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Psychologist | Speaker | Media Expert | Workplace Consultant | Researcher

Supporting LGBTQ+ People in the Workplace

Dr. Joti Samra

June 01, 2020

Workplace

Supporting LGBTQ+ People in the Workplace

LGBTQ+ individuals experience discrimination and harassment in the workplace. This directly and negatively impacts LGBTQ+ individuals’ mental health. So, when talking about workplace mental health, we need to pay special attention to groups, like the LGBTQ+ community, to actively work against this treatment to create psychologically safe spaces for all individuals. So here we are going to talk about supporting LGBTQ+ people in the workplace.

Facts About LGBTQ+ Workers

The LGBTQ+ community has higher rates of unemployment, with rates spiking even higher for trans and nonbinary people. But unemployment is not the only issue.  A U.K. report, one of the first of its kind, found that 7 in 10 LGBTQ+ people have been sexually harassed at work and two-thirds did not report it to their employer. The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy found 15% to 43% of gay and transgender workers faced some sort of workplace discrimination in the U.S.. Though it is important to note that the experience of discrimination and harassment is not consistent across the queer community: 

  • LGBTQ+ people of colour are more than twice as likely to experience discrimination in the workplace as their white peers.
  • LGBTQ+ women experience sexual harassment at higher rates than men. 
  • 90% of transgender workers have experienced harassment or mistreatment at work.

Many organizations have come to understand the experiences that LGBTQ+ individuals face in the workplace and have created specific policies to be more inclusive. Some of these include; healthcare coverage for same-sex spouses, protocols for gender transition, and paid parental leave for same-sex couples and adoptive parents. 

Inclusive Workspaces – Supporting LGBTQ+ People in the Workplace

Though creating inclusive workplace policies is a great first step, it’s just that – a first step. Workplace policies are not enough on their own to create safe and inclusive workplace environments and culture. So, what can companies and colleagues do to create a safe and inviting workplace for members of the LGBTQ+ community?

  1. Educate yourself on the LGBTQ+ community, both individually and as an organization. A great place to start is with Basic LGBTQ terminology. And here are some other great resources (The Safe Zone ProjectPFLAGGLAAD). This should also include company training/workshops as well as providing information to new hires as well as new managers/leaders.
  2. Ensure company policies are up to date and use inclusive language.
  3. Create hiring initiatives that encourage LGBTQ+ applicants, whenever possible.
  4. Have peer support networks for mental health, such as mental health ambassadors, and ensure all workers know how to get support for mental health at work. It’s also important to create a culture where individuals feel able to seek out that support. 
  5. Don’t make assumptions. Most people unconsciously make the assumption that others are similar to them. This means that heterosexual cis-gender people will automatically think the same of their co-workers, which puts LGBTQ+ individuals in the awkward position of correcting others. So, do not assume someone’s gender or pronouns based on how they present themselves and do not assume the gender of anyone’s partner. 
  6. Lead by example. Like introducing yourself with your name and pronouns. This can help reduce the instances of people making assumptions about gender and pronouns, as well as make transgender people feel less uncomfortable when telling people their pronouns.
  7. Take action when discrimination or harassment does occur. Remind others that making jokes at the expense of someone in the LGBTQ+ community is not accepted and will not be tolerated. 

Remember that inclusive businesses, with a satisfied workforce, is a more successful business. 

Supporting LGBTQ+ Co-workers

Oftentimes when we find out a co-worker is part of the LGBTQ+ community, we want to show our support but don’t know the best way to do so. What are some, potentially well-meaning, things that shouldn’t be done in the workplace when it comes to LGBTQ+ co-workers?

  1. Don’t ask a bunch of questions. Many questions are well-meaning but can be hurtful, make people feel uncomfortable, and they often require a significant amount of emotional energy for the person being asked. There are also many instances where the workplace is not an appropriate setting for these questions.  
  2. Don’t out someone at work. Just because they have told you how they identify does not mean they are out to everyone in the workplace. They likely came out to you because they trust you – so maintain that trust.
  3. Don’t play matchmaker. When well-meaning straight people try to set someone up, it is typically simply based on the fact that they happen to know someone else is gay (or however they identify). This not only ignores the many other factors that go into dating but in most cases makes people uncomfortable.

Read our other blog for or more information on How to Be a Good Ally

Questions Not to ask your LGBTQ+ Co-workers

As we learn about the queer community and the diversity of people within the community, it’s natural to want to know more. The number of recognized identities is growing and it can seem intimidating and complicated to those who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s a great thing to be eager and willing to learn, and education is an important part of creating a more safe and inclusive environment for everyone. You might know someone who identifies within the LGBTQ+ community and figure they’re the best person to ask those burning questions. They might be, but they also may not.

So, let’s talk about asking questions as this in an important part of supporting LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. 

What To Consider Before Asking Questions

Before asking questions consider a few things:

  • Is this something you could educate yourself on? If you haven’t already attempted to look up the answer, do that first. 
  • Is the person you want to ask the appropriate person to ask? Consider the relationship you have with that person. A close friend or family member is likely the most appropriate person to ask, rather than an acquaintance or co-worker. 
  • Consider the context. Is it the right time or place to be asking this question? Ideally, if you want to learn something about the queer community, a question should be asked at a time when the person is able to give an appropriately in-depth response and they’re in a comfortable atmosphere to have that conversation. The workplace is likely not the place to be asking these questions.

Get Consent First

It’s important to not only be cautious of who you’re asking, but also the questions you ask. It’s equally as important to ask for consent before asking a question. Asking for consent can be as simple as “can I ask you a question about X?” and waiting for an answer. It’s also important to be prepared to hear and respect the answer ‘no’.

Questions Not to Ask LGBTQ+ Co-workers

You may be thinking, how do I know whether or not a question is appropriate to ask? So here is a list of things to consider, as well as explanations as to why questions can be challenging to receive for those in the LGBTQ+ community. 

  1. Many of the well-meaning questions are hurtful or make people feel uncomfortable. For example; “What’s your type?” “So is it a he or a she?” “Who’s the guy and who’s the girl?” “So what’s your real name?” 
  2. People in the LGBTQ+ community get a lot of questions. It takes a lot of emotional energy to educate people, and it can feel even more exhausting when asked the same, or similar, questions particularly if that information could be found online. 
  3. Often questions don’t have a straightforward answer. Gender and sexuality are complicated and exist along a spectrum. People in the LGBTQ+ community are changing expectations of how humans look and act based on preconceived notions about gender, as well as changing the dynamic of how romantic relationships should look like. So, even if they want to encourage your learning they may not have the ability to answer a question for you in a way that makes sense without all the background knowledge of queer history. 

The workplace is most likely not the best setting to be asking personal questions about a person’s identity. So, consider the appropriateness of timing and context when thinking about asking questions of LGBTQ+ co-workers.

Final Thoughts

Supporting LGBTQ+ people in the workplace doesn’t have to be challenging. Start with good intentions on fostering an inclusive space, educate yourself on the LGBTQ+ community and the issues they face in the workplace, and do want you can to create that safe space. Ensure policies are updated and followed, lead by example and train and workers within your organization. 

If you’re motivated to learn more about the LGBTQ+ community consider checking out sites like TheSafeZoneProject for terminology, PFLAG a website for families and friends of LGBTQ+ people, or GLAAD, an organization devoted to shaping conversations about LGBTQ+ folks.

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