This year at Evernote, I joined our newly formed LGBTQ Employee Resource Group.
Nowadays, that may not be an unexpected sentence. Many companies are now stepping up to support LGBTQ communities. From holding Pride events to updating their logos in solidarity to setting up internal advocacy groups, there are a myriad of ways for businesses to get involved and express their support.
But what may have surprised some is that I don’t actually identify as a member of the LGBTQ community.
While it’s not an identity I’ve lived with, I felt it was important to join the group as I was interested in becoming a better ally to my LGBTQ coworkers. And as people around the world have been celebrating LGBTQ pride and history throughout the month of June, I thought I would share a few lessons in allyship that I’ve picked up from the group so far.
Because whether you identify as part of that acronym or not, we all have a big role to play in creating our work environments, especially when it comes to developing awareness and empathy for our LGBTQ communities. A few small changes in how you manage your professional relationships can promote more successful collaboration and will ultimately foster a more inclusive and diverse space for everyone.
Why it matters
We spend so much of our lives in the office with our colleagues, and we mostly try to be our best, most productive selves. However, tension rises and builds when we feel we have to hide authentic pieces of ourselves on a daily basis. And for many LGBTQ community members, this tension is an unfortunate part of their careers.
For all of the progress it may seem we have made, we still have a lot of work left to do, and there are many reasons why LGBTQ community members feel uncomfortable or not accepted at work.
According to a 2014 Human Rights Campaign study, many LGBTQ individuals remained “closeted” on the job. The study also found that many straight individuals reported feeling uncomfortable when LGBTQ coworkers discussed their dating lives. Additionally, one out of four LGBTQ-identifying individuals surveyed heard homophobic comments while at work. And this is on top of the risk for outright discrimination, harassment, or unfair termination that LGBTQ individuals already face at work.
This all adds up to create an environment where LGBTQ community members may feel as though they can’t bring their whole selves to work. Instead, they “hide” or “edit” who they are, which is draining, exhausting, and demoralizing.
On the other hand, creating a friendly, inclusive workplace has positive ripple effects not only for LGBTQ individuals but also for the whole team. Recent studies prove that we perform better at work when we feel psychologically safe.
So it’s clear that building LGBTQ-friendly workplaces is critical to developing a thriving, welcoming culture where teams and individuals can succeed. But it’s important to remember that the burden can’t just be placed on LGBTQ-identifying individuals to advocate for themselves. And that’s where allies come in.
What is allyship anyways?
As the Human Rights Campaign’s website explains, allies are individuals who are not LGBTQ themselves but can still do a great deal to advance the cause of equality by showing support for in a wide range of ways. (They’ve also provided a helpful primer on the issues the LGBTQ community faces so you can quickly get up to speed).
For another example, Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) defines a straight ally as someone who just supports the LGBTQ person or personally advocates for equal rights and fair treatment. This distinction highlights the difference between passive and more active forms of allyship. (GLAAD also provides a helpful guide on terminology to use.)
Essentially, as workers, LGBTQ community members want the same opportunity we all should have to earn a living, advance their careers, and build relationships, while feeling safe and free from workplace discrimination, harassment, or unwelcoming atmospheres. As allies in the office, it’s our jobs to do everything we can to support LGBTQ individuals in their quest to make that vision a reality.
In a Washington Post opinion article, Carlos Maza gave another helpful overview of what it means to be an ally:
“As an ally, it’s not your job to be a therapist or counselor. But it is your job to listen to the LGBT people in your life, to ask them how they’re doing, to be aware that they may have gone through (and might still be going through) some things you don’t understand, and offer support when you can.
Keeping your heart open and an eye out for your LGBT brothers and sisters after the pride parties have ended and court cameras have turned off will go a lot further than votes or parade posters will ever do.”
To me, this really captures the spirit of allyship and gets at the theme of how we can be allies all year round, not just during Pride month when it may be more top-of-mind.
Tips for being a better ally
1. Understand that you don’t have to understand
Professional boundaries are important, and you should always maintain appropriate levels of honesty with your team based on the nature of your relationships and your work. You don’t need to understand everything about your someone’s identity, interest, or lifestyle to make them feel appreciated, respected, and safe in your presence.
2. You know what they say about assuming
You may think of yourself as an ally, but you may have unknowingly engaged in behavior that’s upsetting because of blind spots we all have. Best practice suggests that you never assume any details about your coworker’s personal life. For example, don’t automatically use gendered nouns such as “boyfriend” or “wife” when asking questions while trying to learn more about someone’s partner.
In fact, you may want to start off with more easy-going questions when first getting to know a coworker. Talk about weekend plans, your favorite podcasts or Netflix shows, your pets or your family, or local restaurants and attractions. Allyship at work goes beyond gender and sexuality, and everyone around you benefits when you actively choose to foster a positive work environment.
3. Be visibly helpful and openly pitch in
Your LGBTQ-identifying colleagues may not know that you support them in the workplace, and they may not feel comfortable or even safe asking you for help or working alongside you until they are sure that their jobs and personal lives aren’t at risk. A simple act of solidarity can make all the difference for someone trying to gauge how or if they should reveal their identity at work. Sharing a meal or a cup of coffee with a coworker is a great way to initiate trust and conversation.
If your organization supports an LGBTQ employee resource group like we do here at Evernote, you might sit in on a meeting, participate in events, or volunteer to help set up or organize with them. There are benefits for you as well — although I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community, I have gained great new relationships and learned so much on a personal level from being in our group.
4. Take a stand
When you hear another coworker making a derogatory comment about or a joke at the expense of LGBTQ people, voice your concern about the impact of such comments on your company culture, emphasizing that there’s nothing negative about being LGBTQ.
5. Do your own homework
You may feel that you already support your LGBTQ colleagues, or that you at least don’t hinder their professional performance in any way. But if you’re looking to do more, consider taking initiative in these areas:
- Uncover your bias. For starters, try to recognize that your day-to-day decisions often affect your work environment in ways that you don’t realize. We all have different levels of personal implicit bias that inform our conscious thinking, and we all make snap judgments about people or situations. The more you increase your awareness around your own implicit biases, you will find that you can approach your professional life with more clarity and fairness, and you will arm yourself to be a powerful workplace ally and a champion of inclusion and diversity for your company. To get a handle on your own biases, take the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) about Transgender bias here, and view the full list of IATs, including one about sexuality bias, here.
- Research LGBTQ history and current events. There are many resources out there that offer a great place to start. Learning more about the experiences of LGBTQ-identifying individuals is a great tool to connect as an ally, even if you don’t personally know and interact with the LGBTQ community in your daily life. A quick Internet search provides endless resources written by the LGBTQ community for allies.
Your allyship will make your work environment an overall more welcoming and productive place — and it very well could make a world of difference to your LGBTQ-identifying coworkers.
Written by Natalie Stevens on June 14, 2018.