Even though the South African constitution is regarded as one of the most progressive in the world, LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, and intersex) employees continue to experience discrimination and harassment.
Ian McAlister, GM of CRS Technologies, examines how an organisation can create an enabling environment to mitigate the risk of this happening.
“Globally, there is increasing awareness around LGBTQI issues. Unfortunately, when discussions focus on the workplace, things take a decidedly muted turn. Despite the protection afforded by the constitution, those in the LGBTQI community continue to be passed over for promotion, have their work duties limited to avoid any client-facing engagements, and are openly ridiculed by their colleagues,” says McAlister.
The issues become more complex when companies have transgender employees who either just ‘came out’ or are in the process of making a transition. For example, what must be done if a transitioning male employee wants to use the female bathroom? Many of the female employees might object, leaving the person in a difficult position.
While disclosure reduces the stress of hiding one’s gender identity and enables the employee to develop more genuine relationships with colleagues, clients, and superiors, there are some risks associated with this.
A lack of understanding or acceptance from colleagues could result in negative changes in self-confidence. Relationships in the office could become tense and the employee may even become the focus of office gossip. Additionally, transphobia, harassment, discrimination, violence, and dismissals continue to take place, even though all are illegal.
“If an organisation wants to build a more inclusive environment, there are certain aspects to be mindful of when it comes to LGBTQI employees,” says McAlister. “These steps are designed to protect all employees and create a more enabling culture inside the business which will result in a more productive and effective organisation.”
Fundamentally, every business has a responsibility to ensure that workplaces are safe and supportive of LGBTQI employees. When it comes to developing policies and procedures, adopting LGBTQI inclusion as an overriding principle is a good start, but is just one part of the process.
Companies must assess their existing level of inclusion, review current policies and disciplinary processes for those discriminating against others, and evaluate any gaps between the polices and what is practised inside the organisation.
“Respecting the privacy of employees, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be a guiding principle. Additionally, the policies focused on inclusivity (when it comes to bathroom use and dress codes) should be published on the corporate intranet and at strategic locations around the office. In this way, people can educate themselves and become more aware of the complexities of the issues at hand.”
Furthermore, employers can identify potential activities that can bring staff together for discussions around these policies and procedures. This could be used as instructional sessions that are focused on building a culture of inclusivity.
“The modern work environment is definitely a more empowering one than in the past. However, ongoing education and communication must be key drivers to ensure all employees are adequately taken care of. When people start feeling misunderstood or uncomfortable in the workplace because of their gender, this must be addressed immediately to avoid any negative impact on the people and ultimately, the business,” McAlister concludes.