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Creating a more diverse, inclusive culture has been one of 3Q Digital’s biggest initiatives since 2017, and it’s not just about becoming a better business; it’s about being better people. As part of this initiative, we present our second week-long blog series dedicated to issues we’re trying to address, how we’re trying to address them, and the challenges we’re encountering as we go.
Working in a progressive company like 3Q really is a blessing. At no point have I feared that my status as a member of the LGBT+ community would have an impact on my career. That’s great, right? My co-workers and I can celebrate our success in removing all work/life barriers related to LGBT+ status, right?
Not quite. Many companies have made huge strides in creating an inclusive and accepting environment for their employees, and I love it, especially as an HR professional. However, we cannot let truly encouraging progress blind us to the fact that there are still plenty of opportunities to improve. At this point, the spaces for improvement might be hard to spot, so I’m hoping that reading this might help people understand what’s left for the LGBT+ community to look forward to in life after acceptance.
Great, so you know your co-worker has a same-sex partner back home and you’re totally cool with it, no problems whatsoever. What you might not know is that they spend every Friday night watching RuPaul’s Drag Race with their best friends and if you saw them, you might label them as “effeminate,” or “sassy.” You don’t know this because the LGBT+ have had to become masters of code-switching.
Code-switching, which my colleague Zenia brought up in this awesome post on 5 Things Your Black Co-Worker May Be Thinking, and Why, is when an individual alters the way they speak or behave to match their environment. Often, LGBT+ employees use this to hide the way they act among their community to better match the business environment. This can be done either consciously or subconsciously. There’s good reason to code-switch, too: gay males make 20% less on average than heterosexual men (Sabia & Wooden, 2015). By code-switching, a gay employee might be protecting their career.
Code-switching isn’t harmless, however; LGBT+ employees who feel the need to code-switch are significantly less satisfied with their job and have higher turnover rates (Higdon, 2017). It’s important to remember that making employees feel comfortable being themselves at work is good for business and that language is constantly evolving. There might not be one right way to act in an organization.
Odd One Out
The effects of an LGBT+ lifestyle can still create barriers that are hard to overcome in even the most accepting of environments. Simply being the “odd person out” is a strong effect. When a group of women talk about their husbands, their lesbian co-worker gets a subtle reminder that she is not like everyone else in the conversation and might struggle to relate. This effect actually has profound effects on employees as shown in this years Women in the Workplace by McKinsey. Being the “only one” in an office means that for both females and males, you’re more likely to be addressed in a less than professional way or mistaken for being a much lower-level employee.
Simply being the odd person out can be more impactful than you might first assume. Does that mean a group of women shouldn’t talk about their husbands in front of a lesbian co-worker? Absolutely not; everyone getting to talk about their life is the whole point of an inclusive workplace. However, it’s important to remember to build upon that inclusive environment by reaching out and asking about the lives of those who might be experiencing being the “odd one out.”
Coming Out Doesn’t Just Happen Once
One common misconception is that an LGBT+ employee comes out once. I don’t believe that this misconception exists because straight people don’t care; it’s because they might not have thought about it. This HBR article 7 Myths About Coming Out at Work does a great job covering all the common misconceptions about coming out at work, but the fact that LGBT+ employees are continuously “coming out” is, to me, the least-understood part of our professional experience.
While a company like 3Q might create a very inclusive environment, it’s important to remember that the workplace ecosystem is constantly changing. If you think about it, there is a new coming-out moment every time your bisexual co-worker interacts with a new employee. In an inclusive company, these interactions tend not to be a big deal. But what tends to be a more serious issue about coming out is when that same bisexual employee interacts with a new client. Many LGBT+ employees choose to use language or discuss topics that won’t reveal their status because they have no idea what the culture of the client’s organization is like and whether it’s accepting of the LGBT+ community – and, if not, how that might affect the relationship between the client and the employee’s organization. It’s important to remember to be conscious of co-worker privacy and let them decide how/when they want to come out to new employees or clients, even if they’re “out” at work.
Things Might Be Different Outside the Office
Work-related challenges aren’t the only factors that can influence an LGBT+ employee’s experience at work. There are still many external factors that can negatively impact an employee’s ability to perform at work even in the most inclusive environments.
For example, a transgender co-worker might be dealing with stress stemming from state legislation. Your lesbian teammate might be having issues with their school only recognizing one mother. Your boss might be helping a friend cope with a recent diagnosis of HIV. The office environment might be inclusive, but are LGBT+ folks likely to feel comfortable bringing these things up to co-workers? Probably not. It’s important to remember that even in the most accepting office environments, the LGBT+ community is still dealing with issues of non-acceptance.
So, What Can You Do?
Many of these things might feel outside of one person’s control. You can’t make legislators pass inclusive laws all on your own. You can’t make a client accept a bisexual co-worker. You can, however, create an environment that mitigates the effects of these situations and be a buffer from their impact. Creating a culture of psychological safety, where employees do not fear being ridiculed for sharing their thoughts and ideas, has proven to reduce the negative effects of being a minority in the workplace (Singh, Winkel & Selvarajan, 2013). This is because a diverse individual does not need to fear expressing their true selves.
How to cultivate a psychologically safe work environment
- Seek out input from those who might be feeling like the odd person out, not just for LGBT+ employees, but for everyone. Showing that being different from the group doesn’t make a person’s opinion less valuable makes it clear that everyone can share their thoughts and ideas, no matter the circumstance.
- Be open to learning about everyone’s lifestyle, and don’t make assumptions. Co-workers who don’t need to code-switch as much are going to be more effective at their job. Making them feel comfortable being their true selves goes a long way.
- Establish role clarity: make sure that everyone knows who the experts are in meetings and conversations. With this, an LGBT+ employee knows exactly when to speak up because despite some life stressors that might be distracting them, everyone knows in this moment, they’re the expert.
I’m privileged to be able to talk about “life after acceptance” – being at a company where my fundamental rights are recognized and celebrated is something I will never take for granted. If all organizations got to this point, the LGBT+ community would be several giant steps forward in the workplace. But even at companies as progressive at 3Q, there’s work to be done – and as my co-workers know, I’m always happy to chat (at length) about ways to keep making progress.