By Liz Bernier
It’s 2016, but some workplaces may have missed the memo: About one-third of Canadians still don’t see their workplace as safe and inclusive for gay and lesbian employees. And about 45 per cent do not feel their workplace is safe and inclusive for transgender individuals.
That’s according to a Canadian survey of 814 respondents commissioned by Telus, which also found 56 per cent of employees in general and 86 per cent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) employees would be more likely to consider working for companies that are LGBTQ-friendly.
“Fifty-seven per cent of those individuals surveyed are not ‘out’ at work. And I found that very surprising in 2016... what is it that’s making people feel concerned about going to work as their true selves, and feeling supported and encouraged to bring that diversity to work?” said Peter Green, senior vice-president of business solutions at Telus in Vancouver.
“There are a number of things that Canadian businesses need to think about in the context of that.”
The fact that these employees don’t have that feeling of inclusion and safety in their workplace is highly worrying, said Green.
“There was still an element of people feeling that their careers would be in jeopardy if they came out, and that their personal safety would be in jeopardy if they came out. That to me was very concerning,” he said.
“Really, what companies need to do is encourage and foster an environment where diversity and inclusiveness are encouraged across the board.”
When employees don’t feel they can bring their whole selves to the workplace — or feel they have to cover or hide elements of their identities —it’s a serious problem, said Christopher Mark D’Souza, a Toronto-based human rights expert and strategist.
“It’s unethical that you can’t be who you are and share who you love with people that you work with day to day,” he said.
The fact Canada has some strong human rights protections is a positive thing, but that shouldn’t make us complacent, said Colin Druhan, executive director of Pride at Work Canada in Toronto.
“We forget that it takes some time for the culture to catch up with that policy,” he said.
Also, people don’t always understand the more insidious or less overt forms of discrimination that happen within workplaces that make it difficult for LGBTQ individuals to share that part of their identities. Sometimes, someone may be technically out at work — but not to everyone, said Druhan.
“Being out isn’t necessarily getting a job and announcing to the whole office, ‘Hey everyone, I’m gay.’ You come out every day — every time somebody asks you, ‘Are you seeing somebody?’ or they see a wedding ring and say, ‘What’s your wife’s name?’” he said.
“It’s constantly coming out — it’s not just a one-and-done situation.”
There’s a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of a lot of people who are straight and cis-gender and who don’t necessarily need to come out at work, said Druhan.
“People who are not members of the LGBTQ community, some people don’t understand the importance of being out because they don’t think it’s appropriate to ‘talk about sex’ at work,” he said.
“But how many baby showers have I been to at the office? How many kids’ birthday parties have I seen pictures of? How many wedding photos have I looked at? And I’m not bothered by any of those things — I think it’s great. Everyone wants to learn about their colleagues and learn about their lives.”
But for people who aren’t out at work, they can’t talk about the relationships in their lives, their families, their children, said Druhan.
“You’re disconnected from your colleagues in a fundamental way.”
That misunderstanding about the importance of sharing that part of your identity can lead to a lot of systemic issues in the workplace, he said.
Beyond the policy
That is where it becomes important to have a solid policy and education for employees about creating an inclusive and respectful workplace, said Green.
“Having an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy, I think, would be very helpful, and in fact that’s an area that 81 per cent of the respondents to our survey were very positive about.”
A policy or any kind of workplace program really is just an intention about how you want the workplace to be, said Druhan.
“You need to back that intent up with some serious action, and you actually have to help people understand how they can live out the values stated in that policy. Because words are one thing, but actions are another.”
But a policy alone is not enough, said Green. The starting point is for leadership to get involved and encourage employees to get involved and engaged, he said.
“What has worked very well at Telus is the creation of the Spectrum organization, which is our support group for the LGBTQ community. That is now over 1,100 employees strong,” said Green, who is an executive sponsor of the group.
“That’s been a great asset to our organization. They encourage people to discuss the topics and create support and encouragement for team members… And it demonstrates above all else that Telus is an environment where you should feel comfortable to bring your true self to work every day.”
There are other practical things that can be done as well, such as training and development of team members across the board, so awareness and understanding should be encouraged, he said, along with supporting and taking part in events and celebrations around the community.
The bar needs to be challenged regularly, said D’Souza.
“And when I say bar, I mean for the management team to understand the culture and dignity that employees feel,” he said.
Consistent learning is key — having a one-hour training session and calling it a day is not enough to shape culture.
“Agencies need to have a solid infrastructure of training — they must be given opportunities to think about the way they can deconstruct identity bias,” said D’Souza.
In all spaces, there exists a bias toward sexual minorities, and you can’t deconstruct it and remove it in one one-hour session, he said.
“You can’t bring in a trainer like myself for one hour in a year and say, ‘We’ve done equity training.’ That’s absolutely ludicrous,” said D’Souza.
“True organizational change and organizational shifts happen when an organization says, ‘Every month, we’re going to meet as a team and we’re going to train or be exposed to resources that constantly challenge the way we process human identity.’
“Patriarchy is alive and well, heterosexism is alive and well. And until we see proper representation in the media about sexual minority groups, that inculcation continues, our identity bias continues.”
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