LGBT employees still face barriers

Lack of awareness, overt discrimination and lack of role models block career paths

Esther Dryburgh, a partner in the financial services sector at IBM Canada, struggled for years in deciding whether or not she should come out at work. As a woman, she was already trying to prove she was as capable as men and she worried being out as a lesbian would mean she would have even more to prove.

As she got closer and closer to an executive position in a company with a strong track record of supporting diversity, it became a question of being true to herself and those she worked with.

“What really struck me was authenticity,” she said. “I didn’t realize the benefits of being truly yourself — you actually realize your potential that way. I realized I was only showing a couple of dimensions of myself.”

Two years after coming out, Dryburgh was promoted to an executive position and became the first out lesbian executive at IBM Canada.

Unfortunately, despite laws protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals in Canada, a report has found LGBT employees still face barriers in the workplace.

“Legislative protection is not enough. LGBT employees face workplace barriers that create a less inclusive workplace and limit career advancement opportunities,” said Deborah Gillis, vice-president for North America at Catalyst, a New York-based advocacy group for the advancement of women.

Traditional leader straight, white male

The findings of the Catalyst report Building LGBT-Inclusive Workplaces: Engaging Organizations and Individuals in Change are consistent with other Catalyst research looking at women, visible minorities and women of colour, she added.

“Essentially, the more different you are from the traditional definition of a successful leader — typically a straight, white male — the more challenging you find the workplace,” said Gillis

Catalyst’s third report on LGBT-inclusive workplaces is based on the results of two surveys, one of 232 self-identified LGBT employees and one of 17,908 workers, 466 of whom identified as LGBT.

Both LGBT women and men reported exclusion from the “old boys’ club,” but LGBT women reported facing a less friendly workplace and even greater hurdles than their male counterparts.

About three-quarters (76 per cent) of LGBT women reported their manager is comfortable interacting with them, compared to 85 per cent of LGBT men. Also, 70 per cent of LGBT women reported their manager evaluated performance fairly compared to 80 per cent of LGBT men.

LGBT men are also out to more of their colleagues — 72 per cent of colleagues, compared to 50 per cent for LGBT women.

Stereotypes at root of problem

The report found a lack of awareness, which may cause other employees to rely on stereotypes, was at the root of the barriers LGBT employees faced. Just eight per cent of respondents reported colleagues are very informed about LGBT issues and just 13 per cent said managers are very informed.

However, more LGBT employees felt colleagues and managers are very comfortable with LGBT people (41 per cent and 43 per cent respectively).

Discriminatory behaviours against LGBT employees — such as homophobia and inappropriate humour, exclusion from important connections inside and outside the organization, and a lack of role models — also affected career advancement.

Respondents gave two main reasons for not coming out at work: a preference to keep personal and professional identities separate and a fear of potential repercussions. Those who decided to come out at work cited several reasons, including a desire to be more authentic, form stronger relationships, become role models and combat homophobia.

Before coming out at work, some respondents first ensured they were seen as good performers or they determined to whom it would be safe to disclose their true identity. For most LGBT employees, coming out at work is a never-ending process because there are always new employees, new work teams and new clients, said Gillis

Location can make a big difference to an employee’s choice to come out. When Dryburgh was working for IBM Canada in Edmonton and Winnipeg, she wasn’t comfortable coming out in those areas because, as communities, they aren’t as accepting of LGBT people as Toronto, she said.

“It’s definitely tougher in those more rural locations,” said Dryburgh.

Role models can also make coming out easier. While Michael Bach, national director of diversity, equity and inclusion for KPMG Canada in Toronto, came out in his personal life at age 15, he didn’t feel comfortable coming out to his employers. It wasn’t until the late 1990s when he began working for George Smitherman, the first openly gay MPP in Ontario, that Bach felt comfortable enough to come out in the workplace.

While he knew he might face overt discrimination, Bach said coming out meant he could live an authentic life and no longer worry about changing pronouns when talking about his boyfriend.

“I would sleep well at night,” he said.

Inclusiveness builds loyalty

An LGBT-inclusive environment increases employee engagement by allowing employees to be authentic and spend less time self-editing, which creates employee loyalty and reduces turnover, stated the report. An inclusive environment can also increase revenue by encouraging LGBT employees to help an organization tap new markets.

At IBM, it’s an important business strategy for the workforce to represent customers because it builds customer loyalty, said Dryburgh. When she came out to one of her customers, an openly gay man, she was able to tell him about how the company supports LGBT employees.

“He felt good about doing business with a company that supported his diversity group,” she said.

If LGBT employees don’t feel their organization is inclusive, they’ll choose not to disclose their sexual orientation, which makes them “invisible” to the organization. As a result, the organization won’t be able to fully understand the benefits, needs and challenges of these employees, decreasing the likelihood of the workplace becoming more inclusive, said Gillis.

Efforts aimed at creating LGBT-inclusive workplaces, such as diversity training, employee networks and mentoring programs, result in LGBT employees having better workplace relationships, improved perceptions about workplace fairness and increased organizational commitment and career satisfaction, which are linked to increased productivity, found the report. (See sidebar.)

“Having an inclusive workforce is part of our strategy to ensure we retain and attract the best talent possible,” said Cory Garlough, Toronto-based vice-president of global employment strategies at Scotiabank.

One year ago, Scotiabank created Scotia Pride, an employee group for LGBT employees and their allies, and the bank was recently named one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers by Mediacorp Canada. But Sylvia Chrominska, global head of global human resources and communications with Scotiabank in Toronto, knows there’s still more work to be done.

“We also understand we must keep working to make our environment more inclusive in the years to come,” she said. “In the business community we know there’s still a lot that needs to be done to achieve ultimate inclusion.”

Pride at work

Making workplaces LGBT-inclusive

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees working in organizations with effective and inclusive diversity practices report better workplace relationships and greater organizational commitment and career satisfaction, according to Building LGBT-Inclusive Workplaces: Engaging Organizations and Individuals in Change, a report from Catalyst.

To help organizations become more inclusive, Catalyst has the following recommendations:

• Increase awareness by identifying and tackling organizational issues related to LGBT employees company-wide.

• Create and enforce anti-discriminatory policies and practices and communicate these externally as well as internally to all employees.

• Implement diversity training to help dispel LGBT myths and stereotypes.

• Help LGBT employees find mentors and form employee groups.

• Make consistent and inclusive communications a core goal. For example, organizations should make it clear partners of employees, regardless of sex, are invited to corporate events and discrimination, in any form, will not be tolerated.

• Include LGBT identity in diversity metrics to help ensure these employees, and candidates, aren’t overlooked in recruiting and promotion.

• Leverage general talent management practices to support all employees. Broad talent management practices without a specific focus on diversity and inclusion will help develop all employees and improve workplace experiences.

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