Sexuality in the workplace: the dilemma continues


Appreciating a diverse culture requires more than not making inappropriate jokes. It also means using inclusive language. The politically correct terminology is gay, lesbian, and bisexual (and transgendered), even though the word gay, according to the dictionary, includes all homosexuals.

“I can understand the need to respect people of different ethnic groups, ages, religion, and gender. I don’t understand why I should respect sexual orientation since it goes against my beliefs.”

Businesses embarking upon diversity initiatives struggle with the issue of sexual orientation. Leadership frequently has no acceptable response to the above comment made by many employees.

Neither the government nor businesses expect workers to change their beliefs or values related to sexual orientation or any other difference among people at work. However, it is expected that all employees are held accountable for their behavior. When GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) jokes, gestures, and rumors are tolerated at work, it creates an environment that negatively affects productivity even if there are no GLBTs present. Such behavior can also be offensive to heterosexuals who are not biased in this way, and many workers who have friends and relatives who are other than heterosexual.

Each time people say something inappropriate the company is liable. One of my clients learned this lesson the hard way. Luckily the responded appropriately in the eyes of the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), thus avoiding an extensive investigation, negative press and an expensive lawsuit.

We hired a new employee. Right away, a peer worker started a rumor that the “new guy” was gay. Several people heard the rumor, including the new employee himself. He filed a claim with the EEOC, charging the company of tolerating a “hostile environment.”

Coincidentally, I began diversity awareness training for all employees and managers several months before this claim, and had instructed management on handling such situations. They made it clear to everyone that such behavior would not be tolerated; any further or repeated inappropriate behavior would be grounds for termination. Because the company could prove they were delivering company-wide diversity awareness training, and they documented disciplinary actions taken with offending employees, the EEOC dropped the claim. Whether an employee is GLBT or straight she or he has the right to earn a living in a non-hostile environment. The more heterosexuals recognize the double standard imposed on people who are not heterosexual, the sooner the double standards can be removed, leaving everyone free to focus on doing their jobs.

In its efforts to treat people fairly, the government provides an excellent example of what not to do. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not a solution. If you are straight, imagine for a moment how much energy it would take to work for eight or more hours a day in an environment in which you are compelled to hide your sexuality. Don’t ask don’t tell demands just that. As busy as we are at work, we rarely intend to discuss personal matters, yet the subject frequently arises. What would you say if someone asked, “What did you do for Memorial Day?” If you lived by the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, you would not be able to refer to your loved one comfortably. You might avoid answering the question, or worse, you might lie. Neither are good alternatives when you need to develop a trusting relationship with people. People fear that which they do not understand. This ignorance perpetuates irrational beliefs and stereotyping. During my seminars, people say they are afraid a gay person will try to “pick them up,” or that all GLBTs want to do is talk about sex. GLBTs do not think about sex any more often than straight people do. “Hitting on someone” at work is inappropriate behavior, and management would be expected to take appropriate actions whether the offender was GLBT or straight. Think about it, why would GLBT people waste their time trying to develop a romantic relationship with someone straight? The truth is many of our fears are illogical.

Many people use religion as the explanation for bigotry against GLBTs. I am not an authority on religion, so let’s just examine logic again. Most if not all religions teach some version of the “Golden Rule.” Most, if not all, teach some variation of “Love thy neighbor.” If one accepts this as a value to be practiced, how can harassing or discriminating against a person solely based on sexual orientation be tolerated?

Regardless of religious beliefs, the reality is GLBTs are in the workplace and the marketplace. Each time prejudice is tolerated, the business risks litigation and revenue, and loss opportunities to attract and retain the best talent for the job, regardless of sexual orientation.

The following suggestions and resources will help you and your colleagues learn more about this issue. Developing a deeper understanding of people who are different makes you better equipped to say the right thing at the right time and stop biased and prejudiced behavior.  As a result of reading this article, make a personal commitment to do at least one of the following:

  • Write down the reasons you think you are or would be uncomfortable working with a person whose sexuality is different than yours.
  • Talk to your religious or spiritual leader. Be willing to seek clarity regarding contradictions you perceive about behavior and your faith’s teachings.
  • Have the courage to talk to someone whose sexuality is different than your own. Inform the person that you want to learn and understand. Ask for permission to ask her or him a few questions. (Remember that the answers represent that person, not the group.)
  • If your company has a support group for people who are other than heterosexual, attend a meeting.
  • Visit Internet “chat rooms” and ask questions about your fears and beliefs.
  • Whenever you find yourself wondering what a person’s sexual orientation is, ask yourself what difference it makes as it relates to getting the job done.

When fears are confronted, the become much less threatening. You will find that GLBT people are simply individuals with a different sexual orientation. Other than that, they are just like everybody else.

Author: Lenora Billings-Harris, CSP is an internationally recognized speaker, multicultural diversity expert, and author with more than twenty-five years experience in the public and private sectors.