Try to make all employees—out or not—feel valued

I smoothed my navy blue suit skirt and relaxed a little.  Perched on the edge of a sofa in the fourth-floor office of a downtown Norfolk building, I was relieved that the job interview was coming to a close.  The two executives and I were moving to small talk.

“So is your husband in the Navy?” one of them asked.

I was taken aback by the question.  It was an illegal question for very good reason—it put me in a very difficult position.

“Well…” I paused, thinking about what I could do next.  Lie?  Distract him with a question of my own?  Pretend I didn’t hear?

“I don’t have a husband,” I said.  And then I took another leap.  “I have a wife.”

(I will pause here so you can check out my byline again.)

To be completely honest, this wasn’t a huge risk.  I knew that the two men interviewing me were gay themselves.  Just about everyone in the community knew it.  That makes the situation funny, and we had a good laugh.  But in another place with another person, it would have been tougher for me to tell the truth.

Gays and lesbians in the workplace are often invisible.  In some industries, gay employees have a very real worry about an unspoken “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.  As long as we stay in the closet, we can keep our jobs.

But sometimes secrecy is for a much more complicated reason.  Sometimes when others don’t know whom we go home to at night, it’s easier for us to be a part of the social scene—chatting at the water cooler, having lunch or even going for drinks after work.

Inside Business, Norfolk, VA

Since I gave up public school teaching more than 10 years ago, I haven’t been one of those folks, though.  I’m happy to say that I’ve been out in every job I’ve had for the last decade. And I’m not alone.  More and more often, being gay and working in business is a non-issue.

Three weeks ago, the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people, released the results of its State of the Workplace 2004.  Turns out, some of the most successful and profitable companies around the U.S. are rolling out the welcome mat for GLBT employees.  Benefits usually reserved for married couples are being extended to same-sex couples whose relationships are not legally recognized.  This is despite a clear backlash against the acceptance of gay and lesbian couples and individuals across the country.

But this opinion piece isn’t about how far we’ve come.  It’s about how we can do more.  For every out gay employee, there are probably five or so who feel too terrified to be honest about that for at least 40 hours of the week.

So, if you’re a business owner or manager who has not stopped reading this column out of disgust, I offer some low-or no-cost suggestions for making your gay employees feel valued and equal.

  1. Take a look at your non-discrimination in employment clause.  If it doesn’t include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” add them.  If you don’t plan to discriminate against employees because they are gay or transgender, say so.
  2. Do the same for your family medical leave policies.  And don’t forget bereavement benefits.
  3. Change your medical benefits policies.  Just in case you’re wondering, a study released by Blue Cross Blue Shield showed that costs related to such a change remain relatively flat.  As of July 1, all state-based companies will be permitted to offer same-sex partner medical benefits through group medical policies.
  4. Consider your workplace climate.  Is it safe for someone to come out? If not, what can you do to make it safer?  What messages are you sending to your staff about GLBT workplace issues?
  5. Tell your staff about these changes.  They won’t matter if people don’t know about them.

This is not only a problem to be solved by decision-makers, however.  Out, gay employees need to step up to the plate.  If our employers are willing to take some risks, so should we.

For goodness sake, ask for what you need.  Most straight people don’t have a clear understanding of what will make a difference in our workplaces.  There is also a great deal of misinformation out there.  You can give them information that they need to make a decision in your best interests.

And if you’re not out, consider taking that step.  You might find out that it’s no big deal.

From experience, I know these are difficult things to do.  And sometimes having a great place to work—like I do—isn’t enough.

In two weeks, my family and I are moving to Baltimore, Md.  We need to be in a community that is more accepting our family.  Our daughter needs to go to a school with other kids who have two moms or two dads, and she needs to have two legal parents instead of one.  We need to attend a pool that doesn’t require us to pay double dues simply because we don’t fit the traditional definition of family.

I already know of one other local couple that is doing the same thing.  And several other friends will be moving within the next two years.  Hampton Roads will lose bits and pieces of its workforce simply because the community is unfriendly to GLBT people.

But when businesses do what is right for their GLBT employees, they can influence the community as a whole.  When your employees see that you have taken a stand for equality, they might very well demand—and get—the same from the rest of the community.

This isn’t a radical idea.  It’s just good business.

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