Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Diversity Etiquette

Today's Little Pink Book--a free daily workplace tip from PINK Magazine--features a sometimes touchy issue, and handles it with grace and aplomb:

Gay Friendly = Better Business

You've long been a champion of women's rights (and we love you for it!). Racism in the workplace? You'd never stand for that. But how much energy have you given to standing up for that other (less protected) minority in the workplace – gays and lesbians?

New York recently passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. And President Obama declared June "Gay Pride Month." Smart businesses are also making including gay professionals a priority.

Other than just doing the right thing, making your company more inclusive for homosexuals is becoming a business imperative. "There's tremendous buying power [estimated at $759 billion in 2009] and brand loyalty among those in this community," explains Jean-Marie Navetta of Parents, Familes, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. "Plus, when workers feel included and able to be their authentic selves, their performance is better, they're better employees."

There are some great resources on the web for helping employees appreciate the diversity of their coworkers. My personal favorite was this piece from DiversityInc.org:

7 Things NEVER to Say to LGBT Coworkers

By Daryl Hannah

For most, coming out at work is not an easy task. You can't be sure how your company or peers will respond to your revelation. And despite recent reports that the workplace is growing increasingly accepting to LGBT employees, people often don't know how to welcome a colleague who recently came out of the closet.

PricewaterhouseCoopers executive Stephanie Peel's history is a corporate America coming-out success story. When she came out professionally nearly 10 years ago, she was welcomed by her colleagues. "I came out personally in 1997 and came out professionally in 1999. Fortunately, I never heard anything not positive," says Peel.

Peel now serves on the company's LGBT-partner advisory board, which consists of 10--12 leaders in the firm who are LGBT, and provides guidance to the management committee to help further advance initiatives and activities. PricewaterhouseCoopers is No. 12 on The 2007 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity® list and No. 8 on the Top 10 Companies for LGBT Employees.

"I often tell people who ask me about this [that] it's not just about what you can't say or shouldn't say, because sometimes I find that colleagues feel stymied in that they shouldn't say anything at all. There is a lot of room for the things you can say to give clues to people that you are inclusive and culturally sensitive," warns Peel.

So what are seven things you should NEVER say to your LGBT colleagues? Here's what GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), Out & Equal Workplace Project, and Peel suggest:

No. 1: "I suspected you were gay."

Although it is a common response, it's insensitive and plays into stereotypes.

No. 2: "I'm sorry."

Why should you apologize for a colleague's orientation? This implies judgment and can make the situation more difficult. Would you apologize for a person's ethnicity or gender?

No. 3: "Why did you tell me that?"

It's important for people to bring their "whole selves" to work, and coming out of the closet is certainly a part of who one is. "The notion of leaving a big part of your self at home and walking into work is like walking around with two types of shoes on," says Selisse Berry, executive director of Out & Equal, an advocacy organization that provides services to companies, human-resource professionals, employee-resource groups and individuals.

No. 4: "Which bathroom do you use?"

Transgender people often are asked what gender they are. Such questions are inappropriate, warns Out & Equal. It is important to remember that gender identity is becoming an increasingly sensitive subject.

No. 5: "We are not close enough for you to share that information with me."

Not all employees are interested in their coworkers' personal lives. If you feel a colleague may have shared too much information, you can simply say, "Thank you for telling me that," says Peel.

No. 6: Referring to coworkers as "she-male."

There has been a lot of uproar these days over this phrase. Transgender employees often are the brunt of culturally insensitive jokes and comments.

No. 7:
"What do you like to do in bed?"

Sexual questions and comments are always off-limits. Not only do you run the risk of offending a colleague, you are also teetering the line of sexual harassment. It's important not to be confused between trying to understand someone's personal life and inappropriate sexual harassment, warns Kevin Jennings, executive director of GLSEN.

If you explore the Diversity Inc site, you'll find a lot more about what is and isn't appropriate to say regarding diversity hot-button issues in the workplace. This is a great place for managers to go to evaluate how well they are managing diversity issues in the office, and how to improve the office environment.

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(C) 2007 - 2009 Kate Hutchinson. All rights reserved.

All opinions expressed are the sole responsibility of the author.