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.

Do Chief Diversity Officers Intrinsically Marginalize Diversity Efforts?

siloIn a recent article on expanding diversity and inclusion in higher education and on college and university campuses, (“Campus Diversity: Beyond Just Enrollment”), Mary Hinton from Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York, commented that:

“I’m conflicted about diversity offices.  I’ve been a chief diversity officer. On the one hand, you’re isolating diversity as separate from the rest of what the institution should be doing. The advantage is that you have a person or people dedicated to addressing the issue. The disadvantage is that diversity is not embedded into the fiber of what you’re doing; it’s siloed, rather than saying this is vital to our day-to-day work. Things that are vital are embedded throughout the institution.”

Having watched the silo effect take place in one small nonprofit organization, I can attest to the fact that there is a risk for diversity and inclusion to become one person’s job and not incorporated into the fabric of an organization.  Likewise, the person in charge of promoting diversity and inclusion can become easily dismissed, perhaps viewed as strongly and liberally biased if they don’t have the visible commitment and inclusive leadership from the executive.

For diversity and inclusion professionals, what have your experiences been with this silo effect and what are some ways to protect against this potentially inherent risk?

First Measures for Diversity & Inclusion Success

MeasuringDiversityYesterday, 16 law firms from our neighboring north country announced they were joining forces to form the Law Firm Diversity and Inclusion Network.  They are working together to improve their diversity and inclusion within the law profession.  One of their core values includes evaluating efforts, but not all 16 firms collect diversity statistics.  Collecting information about the workforce is a key starting place.

Tracking diversity statistics (demographic characteristics) is often a first step for organizations to look carefully at the levels of diversity within their own organizations.  Some questions to ask might include:

  1. What demographics do we want to track?  Race? Age? Gender? Sexual Orientation?  Gender Identity?
  2. How do we safely and legally gather this information?  In the U.S. it is still legal in many states to fire someone because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and employees may be reluctant to share this information.  What happens when information about demographics are gathered and then someone is let go?  Will there be a perceived correlation?  Is there a correlation?
  3. What diversity metrics are we aiming for?  Do we want our staff to be representative of the people we serve?  What are the racial and cultural demographics of our local communities?

Measuring is a good start and it helps human resource departments set benchmarks, but the next challenge is right around the corner – now that we’re working on diversifying our staff, is the workplace inclusive?

Diverse work environments aren’t always inclusive ones.  Inclusive environments are ones where all employees feel welcomed and that their contributions are valued and appreciated.

How does one track this?  Following are some sample measures, beyond employee satisfaction surveys.   If you can consider these measures in the very early stages of your diversity and inclusion initiative and even go back and collect similar data from the past five years, you will form a clear picture of strengths and weaknesses within your organization.

  1. Length of employment (turnover)
  2. Position in organization (by supervisory level, by skill level)
  3. Compensation by position (pay equity)
  4. Number/type of promotions

There are many other measurements of diversity to help you set the stage.  The Human Resources Department in the State of Washington has a well-rounded and extensive list of good diversity metrics.

Collecting this data isn’t always easy, but having the facts on paper will help any diversity and inclusion team begin their work from a strong foundation.