January 13, 2014
As human beings, we are at our best when we can be ourselves, when we live without fear of judgment or the pressures of putting on airs.
As workers, logically, it's no different. An employee living authentically, unencumbered by the distractions of conformity, can focus more clearly on the tasks at hand.
Our workplaces have undoubtedly become more open and diverse, more welcoming to individuality. But for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers, authenticity at work remains elusive.
A 2011 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy (now called the Center for Talent Innovation) found that 48 percent of LGBT respondents remained "closeted" at work. While there have been widespread changes in public opinion — a majority of Americans now support legalizing same-sex marriage — and in laws that recognize the rights of LGBT people, coming out in the workplace remains difficult for many.
"The persistence of a problem is something I think everybody's aware of," said Theodore Furman, a vice president in the GlaxoSmithKline legal department. "No matter how open our companies and our firms are or seem to be, there are still (LGBT) people who are uncomfortable in the workplace."
A growing counter to that is the formation of LGBT ally groups. These are straight people from all different levels of a company who come together to support and advocate for LGBT workers.
A paper released last year by the New York-based workplace consulting firm Jennifer Brown Consulting described the impact of these groups like this: "In stepping forward, allies contribute to creating corporate cultures in which LGBT employees feel supported in coming out, and other non-majority groups feel embraced for their differences."
Brayden King, an associate professor of management at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said this kind of support from heterosexual workers has always been key to making workplaces more accepting of LGBT employees.
"If you look at the history of the LGBT movement in corporate America, the companies that changed first were the companies that had some high-level officer who became an early ally of the activists," King said. "Gaining the support of that person, whether it was a CFO or a CEO, was really critical to getting support from people at all other levels of the organization. And that signaling of corporate acceptance is still important today."
At GlaxoSmithKline, rather than create one separate LGBT ally group, Furman said the company has incorporated LGBT allies into existing employee resource groups.
"Whether it's an African-American alliance or a group for Latino employees, allies are important members of those diverse teams," he said. "It takes a little education for people to realize there still are a lot of people who may not be out. People start to listen and start to realize there is more of a problem than maybe they thought."
The presence of allies fosters communication among different groups. From that, one hopes, will come understanding and reassurance that workers can be themselves.
It won't happen overnight, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.
"You're fighting generational differences, partly," King said. "A lot of people who are still in positions of power in companies come from a different generation where being gay or transgender was not something that was talked about. These ally groups give LGBT people the credibility they need and the moral support to help them break down what remaining walls there are and figure out how to make the organization's culture open and accepting."
There is, of course, a pragmatic reason for companies to consider adopting this idea.
"From a business point of view, folks are going to be more productive, you're going to get more out of folks," Furman said. "The fact that they're happier and feel more comfortable working in a place that has higher values, that's a great impact as well. Everybody in an organization feels better if they see that they're working for an inclusive organization."
Furman offered a couple of thoughts for people interested in learning more about forming LGBT ally groups.
First, he suggested consulting the Human Rights Campaign's website, which offers an array of resources and information. A good place to start is: hrc.org/resources/entry/establishing-an-employee-resource-group.
Then start having conversations with people in the company who might be willing to get involved. Furman said that recruiting allies at his company was not difficult.
"It hasn't been a problem, and we don't need them in droves," he said. "We need key people and key allies in executive spots."
Lastly, Furman said most colleges and universities offer what are called Safe Zone training courses for their student bodies, aimed at fostering understanding and awareness of issues facing LGBT people: "Usually for a nominal fee, or sometimes even for free, you can get someone to come and do some training at your company, making people more aware of sensitivities around LGBT issues."
These are sound steps, and it's a good topic for companies to consider embracing.
I'll leave you with this from the LGBT ally group research paper mentioned above: "A strong and healthy ally population will help usher companies away from traditional corporate mentalities and toward the attitude of the future, which is that fluidity and variety are imperative for innovation."
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