As long as you can't see it. LGBTS in the workplace

Crying out for attention is how employers can create a better workplace for all their employees.

By Bart Braun

Jojanneke van der Toorn, who held her inaugural lecture last week, is Endowed Professor of Inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender employees at work.

(Het originele Nederlandstalige artikel staat hier)

"People share lots of things about their personal lives at work. We don’t just talk about the work itself, we talk about our weekend, our plans, our worries. By doing that, we indirectly expose our sexual preferences, and whether we identify as male, female or something else. Deviating from the social norm is a stigma you can hide to a certain extent, but hiding causes a lot of stress and affects your performance.

"If people don’t feel properly included at work, they don’t function very well. They tend to leave their employers sooner and they feel less need to grow professionally. In the Netherlands, legal matters are reasonably well regulated for gays and lesbians – at least, better than in many other countries. However, things are different for people who don’t identify with what is normally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth; my Chair concerns those people.


Here, public opinion is quite favourable: 93% of people agree with the statement that gays and lesbians should be allowed to lead their lives as they wish. On the other hand, posters of two gays kissing are vandalised and people resent public displays of affection. The acceptance of homosexuality is an abstract emotion; things change when homosexuality is visible. Public opinion of transgender people is a lot less favourable. Not all LGBT people experience problems, but gays, lesbians and bisexuals are more likely to have symptoms of a burn-out and transgender people really have a lot more difficulty finding jobs.

"We could see it as a business case: a non-inclusive company destroys capital because it doesn’t recruit the best staff it could get." Economists are attempting to put a figure on it, which could be helpful to businesses. But we could ask ourselves whether the business case should be defining for a certain company. After all, we could advocate inclusivity on moral grounds and argue that it’s the right thing to do make everyone feel welcome. The problem with a business case is that if inclusivity turns out not to produce an economic advantage, you have to change the policy that you had adapted for it. Another possibility is that more diversity creates more conflict.

"I’m struck by the fact that businesses practically always give commercial reasons for their decisions, but then don’t bother to gauge whether their diversity policy is actually an advantage. Evidently there are some other aspects to their decision which they believe are more important, such as morality, I presume it has something to do with how they believe they can convince others – with rational, economic arguments, although those other people might have moral reasons too. In the next few years, I want to find out whether I’m right and how it works exactly.

Better workplace

"Another subject is that crying out for attention is how employers can create a better workplace for all their employees. Earlier this year, two colleagues and I published a retrospective on that subject in the journal Social Issues and Policy Review. Our most relevant conclusion was that we don’t yet have any one ready-made social toolkit. As it is, educating people on this matter alone is not enough and might even aggravate prejudice against LGBTs. Contact interventions, where we create empathy by getting people to put themselves in the other person’s shoes, seem to have a better impact.

"Studies in social psychology have taught us that working towards a shared goal can reinforce the bonds between people. It produces unique information about a person and consequently we don’t see someone as a member of a group but as an individual. But if we don’t receive that information, perhaps because they won’t come out of the closet, it won’t work. We’ll only see the added value of working together when our workplaces are truly inclusive – places where everyone belongs and can be him or herself.

"The unusual thing about my Chair is that it’s a collaborative project. Leiden University and Workplace Pride, a foundation that represents the social midfield, are involved, and so is the business community; some of the funding comes from KPN. That partnership really is necessary for the research I want to do: how do companies work, and what will work for them? To what extent do LGBT employees, or other people who deviate from the social views of men and women, feel included? And do they feel more included in companies that put a lot of effort into inclusivity?

"Leiden University is a good example of that kind of employer. We have a diversity office and various LGBT networks for students and staff. The highest ranks of the organisation support inclusivity, and that’s always a condition for success, but the challenge is to implement it on the work floor. We pay lots of attention to policy, but it’s the middle management – at a university I suppose that would be the department heads – that play a significant part in how it’s executed."

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