On the Clock

Ten expert tips on how to get the most out of your career.


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Work in the boardroom or the mailroom, on the sales floor or the production line, there are a few things every lesbian should know about equality in the workplace. We asked two experts for advice: Selisse Berry, founding executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing LGBT workplace equality, and Kirk Snyder, the author of Lavender Road to Success: The Career Guide for the Gay Community and The G Quotient. Making the most of your 9 to 5 might simply mean recognizing the strengths you bring to your current company, or it might mean finding a new employer who already knows how beneficial it is to have a diverse workforce.

Do what you love, but understand the bigger picture.

“Lesbians can be found in all professions and in all industries, though some industries are more welcoming than others,” says Berry. Having a feel for what your industry is like as a whole will give you some context, making your career decisions easier. Snyder identifies technology, entertainment, education and human resources as sectors that have historically been lesbian- and gay-friendly. But, he cautions, you don’t want to make assumptions. “The key is to do your homework and find out what the internal reality is for the company itself.”

Fit with the company, not just the job.

So, you’ve just landed the perfect job, and you’re thinking you’ve got it made. Well, think again, and take a minute to ask yourself, Is this a company I want to work for? Do they make a point of hiring and supporting a diverse workforce? Is their workforce in favor of diversity? “The ‘right fit’ oftentimes determines the success of an employee,” Berry cautions. It can be hard to know whether you’ve found the elusive right fit, but Snyder has some practical advice. “Sit outside the company and look at who walks out at the end of the day. Is it a diverse group? If so, are they segregated or integrated?” You can also ask to speak to a few current employees. Ask the person you’d be replacing why he or she is leaving; and ask your soon-to-be coworkers what they like about the company. “A prospective employee should ask about the company’s domestic partner benefits, support of employee resource groups and possible mentorship opportunities,” Berry advises.

Conduct the interview on your own terms.

Everyone hates job interviews, but even if your nerves get the best of you, don’t let an interviewer draw you out or put you on the defensive about your personal life. “Regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, it is not legal to ask an applicant if they are married or what their spouse might do for a living,” Berry advises. If you are asked questions that make you uncomfortable, keep it positive and professional. Berry recommends saying something like, “I understand the question, but how does my relationship status affect my job performance?” or “I’ve been in a committed relationship for years, but I would rather focus on how my skills will benefit the company.” If you’ve done your research and found that the company is probably lesbian- and gay-friendly, then you can relax a little. “People will take their cues from you. If you don’t make a big deal out of it, they won’t either,” says Snyder. “And if it does make a difference to them, you want to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.”

Be yourself, and the rest will follow.

To come out or not to come out—that is the question you probably ask yourself every time you start working somewhere new. Ideally, this shouldn’t be a quandary at all, but for many lesbians coming out at work just isn’t an option. “You never want to come out if you think it may cause you physical harm,” Snyder warns. But, living in fear that you might slip and say something about your girlfriend is not the way to be happy in your job. “It’s important to balance personal integrity and authenticity with your professional goals,” Berry says. The experts agree that you will probably be happier and more successful if you can be yourself at work.

Trust your intuition and do what feels right.

So, you’ve decided you want to come out at work, but you aren’t sure how to do it. If you are still at the interview stage, you can ask questions that “leave the closet door wide open,” says Berry. Something like, “Do you offer domestic partner benefits?” Or, if you’ve already been hired, you might tell your coworkers directly, or you might decide to be more relaxed about it, mentioning your partner or community in passing, without making it a big deal. Take your cues from how your coworkers act and choose a strategy for coming out that suits you.

Understand why you are an asset to the workforce.

Being a lesbian is a professional strength, not a weakness. “In general, companies from various industries have learned that cutting-edge innovation results when people from diverse backgrounds and varied experiences come together to solve problems,” Berry says. In addition, Snyder points out that the personal attributes you’ve developed by living as a minority can translate into valuable professional skills. “When you live in a world that still requires lesbians and gays to create their own unique path, you develop a set of life skills that are tremendously valuable in today’s world of work. From problem-solving skills to a greater sense of intuitive awareness, being different can set you apart in a positive way when you place yourself in an environment that affirms who you are as a human being.”

Be sure your employer’s non-discrimination policy isn’t just talk.

“The gap between having non-discrimination policies in place and enforcing them is the biggest problem we face,” says Berry. Not all employers hold themselves to the equality standards they post on their websites, and not all coworkers adhere to the guidelines set out in the employee handbook, so you probably won’t be surprised if your company’s stance on equality issues turns out to be hype. But Berry recommends a few things you can do to improve workplace culture: “Employees can seek out straight allies to advocate on their behalf or request HR to host diversity training like that offered by Out & Equal’s Building Bridges Diversity Training.”

Stay on top of the latest benefits trends and make the most of them.

A happy employee is a productive employee. According to Berry, more and more companies are seeing the light and supporting their employees with comprehensive benefits packages that include items like flexible schedules (including telecommuting), LGBT-specific mentorship programs and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits for domestic partners. She says that some employers even adjust their employees’ salaries to offset the tax liability incurred by domestic partner benefits. “For example, if an employee pays $3,000 in taxes as a result of domestic partner benefits, the employer increases the employee’s salary by $3,000.”

Bring your community to work.

“As companies start to embrace diversity in all its forms, lesbians will naturally be attracted to organizations where they can bring all of who they are to work. Studies show that LGBT people are attracted to companies that actively recruit within the community, support LGBT organizations through corporate giving and advertise in LGBT publications,” Berry says. If your company is lagging behind on equality issues, you might be able to jump-start its diversity by taking the initiative. “There are so many great organizations, like Reaching Out MBA and Out & Equal, to get involved in. Provide your employer with all of the information and ask if you can represent the company,” Snyder suggests. “One great thing to do is present your company with facts about how increased diversity leads to increased profits. At the end of the day, money talks.”

Understand what “equal” really means.

“Employers are required by federal law to have an Equal Employment Opportunity policy, but at this time sexual orientation is not included,” says Berry. “It’s paramount that Congress enact—and the new president sign into law—legislation that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity, so all members of our community are protected,” she argues. Don’t just take what they’re giving because you’re working for a living. You can help make the daily grind a little less grueling by using your vote to support equality. According to Berry, “Today, more than 98 percent of the largest companies in the U.S. include sexual orientation in their Equal Employment Opportunity policies.” It’s officially a trend; now let’s work toward making it the law.
 

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