Many employers are well-intentioned about creating a truly diverse and inclusive workplace, but it’s possible they’re not quite getting it right.
That’s because there are persistent misconceptions and misunderstandings about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees, according to a survey by the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) produced in partnership with the University of Guelph Sexual and Gender Diversity Research Lab, and Pride at Work Canada.
There are still significant differences between heterosexual and LGBT respondents around the importance of being out at work, found the survey of 1,400 Canadians. Nearly one-half of heterosexual and cisgender respondents indicated it is not important to be out at work compared to less than 20 per cent of LGBT respondents.
“We really see a distinction between what individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ and dominant groups, so individuals who are heterosexual, cisgender… identify with,” said Thomas Sasso, a researcher at the University of Guelph and co-author of the study.
“There’s this really intricate distinction or confusion going on between what individuals in the workplace are prioritizing and what they’re experiencing.”
The survey found 33.4 per cent of sexual minorities are out to everyone at work, in comparison to 13.6 per cent of gender minorities who are out to everyone, said Michael Bach, founder and CEO of CCDI in Toronto.
Just over eight per cent of sexual minorities said they don’t want to come out to anyone at work, compared to 25.4 per cent of gender minorities.
This study is important not only because it sheds light on the realities of workplace inclusion but because it presents a specifically Canadian perspective, said Colin Druhan, executive director of Pride at Work Canada in Toronto.
“A lot of times, when we look at data on the number of people who are out at work, people’s thoughts and feelings on being out at work, and sexual orientation and gender identity in general, a lot of the numbers that we end up using are American,” he said.
“To have feedback from Canada is really important because the legislative climate in Canada is so different than it is in the United States. We have employment protections for LGBT people here in Canada that a lot of states don’t have. So it’s good to see some data that’s reflective of our Canadian culture.”
Perception versus reality
One of the study’s pivotal findings is there are real misconceptions in the dominant group’s — heterosexual and cisgender people — understanding of what LGBT people experience every day, said Bach.
“There’s also a significant difference in the differences between what we call sexual minorities — so LGB, lesbian, gay and bisexual people — in comparison to gender identity minorities, so trans people,” he said.
“We also saw a significant difference or lack of understanding, I guess, in terms of the differences between sexual orientation and gender identity. Because we kind of group the LGBT communities together — and it’s not one community, it’s several communities — there is the assumption that you’re either LGBT or you’re not. And that’s not the case. You could be a gay man… or you could be a trans man and be straight.
“The two things are not necessarily synonymous.”
Another important takeaway is the lack of diversity in leadership at many organizations, and the impact that may have on policy, said Sasso.
“Individuals who are in leadership roles, who are in positions of power, typically are not LGBT individuals. So when policies are being made and when policies are being enforced, I think we need to ask ourselves who’s doing that, and what perhaps are the misconceptions that might be existing in our leadership team or in some of our HR practices?”
Discrimination still an issue
There is still a significant fear of discrimination at work — although it generally takes a more subtle form and may go unrecognized by non-LGBT employees, said Bach.
Sixty-seven per cent of heterosexual respondents said there is no discrimination against LGBT employees, yet 29 per cent of LGBT employees reported having experienced it and 33.2 per cent of LGBT employees reported having witnessed discrimination against LGBT colleagues.
“It’s still happening. It’s much more subtle but it is definitely still happening. And it’s more happening with people who are from the trans community than for sexual orientation minorities,” said Bach.
What’s actually happening is very different from what some individuals perceive to be happening, said Sasso.
“That’s a dangerous place in a workforce, when individuals are experiencing (discrimination) and other individuals in the organization aren’t recognizing that it’s happening,” he said.
“We very often think about homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, those kinds of discrimination as individuals not getting hired, as individuals getting paid less, as individuals not getting promotions. But a more subtle form of discrimination — a more insidious form of discrimination — are those assumptions that we don’t even recognize other identities. We don’t see those other identities. And that’s where bullying and harassment can percolate in very unintentional ways — just through ignorance, not always out of intent.”
That type of bias is not uncommon and often it’s just a lack of understanding, said Druhan.
“That’s typical of people who are not of the experience of being LGBT — they’re not aware of some the struggles that people may face being gay at work.
“So when you see the statistic that a lot of people who identify as cisgender, heterosexual don’t feel that there’s discrimination going on in their workplace, that’s because they wouldn’t know, because they wouldn’t be the focus of that discrimination.”
Takeaways for employers
Much of the misunderstanding or oversimplification of LGBT identities and experiences is due to a lack of education and awareness, said Sasso.
“We work in a world where we like to fit everyone into nice, neat boxes. And what this report really captures is when it comes to identity, boxes don’t work for everyone. And while it might be convenient, it can actually do harm to individuals when they aren’t represented and when our practices don’t leave options for individuals to self-identify,” he said.
“But in the reporting structures in many organizations, you can only check off one box.”
Employers should examine whether changes are necessary to the language that is used, how documents are constructed and options for pronouns of preference to be used, said Bach.
“It all comes from things like your company policies. Do you use gender-specific pronouns? ‘He,’ ‘she,’ ‘husband,’ ‘wife’? Why not use ‘spouse,’ ‘partner’? Allow the opportunity for a person to come out. By allowing a gender-neutral pronoun, you indicate to me that you are not assuming that my response is going to be opposite-gendered,” he said.
“Do you use the term ‘maternity leave’? Or do you use ‘parental leave’? There’s various types of parenting… Things like that can send a very strong message.”
Employers also need to provide more training and education for employees, said Sasso.
“The workplace isn’t just a place to work anymore. The workplace is a place where we have continuing education, and we see that around professional development… but we need to start doing more professional development around interpersonal skills and learning about diversity.
“We can’t just have diversity training when someone’s hired or after a complaint — we need diversity learning to happen all year long for employees at every level,” he said.
A significant barrier for people to become allies and to learn is simply a lack of understanding, said Druhan.
“Not knowing the thing to say sometimes prevents people from asking questions. They’re afraid that they’re going to say the wrong thing or offend somebody.”
One of the most obvious but most important things an employer can do is “fly the flag,” said Bach.
“And I mean that in the most literal sense. LGBT people will wait for a sign that says that it’s OK for them to come out. And that sign can be the literal rainbow flag or the trans flag, or it can be the inclusion of an openly LGBT person as part of the executive or leadership of the organization, it could be mentioned on the website, it could be an employee resource group.
“But something that I as a member of the LGBT community can look and say, ‘We’re safe.’ That’s really what employers have to do.”
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