LGBT-Inclusive Diversity Training: A how-to guide for your company

Every company should develop a Diversity Training Program for employees. Training should occur as part of the employee’s orientation, and follow-up training should occur throughout employment. In addition, more specific training should be provided for employees most likely to interact with customers, such as cashiers, front desk staff, telephone receptionists, etc.

Many CMI clients ask us if they need to create an LGBT diversity training program that is separate from their other diversity trainings. Our perspective is that in most cases, it is more effective to incorporate LGBT concerns into your overall diversity approach. The goal of diversity training should never be to single out any one group or individual because of their differences. The goal ought to be creating an atmosphere where all employees and customers are treated with dignity and respect.

To develop an inclusive corporate culture means looking at the big picture. The training should address ethnic, religious, disability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious and other differences. In addition, topics such as geographical and personal appearance differences should be addressed. Also in this world of potential liability, local, state and federal laws need to be reviewed. When LGBT sensitivity training exists in a vacuum, separate from the broader concerns, employees will rightfully ask why one group is being treated differently than others. That is not to say specific LGBT sessions cannot exist, but it needs to exist in a context of inclusiveness.

Another common question is “Should we hire a consultant?”  Perhaps yes, if to give you advice and perspective, but we feel it is much more powerful when the HR manager or other management is capable and confident to speak about these concerns. It shows true commitment from upper management to diversity.

For some companies, this may seem overwhelming. Remember that every diversity program needs to start somewhere. If you do not already have a program in place, start small and build as you gain more experience. The overall message is that all customers should be made to feel welcome. Period! If you are starting from scratch, this overview will give you a practical place to develop an employee training program.

A Few Terms

LGBT refers to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Sometimes you might see LGBTQQ (adding queer and questioning). Remember that the LGBT community is made up of many sub-segments, just like every other group of people. The practical needs of a single gay man may be very different than a lesbian couple, or a queer 22 year old, or a transgender woman. Again, the goal is to make all customers feel welcome.

Personnel Policies – Getting Your House in Order

For a company to effectively outreach to the gay and lesbian community, it must first make sure that their own house is in order. This includes LGBT non-discrimination policies in hiring, domestic partner benefit equality, diversity training for staff, appropriate resource information available for gay and lesbian customers (as applicable) and an overall welcoming atmosphere. Many small companies may not take the time to publish their personnel policies. We suggest that even small companies develop a manual with information and policies about employment. It helps protect everyone.

The Case for LGBT Outreach

Many employees may wonder why your company is outreaching to the LGBT market. In some cases, employees may have strong religious or cultural beliefs that initially make it difficult for them to understand or support your outreach intentions.  Or alternatively, a common question might be, “Why are we outreaching to the LGBT market and not the women’s market, religious market, Latino market or many others?”  This is a fair question.

First, we must separate outreach plans from diversity plans. If a company outreaches to the gay market or not, it is important that the company has diversity training in place that is inclusive of LGBT issues.

The reality is that between 5 to 7% of the population identifies as gay or lesbian. In North America alone, that’s around 25 million people. Already, the company is serving gay and lesbian customers, even without an outreach effort. All customers must be treated equally, so LGBT diversity must be included in your employee orientations.

Outreach plans are different. They are based on business interests. Most companies have multiple segmented outreach plans. LGBT may be one of them, but others should exist based on the specific company, and their likely customers. Outreach plans could involve a geographic location, it could include pet-owners, African Americans, religious groups, women, sports fans or other appropriately targeted population segments. A company must choose which segments that make the most sense for their product.

The case for outreaching to the LGBT market will be different for every company. For many, it is because it is a community that contains a high number of DINKS (Dual Income, No Kids) and this company attracts both gay and straight DINKS, or perhaps studies have shown that your geographic region has a high proportion of LGBT residents or visitors.  It just depends. If your company is developing an LGBT outreach plan, it is important that you communicate this to your employees. All employees must understand that professional actions and personal beliefs are separate. In this company, all people are to be treated with respect. A customer’s sexual orientation or gender identity does not change that basic rule.

Some employees might ask why the company is not targeting another segment. Often this question is based on their own personal interests. The answer may well be that you already are targeting this group. Or the answer might be “that is another great idea, can you stop by my office and lets explore that idea together.” Empowering employees to outreach to their peers is always cost-effective marketing.

Gay-Friendly Space and Gay-Safe Space

When providing LGBT diversity information, Community Marketing’s research shows this is one of the most important parts of the diversity message. The reality is that most gays and lesbians have experienced verbal, emotional or physical assault because of their sexual orientation at various times in their life. This may have occurred in schools, family, at work, on city streets and/or from their governments. Your company should be viewed as a place that a person does not need to worry about discrimination (or even verbal or physical assault) from staff or customers.

How would your company respond to a staff person making a racially charged comment? The same employee discipline should be expected for inappropriate gay jokes or slurs. Many staff live in environments where “verbal gay bashing” is an acceptable norm. Sometimes this slips out in inappropriate ways. Since gay jokes are “acceptable” in some crowds, two employees might tell a joke or make a comment overheard by a gay customer or employee. Gay people hear these disparaging jokes all the time in their day-to-day life. This behavior can never be tolerated in the work environment and this must be communicated to staff upon orientation.  But this statement does not live in vacuum. Racial jokes are never acceptable, jokes about a person’s weight or age are never acceptable. The diversity message is always delivered in the larger context.

Of course, you cannot control the behavior of every customer. If a customer is acting abusive to another customer, regardless of the reason, refer to your protocol in dealing with these situations. If a customer is being abusive simply because of another customer’s sexual or gender orientation, this should be considered unacceptable. Follow your protocols for unruly customers. They are probably problem customers on many fronts.

Language

Be careful of your language. Employees can use “gay-offending” language without even knowing it. However, for the most part gays and lesbians will overlook “language errors” as long as the employee’s attitude and tone are welcoming. In general, terms like gay, lesbian, partners, sexual orientation and LGBT are preferred. Conversely, words such as lifestyle, sexual choice, and sexual preference could get you in trouble.  For example, science clearly has demonstrated that a person’s sexual orientation is not a “choice.” The term “sexual preference” is often used by anti-gay groups for political gain. If two men present themselves as “domestic partners”, don’t call the other person a “friend”, use the term “partner.”  Sensitivity training should cover these language subtleties.

Of course, in a professional setting, slang words like queer, fag, sister, homo, etc. are not acceptable when interacting with a customer. Sometimes these words can be used socially within the LGBT community itself. All employees must use the same protocols on language for all customers – gay or straight.

Gay-Friendly Means Following Your Policies and Procedures

Don’t let closed-minded customers pull your staff down the “I don’t want my children to see this,” scenario. Anti-gay groups use children to charge anti-gay issues, and gays (and most progressive people) do not see a problem with children observing same-gender couples showing basic affection. Also, more and more gays and lesbians are raising children. This makes some people angry and they are offended by seeing same sex couples care for children. For staff to get involved in these discussions about children (unless there is a policy around children that relates to this situation), they will only make everyone upset.

Conclusion: Diversity Training and the LGBT Community

For some companies, diversity training can be a multi-day affair, for others it is a 30-minute orientation segment. Some hire outside consultants, others have inside staff with more specific training or experience. Of course, the more diversity training the better. More realistically, different staff positions have different diversity training needs. All of the above information should be covered in training and every employee should know the diversity policies of the company.

Resources

For yet more information and suggestions, we suggest you become involved with Out & Equal, an organization that deals with LGBT in the workplace issues, at www.outandequal.org. Also refer to the Society for Human Resources Management at www.shrm.org.