"What my staff do in bed has nothing to do with me!", "The topic of sexual orientation has no place at work!", "Being gay is not an issue in my company!"
Really? Are you sure? Quite sure?
Well, I'm not! Let me tell you why.
Why the topic of sexual orientation DOES need to be discussed at the workplace
I would agree that what your staff or colleagues do in bed has nothing to do with you and does not need to discussed at the work place - but this is a typical example of reducing a person's sexual orientation down to sex. Being lesbian, gay or bisexual - or even heterosexual - is not just about who you have sex with - it's mainly about all the other stuff to do with a relationship like cooking together, discussing the state of the world, going out together, cleaning the house, owning cats, going to dinner with the parents, even arguing, and of course much more - quite simply, sharing your life with them.
The reason that the topic of sexual orientation does need to be discussed at work is because every person should be able to answer innocent questions like "What did you do at the weekend?", "What are you doing tonight?", "How it was in IKEA yesterday?", "Who do you want to bring to the Christmas party?", "Why did you move to Zurich?", "Who are you meeting for lunch today?", "Which part of your name came from you and which from your husband?", "Oh, so your husband's Swiss, is he?" without having to first stop and think "Will my answer have a negative effect on my career or promotion chances?" and "Will the others accept me for who I am?". We are faced with such normal, simple questions at work every day. And every day, millions of people identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual have to decide again and again, "Will my answer have a negative effect on my career or promotion chances?" and "Will the others accept me for who I am?"
And usually they don't know the answer - not 100% anyway - so what do they do? They say things like "we did this", "we did that" (without specifying "we"), or "I went there" and "I enjoyed it" (although we were there together), or "....with my partner", "...with them" (instead of "....with my wife" or "......with her"). People identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual people are experts at hiding the gender of their partner.
The "avoidance game"
If you don't get how stressful and tiring this "avoidance game" can be, try it yourself! If you are reading this and do not identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, then I invite you to try hiding the gender of your partner (or best friend, or baby, or dog) from your work colleagues or when meeting new people for one month. And let me know how it goes! You will probably see that it's quite easy at first - but it gets worse and worse, getting bigger and bigger and more complicated. People start asking more and more questions, they want to see photos, they want to build up a trusting relationship with you, they want to get to know you. But you can't! You have to keep finding excuses. You become more and more reclusive. You start answering questions with just "yes" and "no". You avoid conversations. You don't go to lunch with the others any more. You suddenly find that you don't get invited for a beer in the evenings any more either. I hope you can see where this is going. Building up trusting relationships is not only extremely important for a team or organisation to be successful, it's a basic need of a human being. Doesn't sound like much fun, right?
It costs a lot of nerves to pluck up the courage to casually say "she" or "my wife", for example, without batting an eyelid. Even the most courageous people still hide the existence or gender of their partner in certain situations such as job interviews, first meetings with customers or networking events.
The first meeting
The key is the first meeting with a new person. If you manage to overcome your fear in your first meeting and coolly answer, "Actually, my wife is Swiss", or "With her", then you're home and dry. You don't make a big thing of is, they don't make a big thing of it, nobody really cares and all is good (usually, in western Europe anyway). But if a tiny part of you thinks "no, not today, it'll be better if I don't say anything, I'll tell them later" or "Maybe it will have a negative effect on my career or promotion chances", then it becomes a BIG THING. This BIG THING is always present and gets BIGGER every time you play the "avoidance game". At some point this BIG THING gets so big that you can't cope any more - you either "out" yourself under immense stress ("I need to tell you something......and it's a BIG, IMPORTANT THING which I've been LYING about for months/years"), get ill, have a burnout, leave the company, leave the country or even worse. Can you even begin to imagine how such a situation may affect the performance and motivation of your staff and colleagues?
This is a serious issue and it needs to be dealt with in your company.
How many people does this affect?
I would like to emphasise the seriousness of this situation by letting you know how many people this may affect.
How many people actually identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual? Well, a census-representative survey of 11,754 people across the EU conducted in August 2016 by Dalia Research showed some very interesting results (see figure at the bottom of this article). The proportion of people answering "yes" to the question "do you identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?" was not only dependent on country, but also on the age group. In Germany, 11.9% of people aged 14-29 answered "yes". This ranged between 14% in Spain and 4% in Hungary. The difficulty with these numbers is that they only refer to the people who are not afraid of answering "yes". This is probably why less people answered "yes" in Hungary, a conservative country, than in Spain or Germany, more liberal countries. So the actual number is thought to be higher - somewhere between 10% and 15%.
What does this mean for your company? Let's take a conservative estimate of 10% - that would mean that for every 1,000 staff, there are probably about 100 who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. So for a company of 30,000 staff, that would be 3,000 people! It's hard to say how many of these people are playing the "avoidance game" and setting themselves under (hopefully unnecessary) pressure and stress - but it's probably more than you think.
What you should do
Give your staff and colleagues the 100% security they need - talk about it.
In my opinion, it is of utmost importance to raise awareness of topics relating to sexual orientation and gender identification in your company. You need to make it clear that you are open to talking about the topic and that you accept each and every staff member exactly how they are. This does not come just from printing glossy brochures, defining company guidelines or rules and saying words - it comes from living and breathing it yourself. You, especially if you are in HR or management, need to talk openly and competently with your teams about the topic - and by doing this, actively show your support and give your staff and colleagues the 100% security they need to just be themselves.
How are you supposed to talk openly and competently about a topic that you don't necessarily know a lot about or feel comfortable with yourself? Get help!
What sort of help do you need
I am interested in talking to companies about what sort of help they may need to approach this topic professionally. Please get in touch and let me know:
Alternatively, you may be interested in my interactive workshop LGBT-MANAGER (LGBT = lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). It was developed by combining my years of voluntary experience working for a brilliant LGBT school project in Switzerland called GLL with my professional experience as a manager, team leader, business coach and lecturer. This workshop not only provides you with the latest facts, figures and definitions, it gives you an insight into the lives of people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and - most importantly - allows you to develop concrete tasks and actions for improving the situation and finding a way to handle the topic professionally and effectively in your company.
Take a look at this infosheet (in English and German):
Or get in touch: