Employers, What’s your Water Cooler Conversation on Michigan’s Gay Marriage News?

gay marriageI get called on a lot to help businesses create a more welcoming environment for their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.  As part of the presentation, I help HR professionals and supervisors understand what lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people want in order to feel like valued employees.

I cite surprising statistics about the high percentage of LGBT people that feel unsafe to come out for fear of reprisal or professional consequences – hitting the lavender-tinted glass ceiling of advancement.  One question that comes up over and over again from well-meaning supervisors and HR directors is “How can we let LGBT people know that it’s a safe environment?”  “How can I, as a co-worker, encourage my fellow colleagues to come out and feel safe?”

The perfect opportunity just dropped in your lap.

This past weekend, Michigan became the 18th state to rule that a prohibition on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.  Hundreds of couples rushed to the three courthouses in the state which opened their doors on a Saturday, following the late Friday afternoon ruling from Judge Bernard Friedman.  Although the Appeals Court issued a stay on Saturday afternoon which temporarily ended the issuing of same sex marriage licenses until an appeal is heard, hundreds of couples were married over the weekend and Facebook exploded with traffic on the issue.

In my own town of Ferndale, Michigan, hundreds of straight well-wishers commented on the wedding announcements.  After being engaged for 22 years, I finally married my fiancée and was astounded by the local support of our straight friends and allies.  I was overwhelmed to learn that school board members waited for hours at our LGBT community center for us to return from the courthouse and applaud our nuptials;  I was awe-inspired to see high school friends from out-of-state and college friends from out-of-country praising the decision and congratulating us to all of their friends on Facebook.

The sheer feeling of community support was indescribable, especially since I once lived a part of my life in the shadow of the closet – worrying how others would treat me if they found out.

And your employees are not much different.   The vast majority of LGBT people have lived a portion of their lives in the shadow of the closet.   People living in that shadow carefully watch for signs that they can come out or that they should stay in – they listen to the informal conversations, they pay attention to how those who are “out” get treated.  They watch how other minorities fare professionally.

Michigan’s recent court decision provides all organizations with an opportunity to do a quick culture check.  What’s the conversation around *your* water cooler on this issue?   Do you hear people excitedly talking about friends, family and colleagues who got married over the weekend?   Did someone at your company get married?  Do you know?  Did you ask?   How do you feel about it and how are you conveying that feeling to others?

Listen in.  Is the conversation instead comments like, “Geez, what’s this world coming to?” or maybe there’s no conversation at all.  Perhaps when the subject is brought up, there is silence.

These are great opportunities for you to take the temperature of your organizational culture.

It’s also a good opportunity to check on your organization’s non-discrimination policies.  Do you specifically state that you won’t discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression?   If not, now is the perfect opportunity to make some headway there.

If you already have such a policy, the recent news is an excellent reason to recommit your organization’s values by sending a congratulatory message to all those in your employ who may have benefited.   Talk to them about what this may mean regarding their employment benefits, now that they are married.   Check with your legal counsel about what this may mean and share the information with your staff members.

And don’t forget the little touches, something as simple as receiving a beautiful and heartfelt Congratulations! card can make a world of difference.


Kathleen LaTosch works as an independent consultant and focuses her work on building diverse and inclusive organizations.  For more information, visit www.LaToschConsulting.com.