During the past year, Americans have seen big changes in the way the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are viewed: Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as gay and an impressive number of companies lent their support for federal protections for LGBT workers. But there are still 29 states where you can be fired for being lesbian or gay.
Whether you are an LGBT leader yourself or a straight ally for workplace equality, it’s important to help lead change in your workplace – for the benefit of your employees and colleagues, as well as for your company’s culture and business. As we celebrate LGBT Pride Month, here are some of my own guiding principles that might encourage others to come out in the workplace:
Understand the laws
Having statistics and current status of policies top of mind is crucial to being able to engage in conversations with senior management and others in your organization.
Your own organization may have a global nondiscrimination policy, but how does that play out across the globe, or even state by state? Protection for gay, lesbian and transgender employees is very unevenly distributed, and your top executives need to understand that a corporate nondiscrimination policy is terrific for an employee, but it does nothing to protect their family members.
Similarly, having specifics that you can draw on immediately is crucial when you are advocating for change. If you’re sitting down with a senior human resources leader and want to make a case for medical benefits for transgender employees, be ready to discuss what kind of coverage those employees most need.
Be yourself, really
That means showing up with authenticity, demonstrating courage and getting out of your comfort zone to say, “This is who I am.”
My own personal evolution started in 1982, when I first placed my partner’s picture on my desk at work. That’s a moment when your heart beats really hard. Nothing had really changed in the world yet, but until then I couldn’t be my authentic self. I would shut off that part of my life and be very focused on the work at hand, deflecting questions about my family. It’s exhausting to do that. I wasn’t as productive or creative in that type of environment.
There are certain things that you can see on the surface – skin color, eye color, you can hear what someone sounds like. But you don’t know their military experience, you don’t know their religion, you don’t know their sexual orientation. There’s so much richness below the waterline that is part of how someone shows up. And that’s what we should bring into the workplace.
We have a senior engineer in San Diego, our base for TurboTax, who described for us how complex it was for him and his domestic partner to file their taxes. Through the lens of his experience, we were able to add features to TurboTax that help reduce that complexity and which results in a better outcome. One solution, for instance, helps people recalculate past years’ taxes and identifies whether or not they should file an amended return in order to get money back from state and federal agencies.
Create a network of support
Coming out is not limited to LGBT employees. Many people want to lend their support but don’t know how. I have seen parents of gay and transgender children share very emotional stories – exposing a part of their lives and not being quite sure how people are going to react.
We can help those allies tell their stories and our stories. In the break room, café or meeting room, we can stand up to derogatory comments and slurs. Just as we need to be educators of LGBT equality, it’s important to convey the emotional part of being LGBT.
At Intuit, where I am a vice president of finance operations and workplace, we have a Pride employee network with several hundred members, half of them straight allies. We invite conversation. Not all straight colleagues know what to ask and how to ask about our lives. But it is more than a social community. We invest in professional development and engage in community service.
For all of us, one of the biggest challenges is having the courage to start a conversation – whether it is about healthcare benefits or support for federal non-discrimination legislation or sharing our own stories. Embracing your role as an educator can help give you that strength. The payoff will come in helping your company support LGBT employees and their families.
Most importantly, remember that equality, openness and authenticity in the workplace is a journey, not a race. In India, I’m working with our general manager – who cares deeply about equality – to build a Pride network there. Although to date we have not had anyone willing to join, one employee came up to me as I was leaving to thank me for what we were doing. He was not yet confident to come out.
And that means there is more work to be done.
Scott Beth is the Vice President of Finance Operations and Workplace at Intuit, a California-based software company that develops financial and tax preparation software and related services for small businesses, accountants and individuals.