Good Company Policies
Among the most important things that employers can do to make a workplace safer and more supportive of diversity are instituting nondiscrimination policies, diversity training and employee resource groups and contracting with a health insurance company that provides coverage for transition-related health care and domestic partners.
An employee nondiscrimination policy is a written document in which an employer, whether private or public, can officially tell staff about acts of discrimination or harassment that are unacceptable—whether contrary to applicable law or to the employer’s principles or business judgment. These policies also usually include procedures for filing grievances and specifics about the consequences to employees of violating the policy.
Why are these policies important? Employers often have nondiscrimination policies that cover characteristics such as race, sex, age and religion. Adding sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and HIV status to this policy is a vital step toward creating a safe, respectful workplace. If you work in a jurisdiction where there are no laws that explicitly protect you against sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, an employer’s policy may be an important thing you can point to in the event of anti-LGBT discrimination.
What constitutes a strong nondiscrimination policy? There is not just one standard approach or uniform language for employee nondiscrimination policies. Different policies can be interpreted to cover (or exclude) various forms of discrimination. When examining an employer’s nondiscrimination policy or advocating for the implementation of a new policy, keep in mind that a strong nondiscrimination policy should include the following:
- Clear language that discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and HIV status will not be tolerated
- Specifics about prohibited behavior to illustrate common problems and misunderstandings
- A description of the penalties for violating the policy
- A clear grievance procedure or set of steps for an employee who has experienced or witnessed discrimination
- A declaration of the employer’s commitment to prompt investigation of complaints of discrimination
- A promise of protection against retaliation
- A commitment by the employer to be legally bound by its policy
When developing inclusive nondiscrimination or equal employment opportunity policies, it’s important to include all aspects and stages of employment, from recruitment to termination, from compensation and benefits to chances for promotion.
Many firms include sexual orientation and gender identity in their antidiscrimination policies. Contact the human resources department at a company that you happen to know holds such a policy, visit the website of Out and Equal or consult the Human Rights Campaign’s annual “Best Places to Work” guide.
Workplace diversity training programs are a great way for employers to demonstrate their commitment to having a staff from a variety of backgrounds and creating a respectful work environment. Employers benefit by sending a clear message that talented, productive workers are valued and there is no tolerance for discrimination based on traits that have no relationship to one’s ability to do the job.
These programs generally involve gatherings where staff go through exercises to make points about discrimination and harassment. One exercise may demonstrate, for instance, how little you can tell about a person from their appearance. Staff also learn specific examples of workplace mistreatment and may even role-play to learn strategies for handling inter-group problems. Discussions likely also try to address some of the personal discomfort generally raised by dealing with these issues so directly.
Effective diversity training does the following:
- Teaches attendees how they can make the workplace a more welcoming place for their LGBT co-workers and those living with HIV.
- Examines hidden as well as overt bias.
- Gives people conflict-resolution skills and tips about becoming workplace allies.
- Includes training to allay fears about HIV transmission, educate about HIV prevention and provide resources for employees with HIV or those with family members living with HIV.
- Includes specific training on transgender issues.
Ideally, the employer’s diversity trainers will be well versed in sexual orientation, gender identity and HIV issues. Check their references and talk to people at other workplaces that have hired them to see if the trainers’ workshops have been practical and effective.
LGBT employee resource groups (ERGs), also known as affinity groups, provide resources and support for LGBT employees and information for management, especially regarding “best practices” for ensuring that employees who are LGBT or living with HIV feel valued and respected in the same way that all employees should. Some ERGs focus on advocacy and workplace activism, while others primarily provide social networking and support. Often ERGs work to create workplace nondiscrimination policies or to obtain domestic partner benefits. ERGs can start out as lunchtime meetings or listservs for interested workers and develop into powerful agents for change within the workplace. Visit Out & Equal for a list of ERGs and more information about what they can accomplish.
Many LGBT employee resource groups—including LEAGUE at AT&T, the nation’s oldest LGBT employee resource group—have implemented safe space programs. Usually, safe space programs are designed to let all workers know that discrimination will not be tolerated and that their workplace respects and values its LGBT employees. One feature of the safe space may be visual cues such as magnets, stickers or posters to help LGBT employees feel supported and safe to be out on the job. Even without a formal safe space program, many ERGs are active in creating a welcoming environment for LGBT people.
LGBT people who work alone or in small workplaces can find support in LGBT groups or organizations that are not specifically tied to their workplace or profession. LGBT people with their own businesses or working for small employers may also want to research whether their city has an LGBT business association or chamber of commerce or a particular LGBT professional group (such as a bar association) or business network (such as Digital Queers). The state groups affiliated with Equality Federation or a local LGBT community center may be a good place to look for support.