Monday, 22 August 2011

Independent: Bringing your whole self to work
Article published on 21 August 2011

Telling your colleagues that you are lesbian or gay can be embarrassing. Exposing a part of your identity to comments beyond your control, and running the risk of being excluded, is apparently not very easy, at least, this is the conclusion reached by Under-reporting of discriminatory incidents in Malta, a study carried out by the Education, Employment and the Family Ministry, in which some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people wanted to tell their personal story. This was true of John, Rose and Claire.

John is a 32-year-old gay male and where employment is concerned, he does not hesitate to state that “the doors are closed for the gay community”. He sees no chance, no opportunity to be himself in society, with prejudices reigning supreme. When he tries to collect all his negative experiences related to his sexual orientation, he breathes deeply as he remembers being terribly bullied at school. Alone, helpless and with no support, he nevertheless managed to endure the harassment for many years, while trying to pretend that it did not affect him. Neither were things easy when he tried to find a job, since he felt very concerned about the fact that his sexual orientation might affect his working life. So he opted not to come out, shutting himself up in his own prejudices. “There is a fear that is very real”, he says.

On the other hand there is Rose, a 51-year-old transsexual who is unemployed. She explained that, when looking for employment, she felt totally alienated from any work opportunities. She said that when she was taken on as a delivery woman, she warned her employer that she had the strength of a woman, but this was not accepted by her boss, who swore at her and made her leave the company. The employer could not care less that Rose felt and behaved like a woman, even though she was born a male. Due to her gender identity and the limitations that prejudice places on her, she remains in an appalling economic situation. She is unable to find a job to manage on her own: “I ended up homeless because I couldn’t afford to pay rent. They even stopped my electricity”.

The working life of Claire, a lesbian professional, has not been a bed of roses, either. In her words, her position in the company became acceptable only after the intervention of the competent authorities. However she feels that she faces a never-ending struggle, because although society is making progress with regard to LGBT rights, the pace is far too slow for those who want a life now.

Although the current legislation related to non-discrimination in employment protects the LGBT community from being discriminated against in matters of employment, the fact is that many people like John, Rose or Claire still face enough prejudices to make them keep their sexual orientation or gender identity to themselves. In fact, in the words of Malta Gay Rights Movement coordinator Gabi Calleja: “The most commonly cited location of harassment is the workplace, with 15 per cent of all respondents reporting harassment at work”. Twenty-three per cent of those interviewed who were working at that moment reported that they concealed their sexual orientation and/or gender identity from all their colleagues. However, hiding a part of one’s identity can have negative repercussions. This is the opinion held by the British gay rights group Stonewall, which says that the effects of not coming out can also “specifically harm career prospects”. This is why one of Stonewall’s initiatives to overcome initial fears in expressing one’s identity is a leadership course for mid-career gay professionals at Ashridge Business School.

Designed for high-talent professionals in the UK, the aim of this course is to help members of the gay community improve their self-confidence regarding their orientation so that they feel comfortable being themselves in their place of work. “Exploring authenticity can help gay people become more open and honest”, says Albert Zandvoort, a management professor who is a lecturer on the Stonewall course. In short, this programme wants to prove that human resources professionals have to consider this issue in their policies if they want to bring out the best in each employee since, as Zandvoort says: “It’s not impossible to be a good leader if you are gay and haven’t come out, but it’s much harder”, because concealing one’s true self can lead to constant pressure. To avoid this, human resources managers need to understand that employees perform best when they are free to be their real selves and not being able to can influence efficiency and limit their careers.

This opinion is shared by Gabi Calleja, who calls for an investment in workplace policies that enable lesbian and gay employees to “bring their whole self to work” and allow them to participate fully in the workplace. It is an investment that costs nothing apart from the energy and commitment to eradicate ignorance.

Nuria Garcia Reche is a Spanish journalist at the Foundation for Human Resources Development

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