Diversity Training Addresses Sexual Orientation

By Todd Henneman

May. 29, 2004

Ryk Koscielski, a project manager at Lucent Technologies, spent years worrying that colleagues would learn his secret.

    He would be vague when asked about his weekends. He would refer to his same-sex partner as his roommate. And he would attend company parties alone. “I put a lot of energy into hiding personal information,” he says. “I thought that once I was out as a gay man, I wouldn’t have many opportunities for promotion.”

    Then his department attended a diversity session on sexual orientation. The day inspired him. After working with them for nine years, Koscielski told co-workers that he was gay. “It helped me personally and professionally to be comfortable at work,” Koscielski says, “and it helped my self-esteem.”

    Lucent, a leading global supplier of communications-networking equipment, is among a growing number of companies whose diversity training addresses sexual orientation. The Human Rights Campaign’s 2004 Corporate Equality Index, which evaluated how 379 companies treat gay employees, found that 76 percent of those companies offer diversity training on sexual orientation, compared with 53 percent in 2002.

On par with race
    Since coming out in 1994, Koscielski has become the co-president of EQUAL!, Lucent’s group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees. EQUAL! offers three educational programs: GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) 101, which covers terminology and explains why the company is broaching the topic; GLBT 201, in which gay employees share personal stories and explain laws; and Transgender 101, which discusses topics like sex changes.

    “For many years, ‘diversity’ meant looking only at racial, ethnic, gender and women’s issues,” says Selisse Berry, executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a nonprofit organization that has offered sexual-orientation diversity training since 1990. “Often diversity trainers felt uncomfortable talking about LGBT issues.”

    Gradually, workforce policies are treating sexual orientation on par with other dimensions of diversity, such as race. Some companies embrace gay training because of philosophical beliefs in equality. Others see it as a way to foster teamwork, enhance productivity or woo gay consumers. The 15 million gay men and lesbians in the United States comprise a $583 billion market, according to consumer-market researcher Packaged Facts and marketing firm Witeck-Combs Communications.

    Whirlpool, the No. 1 U.S. home appliance manufacturer, ensures that employees understand the buying power of gay consumers by devoting a training module to the business case for diversity.

    Whirlpool held a weeklong Diversity and Inclusion Summit in May to launch the next phase of its diversity program. “We saw that people didn’t understand the concepts of diversity and inclusion, what their roles were in this space and how they contribute to our company,” says Angela Roseboro, director of global diversity. “We devoted a week to learning about diversity–what it was, what it wasn’t, what we are trying to accomplish and how we can build a culture of inclusion.” Sexual orientation was covered during the summit and in periodic lunch-and-learn discussions held subsequently.

    Chubb, one of the nation’s largest property-casualty insurers, introduced gay-specific diversity training in 1995. A half-day session called Understanding Gay Issues in the Workplace explained how homophobia affects employees and compared myths with facts. A full-day session called Managing Gay Issues in the Workplace used role-playing and case studies to prepare managers for issues such as subordinates coming out.

    This year, Chubb began a mandatory program, dubbed Count Me In, about understanding “micro inequities.” The term, coined by adjunct professor Mary Rowe of the MIT Sloan School of Management, describes subtle forms of discrimination such as failing to introduce a gay peer or ascribing the idea of a woman to a man.

    “There has been no backlash to the training,” says Kathy Marvel, Chubb’s chief diversity officer. “Chubb has been very specific in saying we are going to treat all employees fairly. It’s non-negotiable as one of our values. We have a clear commitment from the CEO down.”

    Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves Central and Northern California, began on-site sexual orientation training in 1991 and covers the topic in its new-employee seminar, held at PG&E’s San Ramon Learning Center. “There were a lot of myths, even here in San Francisco, that gay rights were more than equal rights,” says Dan Barber, president of PG&E’s GLBT employee resource group.

    Diversity consultant Liz Winfeld, author of Straight Talk About Gays in the Workplace, has seen two common mistakes when companies add sexual orientation to their diversity curriculums.

    “They don’t bother to find out what’s really going on in the workplace from all points of view–from their gay employees, their straight employees, people who are in favor of such programs and people who are opposed,” Winfeld says. “And you really shouldn’t roll out an educational program until senior management has gone through some version of it. So when people look up and say, ‘Why should be doing this?’ senior management can say, ‘We did and we got a lot out of it.’”

Todd Henneman is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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