In 2003, Esther Dryburgh was asked by a friend at work to speak at an IBM executive breakfast about what it was like to be gay but in the closet at work. She knew if she agreed to speak at the breakfast, she would reveal her secret — and that was big decision, said Dryburgh, a partner in business consulting services at IBM in Toronto.
At the time, there were no openly gay executives in the company so she decided to do the speech and try to be a role model for others.
“It was amazing. It was a very positive experience for me, coming out at work, bringing my full self at work,” she said. “All of the executives were so supportive — it was almost like a religious experience for them.”
Over the past five years, attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the workplace have improved, according to 72 per cent of respondents to a survey released by the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC).
However, two-fifths of respondents said they have faced discrimination in the workplace, found the survey of 983 LGBT employees from across the country.
“It was surprising in today’s age that there’s still discrimination,” said Darrell Schuurman, Halifax-based co-founder of CGLCC. “Within the workplace, I don’t know if we’re putting enough attention to diversity overall, especially LGBT diversity. I think we’ve become complacent in that and I think there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Social exclusion (43 per cent) and ridicule (42 per cent) are the most common forms of discrimination, found the survey.
“We, as human beings, fear that which we don’t understand and one of our social agreements is that if we don’t understand something in society, it’s easier either to push it away — that exclusion — or to make fun of it, to make light of it,” said Brad Tyler-West, a senior HR consultant at Legacy Bowes Group in Winnipeg.
To reduce LGBT discrimination in the workplace, employers need to have apolicy outlining that discrimination will not be tolerated, said Schuurman. Employees should be made aware of exactly what behaviour is not acceptable, such as ridicule, and the consequences should be in line with those used for all other forms of discrimination, he said.
“You need to be able to communicate that,” said Schuurman. “It’s one thing to put those policies in place but if you sit on them and hide them, it’s not showcasing to employees that your company truly is inclusive.”
And employers need to be especially cautious about the language they are using when communicating to employees, to make sure they are not alienating or excluding anybody.
“If you look at a staff party, for instance, are you saying, ‘Bring your wife’ or ‘Bring your husband’ or do you say, ‘Bring your partner,’ things like that,” said Schuurman. “Even though it might not necessarily be so blatant, it’s some of those little things that they need to be sensitive about.”
One reason Dryburgh was hesitant to come out at work was a fear it might affect her career, she said. More than one-quarter (28 per cent) of survey respondents are worried about the negative consequences of coming out at work. Of those, 21 per cent said they think coming out may negatively affect their chances for advancement.
“People tend to network, mentor and promote people who are similar to them so, as a result, LGBT people work hard, make their numbers like every other employee but they are at a disadvantage,” said Dryburgh. “We just don’t have equal representation (in leadership) of folks that are like us.”
High-potential LGBT employees will seek employment elsewhere if they feel they are not as likely to be considered for advancement at their current organization — so companies risk losing that talent pool, said Schuurman.
Resource groups offer support
To help its 400,000 employees worldwide feel more comfortable in the workplace, IBM offers LGBT resource groups. Every year, the groups develop a strategic plan and some of the Toronto group’s activities have included:
• hosting roundtable discussions with other IBM LGBT resource groups from across the globe
• participating in fundraising activities for Pride at Work, an organization that advocates for LGBT diversity in the workplace
• volunteering at Out on Bay Street, an annual conference in Toronto
• speaking in schools against bullying.
“We want the world to be inclusive so I think it starts with the workplace and spills over into our relationships with clients and spills over into society,” said Dryburgh. “These groups want to do everything they can to create an inclusive environment in IBM.”
There is also tremendous support from the top around LGBT initiatives, she said.
“For June, every country in IBM will send out a ‘Happy Pride’ note to all employees,” she said. “Even just acknowledging it shows the company is inclusive and appreciates it.”
When LGBT employees feel more comfortable at work, they will be happier and more productive, said Tyler-West.
“We are requiring our employees to bring all of themselves to work in a lot more ways than ever before. There is a psychological cost to having to edit yourself, there’s a teamwork cost to not being able to open yourself up to co-workers,” he said.
It also builds employee loyalty since an employee at an LGBT-friendly workplace is unlikely to leave for another workplace unless there is a similar environment, said Dryburgh.
LGBT workers bring competitive advantage
Having a diverse workforce with LGBT employees fosters innovation and a diversity of ideas and is a global competitive advantage, she said.
“There’s definitely a business benefit there. I’m in business development and a number of my clients in the banks are gay, so they buy stuff from us because we’re a great company but they feel good about doing business when I talk to them about some of our (LGBT) initiatives.”
Organizations will also be expected to be more LGBT-friendly as the younger generation of employees comes into the workforce because they expect to be accepted for who they are, said Tyler-West.
“Fast forward five to 10 years, companies are trying to recruit, train and retain people — it’s going to be next to impossible to be able to do that with the younger generation if you have a homophobic workforce because even those who are heterosexual know that and are uncomfortable with it.”
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