Case study: LGBQA people
When fostering the growth of strong teams, the interpersonal relationships between colleagues can be both a blessing and a curse. As employees come to know one another, discussions about home lives are a natural and common progression in coworker relationships. In the best teams, freely shared personal information can bring people closer, making them more bonded with greater understanding and mutual respect. Managers often find themselves working through interpersonal challenges when team members make assumptions about each others’ home lives. In particular, the overwhelming tendency of many to assume that individuals are heterosexual until proven otherwise can be hurtful.
For employees who identify with lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, asexual, and other non-heterosexual communities, this can make the workplace feel unfriendly at best. While legal standards in many developed nations have changed for the better, supporting the right to marry between same gender couples and facilitating the ease of adoption proceedings for gay parents, for example, not all individuals are tolerant of LGBTQA people.
It is the responsibility of managers in every company to ensure that all employees are treated respectfully at all times. Ideally, all employees should feel equally supported and encouraged to discuss their home and family lives.
Jedda manages a team of eight engineers at a 300 person company. The team has been working together without any personnel changes for over a year, and everyone gets along fairly well. Many of the team members are Facebook friends with each other, and last Saturday evening Raymond posted that he is engaged. In six months, Raymond will marry Ben, who unbeknownst to some team members has been Raymond’s longtime partner. Most people on the team are happy and excited, and a few are mostly surprised to discover that Raymond is gay.
Jedda senses tension in the team when everyone is back in the office on Monday. One team member in particular — Kris — who used to be friendly with Raymond, is icy. When Kris and Jedda have their regular Monday 1:1, she tells Jedda that she’s not comfortable sitting next to Raymond anymore, though she’s reluctant to say why. Kris begrudgingly admits that Ray is a great engineer — just as she wrote on his last peer review — but she “just doesn’t see why people need to talk about personal stuff at work.” Jedda gently points out that Kris recently regaled the team with stories and pictures from her last vacation with her fiance, and that Raymond posted his news on his private Facebook account, so isn’t that a double standard? Kris mumbles that she’ll think about it.
Jedda holds her regular weekly meeting with Raymond the next day, and after congratulating him, asks him how he’s feeling. Raymond says that he had deliberately been private about his personal life because he was concerned some of his colleagues would not be accepting, but he’s not going to hide his happiness about his upcoming nuptials. While most people on the team have expressed congratulations, Kris hasn’t said anything to Raymond, and he senses the change in her demeanor.
What NOT to do
Don’t attempt to suppress all discussions about personal lives. Humans are highly social and talking about their lives can be a bonding technique for members of a team, while requiring that members of a company refrain from discussing any nature of their private lives can create a sense of secrecy and encourage backchannel gossiping. While socializing is enjoyable, though, discourage prying and remind team members to respect each others’ privacy.
Don’t assume that Raymond wants an immediate intervention. He may prefer to focus on an upcoming project deadline, or he may be concerned about what will happen if you draw attention to him. As Kris interacts with him and sees that nothing about his working style has changed, she may become more accepting not just of Raymond, but of other LGBTQA people.
Don’t accommodate Kris’s vague request for a move, as this could set an exclusionary precedent. Instead, remind her that the code of conduct and company values stress inclusivity, and that includes meeting behavioral expectations when interacting with other team members.
What TO do
If a company holds celebrations for major life events like birthdays, new children, and marriages, it should do so for everyone, recognizing and valuing all relationships. This includes adoptions and other ways of expanding families, same-gender marriages, and similar events. Companies that fail to do so send a signal that some employees are worth more than others, and that some relationships are more legitimate than others.
In any team, leadership sets the precedent on how interactions should be handled between coworkers, specifically as they relate to personal information and how or when that is shared. In many cases, encouraging employees to connect and communicate about their personal lives can strengthen their professional working relationships. As a manager, setting ground rules and modeling behavior that employees should never make assumptions regarding another employee’s relationships is key.
Managers and team leaders should actively promote LGBTQA inclusivity throughout the workplace, including in professional and extracurricular activities. This includes supporting LGBTQA Employee Resource Groups and treating all relationshionships across the board as equal, regardless of gender.
Leading a team includes looking out for all team members, and managers should be vigilant about identifying situations in which team members are making each other uncomfortable. For example, if a lesbian employee is interrogated about the circumstances surrounding her new baby, a manager should take the offending employee aside for a reminder about behavior expectations outlined in the code of conduct. In situations where behavioral tensions have arisen in the past, managers should be especially watchful to prevent further escalation.
These measures should include considerations for venues outside work, including hotels and sites where employees may be asked to provide services for the company. A company may wish to withhold business from other companies and venues that discriminate against LGBQA people, along with members of the trans community, and should consider local laws when asking employees to travel. LGBTQA employees may feel uncomfortable if asked to travel to a state or country where their sexuality is subject to regulation.
When people are affected by conflicts on the team, it’s important to ask them directly about how a manager can provide support. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work effectively for managing tensions on a team, and individuals may have their own preferred approaches to a problem. In rare cases, an employee may ask for things that aren’t an option — like firing someone without cause — but being open and supportive makes employees feel like they are valued and provides them with an opportunity to express their concerns in a nonjudgmental environment.
Inclusionary policies always benefit companies, by expanding the diversity of personnel and bringing on new perspectives, skillsets, and experiences. They also allow companies to become industry leaders, attracting more talent as LGBTQA people feel more confident about applying or talking with recruiters, knowing that they will be supported and embraced by the company, their team leaders, and fellow employees.