next step is to say how do we apply that equality and fairness in the workplace across the globe?
What types of organizations does Out and Equal work with?
Primarily with corporations. We started as part of the United Way in San Francisco. Since we became a nonprofit and began to work with corporations and working with them on their policies in 1996, there has been growth within many companies. There is a rating called the Corporate Equality Index. It rates companies on how they are doing around LBGT inclusion. More and more companies are touting that 100 percent.
You have to have LBGT protections and policies in place to even be considered in their ratings. There is a lot of awareness within the corporate world and we are helping those companies ask, “What is the next step? What else can we do?”
What is the process when you sit down with an organization?
Normally, when we talk to a corporation we are asking, “Do you have policies in place already? So, you have a diversity program?” If they are already doing great work around people of color, age, women, those kind of areas, then we say: “If you are ready, let’s have a discussion with your management, your HR folks, and potentially your employer resource group.”
We bring together the experiences and background that other companies have used and say: “Here is what is out there.” Then, we work with them to do action planning internally. It’s our job to kind of help them move through that process.
A lot of diversity work focuses on race and ethnicity. In what ways is your organization’s work similar and in what ways is it different?
I taught a course not too long ago and a gentleman of color said this was the first time he had realized that what LBGT employees are looking for in the workplace is the same thing that people of color and women are looking for: You want a good job. You want to be recognized for the work that you do.
The issue is a little bit easier because LBGT employees can choose to not be visible in the workplace. A lot of folks choose not to come out, where people of color and women don’t have that choice. But you get that same kind of climate where it’s not comfortable; jokes are said, comments are made that make you feel like you can’t reveal who you are. “I can’t talk about my life,” and you are not a fully engaged part of the team. You are not showing up at the water cooler. You are not going to social events, because you don’t want to reveal who you are because it might endanger your job.
You mentioned two groups: individuals who choose to be open and those who choose to be more private. Is there a difference in the way employers should engage with those two groups?
One of the problems we have is there are no good metrics. There are lots of studies. Somewhere between three and eight percent is the usual estimate for the number of LBGT employees in the workplace. It’s very difficult when you talk to management who ask, “How many people does this involve?” So if you are out and visible it’s easier to say, “Here is the number of people that we have involved in our domestic partnership program and using health insurance.”
But there are many more who will not come out. If you are in the headquarters, there is a little more understanding. If you are in manufacturing out in the field, those sectors tend to have different numbers because of privacy and a sense that being LGBT is not okay. So, there are a lot of internalized feelings that happen for people as well that this is not something that they should share.
Technology is rapidly changing the way people are communicating and what privacy is possible. How does that affect the LBGT community in the workplace?
There has been a large growth in student alliances for LBGT and allies in secondary and junior highs, and even now into elementary schools. Youth are coming together and talking about and accepting diversity around sexual orientation and gender identity. They go through this school experience and then go to college and there are some good gay/straight alliances in colleges as well. Then, suddenly they walk into a workplace, very accustomed to acceptance of who they are and there is a sense that the business community hasn’t caught up. Youth today have a lot more awareness than the boomers. There are studies that indicate youths are looking at corporate social responsibility and asking quiestions like: What is this company doing for the least of their employees? Even though they may not be LBGT, they look at a company and if a company is not open to LBGT employees, they may not work there.
They are using the internet to do a lot of research. LBGT employees will check a company out before they apply there. When you are talking about recruitment and retention, the internet is really opening that up. People talk to each other about their experiences, because it’s not just the checklist of the policy and the benefits, it’s also the culture and the climate.
Tell me about the relationship between the community of Diversity and Inclusion practitioners and the LGBT community at large.
It’s really great to be here at Linkage in the summit because these are folks that get it. They may be struggling, they may need more information, but they are willing to go back to the workplace and to have these discussions. If you took just the LGBT community members in a workplace, or in community, there are just not enough people that have that discussion. What’s really needed is the allies, who are [Diversity and Inclusion] practitioners who can go back and advocate to people in their circles. Those allies can get to places that I can’t. So it’s vital for the practitioners to be part of this.