By Maria Karika

In response to an increasing number of people coming out at work, and an increasing number of lawsuits and complaints filed for anti-gay harassment on the job, many firms are updating their non-discrimination policies to include
protection for LGBT employees.

Unfortunately, a recent survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination, shows that 42 percent of gay individuals say they were targets of employment discrimination at some point in their lives. While the costly lawsuits and complaints are increasing, the high rate of discrimination makes us wonder in what ways the workplace continues to be so hostile to gays. Not so long ago work was a place for straights. Gays had to hide their sexual orientation and be the targets of discrimination and gossip. Since then, gays have ‘openly’ been employed at jobs and enjoyed firm protection. Yet despite the overall improvement in the climate, it has cost companies millions of dollars to resolve discrimination lawsuits filed against them. Recently, for instance, ExpressJet Airlines paid more than $1 million to a gay employee who was denied promotion, while a straight employee at DynCorp was awarded $155,000 for being harassed based on his perceived sexual orientation. Thus it appears that companies are still biased towards gay people, with their climates still allowing anti-gay harassment even though this type of discrimination proves economically unwise.

So why do gay employees face discrimination from their straight peers, even though firms are increasingly adopting relevant anti-discrimination policies? The answer is simple. These policies don’t shape the workplace culture. Apart from the HR department, no one really believes that these policies actually change people’s attitudes. Most employees view these policies as ‘obligatory but ineffective’ and some gay employees encounter so much discrimination from coworkers that they end up leaving their jobs.

In an interview study with a gay professional in Spain in early 2012, he reported that firm policies were not effective for changing attitudes toward gay men in straight-dominated organizational cultures. He further talked about the decision to self-disclose and addressed the issue of how to handle workplace discrimination in great detail.

As an employee of a big travel agency, Juan D. had a reputation for being a nice, happy guy. In 2011, at age 30, Juan told colleagues he was gay. Even in a progressive environment like Spain, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005, with numerous cases of children being adopted by gay parents, it was inevitable that some employees would still be uncomfortable and discriminate against Juan D. To put this in perspective, most firms in Spain adopt anti-discrimination policies in order to officially comply with the requirements of the governmental law. However, this can be mainly a symbolic act, as these policies are not implemented and discrimination issues for gay males still exist. But what exactly are these discrimination issues? Mikki Hebl, a professor at Rice University who has studied the issue, found that it is mostly subtle (less overt and explicit) workplace discrimination. Juan D. gave various examples of discrimination based on sexual orientation that reinforce inequality.

What does discrimination against gay males look like?
1. Comments, sexist jokes, etc.
Juan first focused on comments and jokes that coworkers had made to him:

People make comments. I’ve had someone ask in a meeting whether I would get married in church. Another colleague of mine usually [says]: ‘Your trousers are too tight’ or ‘your hair is too long.’ They also make sexist jokes when I am around.

2. Gossip and downgrading.
Juan described how he experienced gossip as discrimination at work:

I overheard their gossip many times, talking about me behind my back. Also, when you [make] a mistake, there’s a bunch of people who say ‘he is gay, he doesn’t know.’ They may actually downgrade your work, just because they know you are gay and in a way they don’t trust you.

3. Non-verbal cues.
Juan also talked about non-verbal forms of discrimination:

It is also how they look at you. Sometimes you get the feeling that some people look at you thinking ‘you were born to be a man but something went wrong during the process, while you were brought up, and what a pity, you did not become a man!’

4. Single invitation to social events.
Juan explained that at his firm they do not acknowledge that gay men also have partners:

They invite you to a social event without your partner and they count you as one person when they plan it! I think it’s those situations that single you out.

5. Stereotyping.
The culture at Juan’s company involved a straight ethic and rewarded stereotypically masculine behavior, which generated even more stereotyping:

Well, I definitely felt the pressure to be more of a man, many times. On the other hand, once they found out about me, they just thought I was ‘modern’ [Spanish slang for ‘hip’ or ‘cool’] or ‘alegre’ [Spanish for happy], all these stereotypes about gays.

6. The wannabe-open- minded.
Juan also identified a specific group of people, which he called the “wannabe- open-minded”:

There are some people that want to be cool and supportive; they are trying to be politically correct. They often have these incredible stories about gays and open the discussions with something like ‘I had a gay friend,’ and they tell you a joke. These people think they do and say everything for your own good, in order to protect you, but in fact, they also discriminate against you.

How does it feel to be the target of such discrimination?

Juan replied:
To be honest, the feelings you experience are mostly negative. You feel you are weird, strange, ‘the odd one out.’ You have to downplay your difference. You have to become like the rest in order to fit in, to be acceptable; I often feel angry. I think that the problem is that you give and you give more and more but nobody really recognizes your effort, just because you are gay. And especially the stereotypes, they can be very annoying.

He also recognized that certain feelings elicit other emotional reactions:
Generally, you feel lonely. No matter what you do you are being observed by others. You can never reach their standards. At some point you say ‘enough.’ It is your small little revolution, and you start feeling hostility against them.

However, Juan also recognized that sometimes it is the self-disclosure itself, which increases perceptions of discrimination:
It’s like putting yourself into a little circle, you think and think about it, you’re like ‘he looked at me this way,’ you over-analyze what they say, the way they say it, the look on their face, their movements, almost everything. And you search subconsciously to find proof of discrimination.

What does research show?

Juan’s comments are consistent with research showing that diversity and discrimination experiences at work are shaped by feelings. Being different interferes with the basic need of belonging to a group and generates negative feelings. Research suggests that people who experience more negative feelings tend to perceive their environment less favorably (e.g., Garcia-Marques, Mackie, Claypool, & Garcia-Marques, 2004). Therefore, gay employees that experience negative feelings are more likely to evaluate their peers and work environment less favorably, and perceive themselves as targets of subtle discrimination. This is supported by research showing that negative mood was associated with more perceived discrimination (Sechrist, Swim, & Mark, 2003). Gay employees may also be more sensitive because they have self-disclosed their sexuality and attribute negative events at work to discrimination. Research has found that job applicants perceived employer negativity and over-assumed that employers would not be interested in hiring them if they knew that they were gay (Hebl et al., 2002). Self-disclosure may thus contribute to misperceptions of discrimination, because of higher vigilance about potential signs of bias.

So what can you do to work this environment?

Based on the interview with Juan D., below are some basic points for those struggling with self-disclosure or who wonder how to survive discrimination.

1. Be sure that it’s the right moment to self-disclose. Weigh the situation first; do it only if you feel that it’s not going to be a problem.

2. Don’t “break the news,” just be natural and let it flow. For example don’t say ‘I want to tell you something, now that we know each other better: I am gay.’ In this case you imply that it’s something that should be hidden. Instead, you can simply say, ‘I went out with my boyfriend for an ice cream and I saw a great car that I want to buy.’

3. Keep a balance. You should neither emphasize it, nor hide it. It’s not the most important part of your personality.

4. Be careful with your behavior towards straight colleagues. Think, plan and watch how you talk, how you touch, try not to provoke and keep control of the situation.

5. Beware of the wannabe-open-minded. Watch out for the silent ones. You don’t know how to treat them; they don’t know how to treat you either. So even though they play cool you need to treat them conservatively.

6. There is no exact formula for success. Finally, pay attention to your own intuition and needs. Maintain the patterns of behavior that you feel most comfortable with, according to your own personality.

It is clear that diversity in terms of sexual orientation can cause discrimination. The former interview revealed to some extent how feelings, discrimination, and self-disclosure are interrelated. So what might improve the situation? First, recognizing biases and how they operate might encourage firms to raise managers’ awareness, prompting them to handle cases of discrimination more carefully. Relevant managerial and employee training should help towards this direction. Managers could also sit down and think about the climate of the teams they manage, as well as their work ethic. In other words, firms could make managers more accountable for systematic forms of discrimination. The bottom-line is that making room for sexual identity equity could of course ultimately reduce costly lawsuits.

Maria Kakarika is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Euromed Management School in Marseille, France.