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Business Case

Sexual Orientation in the Workplace: Tools for Senior Leaders

It is impossible for senior leaders to formulate policy or model desired behaviors around any aspect of human resources if they are not adequately prepared with the information that enables them to do so. Effective use of all employees, regardless of the diversity they bring into the workplace is at the forefront of this requirement, and there are few diversity issues that challenge senior leaders more than those concerning sexual orientation.

So the question becomes, what does the top leadership at a given organization require, and how do you best get that information to them? The top three message points for senior leaders are: the business case; creating or improving leaders' vocabulary and communication about this part of diversity; and finally, enabling accountability. The next few paragraphs review each of these areas.

The most effective method of enabling increased awareness around workplace diversity is a coordinated and comprehensive program of education. However, unless senior leaders have confidence in their ability to represent the need for such education where sexual orientation is concerned, they will be lax to do so.

The Business Case:

Like all other areas of diversity initiatives a business need or justification is necessary. Sexual orientation takes a dual-edged form. The first side concerns employee demographics.

Over the years I have formulated a model for how organizations "come out" around issues of sexual orientation at work. The first step in this process is acknowledgement; that is, realizing that not all employees are heterosexual. They might have requirements pursuant to your HR programs and policies that necessitate the second step in this coming out process: accommodation. The degree to which an organization chooses inclusiveness is a matter of accommodation. For the purposes of this article, we can stop the description of the coming out process here.

Acknowledgement is ultimately the role of senior leaders, although they will typically do so only after the matter comes to their attention through the hierarchy. This acknowledgement demands an understanding of organizational demographics and calls for an internal audit of personnel. The best tool for this audit is the employee resource group focused on sexual orientation in the workplace (if one exists. If it doesn't, this is one good reason to have one). This group, working with management, can create an internal census that will help identify (anonymously) how many non-heterosexual people there are in the organization and what the attitudes are (of both gay and straight employees) regarding any number of workplace policies. Armed with this data, senior leaders know what concerns employees and what they need to be their most productive.

The second side of the business case involves informing leaders of the revenue potential of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) market and effective strategies to mine it. This is easily presented either live or in some textual form, because the data for this market is constantly improving in both availability and veracity.

Vocabulary and Communication:

Senior leaders don't get to be senior leaders by demonstrating ignorance; and not necessarily ignorance in a negative way, but simply "not knowing." Some can find themselves in a Catch-22: if they don't know about sexual orientation and its relevant manifestations at work, but don't feel comfortable asking questions, they won't be able to have conversations that get them into a realm of understanding. Furthermore they will not be able to make quality business decisions based on that level of understanding.

I have had many senior leaders express their frustrations over this issue with me It comes down to a simple lack of comfort with the language surrounding sexual orientation. For instance, knowing that "partner" is today's correct terminology is inordinately helpful. Knowing the difference between "orientation" and "lifestyle", or how the words "straight" and "gay" came into the lexicon is vital. It seems simple, but the simple things get right to the heart of a comfort level.. Leaders (and indeed, most of us) won't discuss important issues unless we feel we have the correct terminology to discuss them.

Getting this material to senior leaders can be done in a forum run just for them (they will be reticent to discuss their lack of knowledge in "mixed" company...but not with an outside facilitator whose job is specifically to empower them). Additional approaches are in the form of a glossary guide (either in print or on-line); or one-on-one coaching by a professional facilitator. This is by far the most popular strategy because it allows for information exchange and for questions leaders have getting answered right on the spot.


Accountability means that if the organization chooses to implement an education program inclusive of sexual orientation, or domestic partner benefits, any challenges will go straight to the top of the organization. Leaders must be fully cognizant of both the motivation and the construct of these elements to be able to address relevant concerns.

Senior leaders need to know what such programs or benefits are comprised of and how that fits into the stated mission (read: profit motive) of the organization. Although leadership can, and often does, participate in a shorter, more concise program than the general population might, they can experience all of the salient content for an effective education program.

By the same token, if the matter at hand is domestic partner benefits, the whys and wherefores of the benefits must be understood by the totality of management, not just those charged with overseeing it.

The best way to get this information to senior leaders is to invite them to a brief (90-120 minute) presentation that will cover all of the elements of the new plan. This enables them to get the whole picture and ask questions. It also provides them with a contact point should they receive a question they do not have the answer to.

By Liz Winfeld - Liz is Principal of Common Ground, an education consulting firm specializing in workplace diversity specific to sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, spirituality at work, domestic partner benefits and employee group development. She's the author of "Straight Talk About Gays in the Workplace" and "A Trainer's Guide to Training Tough Topics". Liz can be reached at 303 941 2991;;

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