Learning to Recognize Workplaces Hostile to LGBT People

A reflection by Lindsey

This post has been on my mind for months. It’s been a hard one to write. After all, I didn’t feel quite safe enough to talk about my previous hostile workplaces until I felt reasonably secure in a more supportive work environment.

As we’ve shared before, I have the good(?) fortune of being easily identifiable as a member of the LGBT community because of my appearance. I have always had a hard time figuring out why people generally assume I’m a member of the queer community. My sense of style has remained largely consistent since I was five and has never been about making a “statement.” Until a few weeks ago, I had never displayed anything rainbow on my person, and even then it was only a small ribbon worn by many professional conference attendees to show support for diversity in engineering. But I have found that absolutely nothing I do ensures that I will be treated fairly on the job if a particular employer is hesitant about employing LGBT people. It’s hard to say definitively that my LGBT status was what separated me from any past job, but I have strong suspicions that I have worked for at least two workplaces that, for whatever reason, did not want to employ any queer person. As I’m gearing up to start a new job, I’ve reflected on patterns that emerge when a workplace is trying to get rid of an LGBT employee.

I think it’s important to begin with some simple, factual statements. Employers rarely come right out and tell you that they think you’re LGBT. The more blatant the discrimination is, the more likely it is that the harassed person might seek legal help.  If you have any skills documenting the exact forms of harassment, you might be able to win a wrongful termination settlement on the basis of another federally protected category. Overt discrimination and harassment around LGBT status frequently involves sex, gender, and marital status, and I have no doubt that companies curtail the most flagrant kinds of LGBT discrimination. What company wants to be the poster child for that lawsuit? Instead, companies that would rather not employ an LGBT person frequently try to nudge the individual out the door in subtler ways. To convince a person to leave or gather grounds to terminate the individual, some employers will do everything in their power to create a hostile workplace.

It’s no secret that workplaces have a limited arsenal of strategies they can use to try and nudge a person out of a job, and many of them are just barely on the right side of the law. These can be used against any person an employer is trying to move out the door, LGBT or not. But my experience suggests that the workplace climate can change in nearly imperceptible ways when an employer starts to suspect that an employee is LGBT and decides that hiring a queer person was a mistake. It’s especially important for LGBT employees to be aware of these changes. Here are 3 things I’ve learned to look out for along with some of my thoughts on how to let a workplace know that you’re prepared to play hardball if it tries to make your life a living hell:

1. Evaporating support structures. I’ve been fortunate to work at companies that value retention. When I arrived at these companies, I was matched with mentors who would check in with me occasionally to see how I was doing. Mentees could generally expect to have weekly conversations with their mentors. As I have reflected on my past experiences in difficult workplaces, I cannot think of any meaningful interactions with my mentors after people started to think about whether I may be LGBT.

Here’s what I wish I would have done differently: I wish I would have settled into a pattern on Day 1, Week 1 of contacting my mentor regularly. I would have looked to the employee handbook for guidance, but I would have communicated with my mentor in writing about expectations for our relationship. Email is a particularly good medium because one has a written record of the conversations. If I had suspected an employer was starting to feel out my LGBT status, I would have spent the next several weeks tracking my interactions with my mentor to see if anything about our relationship had changed. If even the slightest aspect had seemed fishy, I would have discussed my mentorship concerns with my supervisor and/or human resources in writing. Additionally, I would have duplicated the relevant correspondence. For all intents and purposes, your employer owns the correspondence and does not need to give you access to your work email after you’ve been terminated. One particularly hostile work environment suspended my access to my email account less than an hour after letting me go.

2. Shifting responsibilities. Job descriptions tend to be written vaguely and broadly. Virtually every contract I’ve signed has included the line, “and other duties that may be assigned.” It does not take long in a work environment to figure out which duties are most and least desirable. When I have found myself in increasingly hostile workplaces, I’ve noticed a vacuum with regard to explicit responsibilities with clear due dates for deliverables. Simultaneously, I have observed other people receiving desirable duties, but no interest from my supervisors in assigning some of those to me. Additionally, my work duties began to change, and began to mirror those of people with far less experience and skill. Also, I was assigned tasks with such low priority that supervisors lost all interest in giving me any feedback on my work. With other people working on the important and urgent projects, my work became nearly invisible.

Here’s what I wish I would have done differently: Virtually every company wants employees who take initiative and are self-starters. Long-term projects can be a great way to prove oneself, but supervisors frequently fail to provide timely feedback. When I noticed that I was being assigned nearly exclusively to long-term projects, I wish I’d had the foresight to be firmer in asking for feedback on smaller parts of those projects from my supervisors. Additionally, I wish I had documented the time I had spent waiting for promised feedback from my supervisors. Because employers value team players, I would have documented the feedback I gave to other employees who were working on various short-term projects instead of giving my feedback orally and trusting that my supervisor would hear that I had offered it at all.

3. Increasing supervisory distance. As mentioned in the previous point, doing a good job when starting at a new company requires getting a lot of feedback on one’s performance. It’s really hard to get quality feedback, or any at all, when supervisors keep their distance. One change that I noticed in increasingly hostile workplaces was that my supervisors tended to frame their distance as being motived by the employee’s interest. After all, if an employee reports struggling to get to personal or family obligations in the evening, wouldn’t a compassionate employer explore possibilities of flex time? Giving the employee access to flex time makes the employer look compassionate and understanding. However, if a supervisor starts to use said flex time to be conspicuously absent at hours when the employee is working, I’d encourage the employee to consider looking for a different job.

Here’s what I wish I would have done differently: Workplaces have their rhythms. Through my experiences in hostile workplaces, I’ve learned that few workplaces are interested in modifying those rhythms. I wish I would have taken time to discern each workplace’s natural rhythm. Similarly, I wish I had thought to figure out where and how important decisions got made. People need to collaborate in order to create a workplace that is truly hostile, even if one person seems to be in charge of coordinating all of the puzzle pieces. Some of the more creative arrangements for promoting hostility can lead to supervision-via-documentation rather than supervision-via-relationship. As soon as I realized I was in a situation of supervision-via-documentation, I wish I would have known to start looking for a new job. It’s much easier to find fault with a written report than it is to identify weaknesses in a person one regards as a friend.

As I prepare to start a new job, I have tried to do my homework as much as possible. Even in my two most hostile workplaces, I managed to land on my feet after the fallout because I knew just enough about my rights to signal that my employers had their toes on the proverbial lines. I’d be willing to make a small bet that showing one’s ability to keep a detailed record of workplace climate issues might be the best strategy in cultivating more positive work environments.

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