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by Chandra Prasad | March 10, 2009


When discussing the recruitment and retention of gay and lesbian employees, Peter Allen, a member of a LGBT business school network entitled Network Q, is carefully optimistic, "We're not at the end of the road, but we're not at the beginning of it either." His comment is apt in a climate where companies are beginning to put a premium on finding and keeping bright and accomplished gay and lesbian employees. James Robertson, the president of Learning Pathways, which creates multimedia learning aids for children, believes that this trend reflects more than an altruistic commitment to diversity. "Recruiting and retaining diversity makes good business sense. You want a diverse workforce because you have a diverse customer base - and you want someone to relate to each customer's circumstances."

With gay and lesbian employees, as with any distinct (and potentially marginalized) employee group-such as women, people with disabilities, and Hispanic Americans-companies must have a firm understanding of what they are trying to achieve. Robertson continues, "If your aim is tokenism, gay and lesbian recruitment doesn't make sense. But if you recognize that gay and lesbian recruitment can provide a considerable amount of talent-and make the company a richer place to work-you ought to try harder [to find and keep such candidates]."

This kind of talent is in large supply. At Working Out, the second annual Lesbian and Gay MBA Conference, over 30 sponsoring companies vied for the professional interests of approximately 400 top MBAs. Platinum names in I-banking such as J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs graced the conference, as well as management consulting luminaries like Bain, BCG, and McKinsey, among others.

Co-hosted by Columbia Business School and The Wharton School, Working Out reflects the enormous strides that have been made in recognizing and celebrating gay and lesbian professionals. Peter Allen, whose book The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present has just been published by the University of Chicago Press, underscores the importance of this progress: "[For most gay and lesbian employees] being gay is not a big part of their work. They just want to make sure they can be themselves and be comfortable."

~The following is a list of ways that companies can demonstrate their commitment to recruiting gay and lesbian professionals, as well as to ensure a comfortable working environment for all employees.

Make sure your formal company policies are gay- and lesbian-friendly.

"Make sure your company's nondiscrimination policies include sexual orientation. You can't legislate social change. You can't make everyone not racist, sexist, or a homophobe. But you can raise the bar," asserts James Robertson, who earned his MBA from the Yale School of Management. Indeed, the presence of this kind of a nondiscrimination policy can be crucial to a gay or lesbian employee's decision to work at a specific company.

But for truly progressive companies, the rewriting of nondiscrimination clauses is only the beginning. Many gay and lesbian employees would also like to see HR departments include domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. And what about those issues that can't be promised in print - such as bringing one's partner to a company function? The HR department that honestly addresses these issues is truly ahead of the game.

Present your commitment to gay and lesbian employees both in company literature and on the company Web site.

A female employee who is "out" at a dot com company in New York City explains, "The number one problem that gays and lesbians face in the workplace is whether or not to come out, and the consequences of doing so. If they are out at work, they face the possible consequences of losing their job, being ostracized, [and/or] being treated differently by their superiors and peers." How can prospective employees know in advance about a company's climate? Some head to the company's web site and look to see if there is a gay and lesbian employee group. The presence of one on can be a reassuring sign.

Confirms the employee, "Gay people take a big chance coming out, and being open and honest about their orientation at work. They have to 'feel out' the workplace environment and see if it is safe to do so." Peter Allen adds, "Many companies have some kind of gay and lesbian organization, but you wouldn't necessarily know, since it's not publicized. Companies do a service by putting this information in their literature and on their sites. If a potential employee can find out about a company's [gay and lesbian] policies online, he or she won't necessarily have to ask the HR representative during a job interview-which might be uncomfortable."

~Ask employees for input about the climate of the company - and how it can be improved.

Through no fault of their own, HR professionals are sometimes caught in a strange, no man's land wherein they are in sync with neither the concerns of the employees nor the plans and strategies of the management. The result is that many HR leaders lack an adequate understanding of the work environment as seen through the eyes of gays and lesbians. While some gay and lesbian employees are not open to sharing their employment concerns as they relate to sexual orientation, others see such sharing as a personal responsibility and are committed to enlightening uninformed coworkers. The key for HR representatives is to find employees who are willing to speak up and to politely request information from them - while still respecting their right to personal privacy. Companies may also engage the help of diversity consultants, who specialize in making work environments more welcoming to all employees.

Teri-Kai Holtzclaw is an employee of Lucent Technologies and a member of EQUAL!, the company's advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered employees. She believes that "one of the major problems that gay and lesbian employees face in the workplace is feeling an added responsibility to help their co workers feel comfortable." She elaborates, "It's easier to minimize our experiences when talking to heterosexual co workers. We often find ourselves 'taking the easiest way out' or shrouding our conversations with innuendoes and double meanings. I believe Gay and Lesbian employees face several problems in the workplace; however, we often forget to begin with ourselves and how our own action/inaction contributes to our professional comfort level."

Walter Schubert, the Founder of the immensely successful Gay Financial Network is also an avid believer in personal and professional honesty. On one of GFN's message boards, he expresses the following thoughts about his own experiences as a gay professional:

"When I came out on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange (the first person to do so), part of my decision [to come out] was based on my desire to defend my personal integrity. How could anyone, either a co worker, or a client trust me to be a truthful and honest person at work if I was perceived to be lying about who I was at home? I believed that living this kind of double life was compromising my personal integrity, and felt increasingly uncomfortable with this conflict. To accept and not shy away from 'my truth' and my experiences was very important to me personally and professionally."

~Endorse gay and lesbian employee groups. If your company doesn't have one, encourage its formation.

Many of the largest and most prominent companies have gay and lesbian employee groups: GLAM at McKinsey, LEAGUE at AT&T, and EQUAL! at Lucent Technologies, among others. Such groups often do more than aid in the recruitment of gay and lesbian employees. Arden Hoffman, an MBA at the Wharton School and President of Out for Business, Wharton's gay and lesbian student organization, recognizes the necessity of promoting gay and lesbian retention by effectively raising awareness of gay and lesbian issues.

The presence and company endorsement of a gay and lesbian employee group may also quell employee fears, suggests Peter Allen. "All things being equal, people won't take the risk of coming out, especially if no one at the company has come out before. It's largely about the uncertainty of how it [coming out] will be received. You hear terrible stories - and some are true - but you also hear stories where coming out is totally a non-issue."

Teri-Kai Holtzclaw of Lucent champions Allen's sentiment: "As an employee of a corporation that recognizes that I exist, I feel much more empowered than my partner, who is employed by a corporation who silently 'tolerates' gays and lesbians, but has zero documentation to show for it. I believe HR departments have a great deal of responsibility not only to respect, but [also to] recognize the diversity within their employee pool.


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