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Corporate attitudes towards gays and lesbians in the workplace.

Abstract

In preparing future employees for work in business, many business communication courses discuss corporate cultures. Many business communication authors have stressed the need for students to be successful in today's workforce they must understand corporate culture. One culture that there appears to be a dearth of literature in business communication textbooks are preparing future employees to work with gays and lesbians as a culture in corporate America. The research focused on asking business professionals about their perceptions and attitudes towards gays and lesbians in the workplace. Information gathered from the study will provide business communication faculty will curricula teaching students to work with this specific culture in the workplace.

Literature Review

Many human resource managers ignore the issues that affect gays and lesbians in the workplace, to avoid resistance from other managers and employees, and also because they lack education about such issues. Consequently, HR policy decisions regarding homosexual employees may be based on stereotypes and misinformation. In such cases, a significant segment of the workforce--gay men and lesbians--becomes the object of discrimination (Lucas & Kaplan, 1994).

The gay and lesbian rights movement has spilled over into the workplace as well as into other social arenas. Management will have to take steps to diffuse any potential problems arising from the controversial issues involved. Business students as future professionals will be faced with working with gays and lesbians in their organizations. A study that ascertains what the current climate is for gays and lesbians and what strategies, information, and training can be provided to current business undergraduates is certainly merited. With this context in mind, the following study was undertaken. Instrumentation

The population for the study was business professionals listed on the Career Services list of a state-supported four-year university in the Northwest section of Pennsylvania. A total population of 523 was mailed. This study followed a descriptive research design using survey methods with statistical treatments. The design was a cross-sectional survey.

The "total design method" (TDM) suggested by Dillman (1978) was used as a guide. Each of the potential participants received a coded survey packet containing the following items: (1) Cover letter describing the study and an outline of the procedures to be followed; (2) The research instrument (a researcher created scale) entitled "An analysis of attitudes and perceptions towards gays and lesbians in corporate settings," and (3) A self-addressed stamped envelope was included for the convenience of the respondent to encourage greater participation (Dillman, 1978).

Data Analysis

Data for scores from the Likert scale were scored through the use of the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences for Windows (SPSS+ for Microcomputers, release 4.0); statistical tests were performed on the data from the scale. Descriptive and comparative analyses were made.

Findings

A total of 251 people responded to the survey. There were 8 surveys that were not usable. The total usable responses were 243 (a 46% response rate). Table 1 posed the question concerning anti-gay attitudes in the workplace and Table 2 focused on asking the business professionals specific questions related to attitudes towards gays and lesbians in the workplace. The questions covered the following areas: management, supervisory and entry level workers, negative comments and joke telling, and the need to address gays issues in their careers. Table 3 findings relate to questions, which focused on a range of topics that included the relationship between sexual orientation and a variety of variables (career choice, stressful situations, networks, team playing, and promotion). See issue's website <http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/sum02.htm>

What does the workforce recommend for diversity as it relates to gay and lesbian individuals? The initial results of the research indicate that the "don't ask, don't tell" attitude that has been reported in the literature continues to exist. At issue in many cases is simply the concept of personal privacy--what may or may not be shared within the confines of the workplace relationship. Of the comments made by respondents to the open-ended questions, the privacy of one's personal actions was emphasized, both for heterosexual and homosexual employees. An individual's preference for members of the same sex could be tolerated in general, but it would be better tolerated if it were not shared with others in the workplace.

Yet one's personal life often spills over into their professional life and while heterosexual employees enjoy the privilege of sharing personal events in their lives via conversations, parties or photographs, gay and lesbian individuals are often not afforded that same privilege. Not overlooking an individual's skills and education, the fact remains that personal life--and the sexual orientation of the person--often do contribute, whether directly or indirectly, to job satisfaction and productivity.

Nearly all of the respondents (98.5%) indicated that they had met someone who was gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and over half (56.6%) of those individuals considered that person to be a friend. Knowledge of openly gay or lesbian co-workers was common, as was discussion of issues relating to gay, lesbian, or bisexual individuals both in and out of the workplace. Most of the respondents (73.8%) considered themselves to be "somewhat" to "very" knowledgeable concerning gay or lesbian concerns, history and culture. When it comes to feelings and concerns about these particular co-workers, however, the waters of acceptance begin to muddy.

While most people know an individual who is gay or lesbian, and might possibly consider that person a friend, changes in attitudes appear when the gay or lesbian person becomes a member of the workgroup. How pervasive are anti-gay and antilesbian attitudes in the workforce today? The majority of respondents believed that anti-gay or anti-lesbian attitudes do exist, with most (49.3%) indicating that they exist "to some extent." Anti-gay attitudes, replete with the associated stereotyping, jokes, and negative remarks, were most often attributed to the general workforce population. And while some derogatory comments regarding gay and lesbian individuals were attributed to management and supervisory personnel, 29.3% in both cases, as would be expected, the extent of the remarks attributed to this group was less pervasive than within the general workforce population. Over half of all respondents (54.6%) indicated that co-workers that they knew personally made anti-gay or anti-lesbian remarks.

An additional issue that surfaced from the open-ended questions included in the research was that of fear. Lack of information, or misinformation, about gay and lesbian individuals perpetuated existing stereotypes and fed the fears of many individuals. Individuals fear what they do not know and many times those fears may surface in the form of jokes, negative comments, or outright harassment. Given that the respondents indicated that over 50% of their co-workers whom they knew personally made negative remarks about gay and lesbian individuals, it is clear that whether based on fear or other personal beliefs, sexual orientation is perceived as something that "matters" in the workplace.

How much impact does sexual orientation have on workplace dynamics? The results were mixed with over half (55.6%) of the respondents indicating that they believed sexual orientation mattered to other workers and 44.4% of the respondents indicating that sexual orientation made no difference in the workplace. If sexual orientation "matters" to other employees, what is it that makes this issue important to the general workforce population? The answer, as noted in the literature, appears to be the limits of tolerance for gay and lesbian individuals in the workplace.

When an individual's sexual orientation was combined with employment qualities such as networking ability, teamwork, or career choice, results were mixed. As noted in Table 3, most respondents (64%) felt that being gay or lesbian would "never" or "rarely" affect a co-workers ability to work as part of a team, yet a little over half (56%) of all respondents also indicated that an employee's sexual orientation could create "stressful" situations at work. Nearly the same percentage believed that sexual orientation affects an individual's career success or ability to network. Again, these responses indicate an acknowledgement of gay and lesbian individuals in the workforce, but at the same time may indicate reluctance to fully accept these individuals as co-workers. Most telling is the belief of the respondents that, considering the workplace in general, an openly gay or lesbian person would be "somewhat" likely (52.7%) or "very" likely (11.7%) to be denied a promotion based on their sexual orientation. A gay or lesbian individual may be tolerated as a productive member of a work team; however, full acceptance and assimilation into the corporate networks where power is wielded and promotions are awarded may be off-limits based on one's sexual orientation.

Conclusions

The findings of the research support many of the ideas reported in the literature regarding workplace diversity based on sexual orientation, yet to report these findings alone will not improve the workplace climate. To be truly effective, the research must lend itself to ideas and strategies for improving the workplace for all employees regardless of gender, race, marital status, or sexual orientation.

As the research indicated, most people have discussed gay and lesbian issues both in and out of the workplace and consider themselves to have some basic knowledge of gay and lesbian culture and traditions. If we also consider that over half of all respondents believe that sexual orientation "matters" in the workplace, and that half also believed a person's sexual orientation could create "stressful" situations at work, then perhaps the information that is being shared is actually reinforcement of existing stereotypes. This finding again lends credence to research indicating that oftentimes many human resources policy decisions are made based on stereotypes and misinformation simply because of a fear of the unknown, or because of a lack of education or valid information regarding this segment of the population. For change to occur, correct and factual information needs to be disseminated to both the current, and potential, workforce.

Current curricula in business communications generally include information on cultural diversity within organizations. This discussion of diversity typically relates to gender, race, religion, and ethnic background. As educators, we teach and promote tolerance for groups of people who are different from us, as well as strategies to help students become more adept at working with various groups of people. The information used in the textbooks is not based on stereotypes, but on facts that make it easier for one group of people to understand another. We instruct students on appropriate gifts to provide to business people from other countries, but in many cases we do not provide them with the information that they need to work effectively with the 6% to 12% of the workforce whose sexual orientation may be different from theirs.

There is no panacea for this particular workplace diversity issue. Fears and misinformation regarding sexual orientation abound making this an exceptionally difficult issue to face in the classroom. The survey respondents, business professionals themselves, provide the following suggestions:

* Diversity fosters creative problem solving. Diversity in the workplace is therefore a business asset--teach that angle.

* A good understanding of anti-discrimination policy and laws and how they help create workplace diversity and not just for gays and lesbians-but also for all minorities.

* Stereotypes are usually wrong. Like not all blacks are lazy, not all fat people are jolly, not everyone who likes show tunes is gay.

* Teaching adaptability and flexibility in exploring other cultures.

* Explain that there really is no difference because they are fellow co-workers, and regardless of sexual orientation, employees should regard one another with professionalism.

* Case examples of real-life situations that have occurred in the workplace.

* Students need factual information without feeling that their religious beliefs have been stepped on, or their parents' teaching have been ignored.

The comments provided by the respondents indicate that the issue needs to be addressed and also provide some suggestions for how to begin. Teaching, and modeling, tolerance is another important factor in improving the workplace culture for all employees. Learning to be adaptable in different situations and demonstrating flexibility are skills that will be invaluable to students as they begin their careers; these are also skills that students may not have obtained at home.

Students must be prepared to work with a diverse group of people when they enter the workforce. And just as a student may be assigned to work under a person who is of a different gender, race, or ethnic background, they might also be assigned to work for a person whose sexual orientation is different from their own. The student's success as a business professional will not depend on educational background or skill alone, but will also incorporate his or her ability to get along with others, to be a productive member of a work team, and to demonstrate a professional attitude toward all co-workers.

Implications for Business Communications

Business communication faculty will be able to develop curricula to insure inclusion of gay and lesbian individuals as part of corporate culture. As noted, gay and lesbian individuals may comprise anywhere from 6% to 12% of the current professional workforce. Students must be introduced to this specific minority group to increase their probabilities of workplace success. Student service professionals will be able to ascertain attitudes towards gays and lesbians on campus and may develop workshops for understanding and awareness. Attitudes concerning this group of individuals may vary between geographic locations, thus it is important to ascertain the attitudes of students within specific areas. This type of research may also help to pinpoint specific misinformation to be addressed as part of an understanding and awareness workshop.

Employers will also be able to use this information to set-up diversity training in the workplace. Our research has focused on how business communication faculty at the post-secondary level can address this aspect of workplace diversity within our respective curricula; the workplace also needs to be informed. Using the ideas generated at the post-secondary level, training and development professionals may create programs dealing with diversity based on a range of characteristics, including sexual orientation. The ultimate measure of success in this endeavor will be the evolution of a workplace that fosters the professional development of all employees.

Summary

In a study of perceptions and attitudes of business professionals towards gays and lesbians in the workplace, the results indicate that while this minority group has achieved a certain level of tolerance among individuals, workplace tolerance has stalled. While nearly all respondents reported that they had met someone who was gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and nearly 44.4% felt that having a gay or lesbian co-worker created stressful situations at work. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents indicated that they considered themselves to be knowledgeable in gay and lesbian culture and traditions.

Negative attitudes towards gay or lesbian individuals were reported to exist in the workplace by the respondents, with over half of all respondents indicating that someone whom they knew personally had made a negative comment regarding sexual orientation in the workplace. Personal belief systems and a lack of valid information regarding gay and lesbian individuals, combined with the resultant fear of these individuals caused by misinformation, was identified as problematic for the assimilation of these individuals into the corporate culture. Suggestions for improving awareness of gay and lesbian individuals include emphasizing workplace diversity as a business asset, including persons from all minority groups. Teaching and modeling tolerance for all individuals within the workplace, including gay and lesbian individuals. Educating students, through discussion and case example, to dispel the common stereotypes and myths regarding gay and lesbian individuals. And finally, to teach adaptability and flexibility when exploring new cultures.

Bibliography

Boone, L. E. & Kurtz, D. L. (1995). Contemporary Business Communication. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bovee, C. L. & Thill, J. V. (1995). Excellence in Business Communication (5th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill, Inc.

Dillman, D. A. (1978). Mail and telephone surveys: The total design method. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Lewis, G. B. (1995). The corporate closet: the professional lives of gay men in America. Public Administration Review. 55, (2), 201- 203

Lucas, J. H., Kaplan, M. G. (1994). Unlocking the corporate closet. Training & Development. 48, (1), 34-39.

Woods, J. (1994). The Corporate Closet. NY: The Free Press-Macmillan.

Dr. McPherson is Professor at Eberly College of Business.
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Author:McPherson, Bill
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:2687
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