Conflict in the workplace takes many forms, and runs the gamut from passive aggressive behavior to blatant bullying. LGBT employees may experience any and all types of conflict simply because they are ‘different’ and co-workers and supervisors are ill prepared to manage their bias and/or personal beliefs.
When confronted (directly or indirectly), how should the LGBT worker behave? This big, broad question has no simple answer. There are many possibilities and outcomes to consider: report (or threaten to report) to Human Resources, angrily lash out, ignore, leave your job or request a change in position. The key to determining what is right for YOU is to identify your goal. What is the end result you want to achieve? Again, many choices here: terminate the offender, educate, seek ‘justice,’ avoid further contact. Here it’s important to be realistic. Know the company culture and consider every angle. For example, if you go for termination of the offender and you are not successful, what then? Abuse continues (and possibly escalates) but goes underground so as not to be detected. Other workers now avoid you, walk on eggshells or fail to trust fearing they’re next. This reaction from co-workers may occur even if you are successful and the offender is terminated.
I would argue that the ultimate goal for the LGBT employee is self protection. You want to be able to confidently and effectively perform in the workplace. This means you’ll need to be comfortable being exactly who you are and expressing yourself honestly. Now, how to get there in the face of conflict with co-workers and/or supervisors. Let’s take a specific example and work through it keeping in mind the ultimate goal. Here’s the scenario: You are attending the weekly staff meeting with your co-workers. Meeting is led by your supervisor. The subject of a new dress code is introduced: Dress will be ‘casual’ on Fridays. You ask for specifics: ‘What exactly is considered casual?’ One of your co-workers replies, ‘Don’t be such a queen. You people know how to dress.’ Some of your co- workers laugh while others look away.
We’ll consider your most effective reaction as well as best practice for the supervisor leading the meeting. Let’s start with the supervisor. When the comment is made, supervisor should scan the room to assess the reaction. Those laughing are oblivious to others (including the target of the comment) who are clearly uncomfortable. This signals division in the group and reactions need to be acknowledged and addressed. Supervisor should make a statement: ‘Looks like not everybody finds that funny.’ This is an observation that alerts laughing members to the fact that not everyone is with them and opens the door for uncomfortable members to speak up: ‘I didn’t think it was funny.’ At this point, discussion (or argument) might ensue and the leader will need to guide and limit this depending on time and the content of the interaction. The point is, the leader must acknowledge and deal with the comment. It is tempting to ignore or laugh it off and move on, but that condones the behavior. Letting it go sends a long lasting message: ‘Taunting people is fine. I don’t notice or care that my employees are upset. Don’t rock the boat.’
If you are the LGBT employee and your supervisor does not acknowledge the comment, take a risk and do it yourself. Scan the group to determine that others are uncomfortable and politely interrupt: ‘Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt but I didn’t appreciate that comment. Seems like other people are uncomfortable too.’ This observation will hopefully open the door for a much needed discussion. This is not easy, but worth the effort and discomfort. By stating your feelings and what you see, you have made the group aware of the effect they have on you and others.
Being direct and using statements are the tools needed to effectively manage workplace conflict. The direct approach allows you to be open and honest, alleviating paranoia, scheming and gossiping. Most importantly, no one can say, ‘I didn’t know you had a problem.’ Statements are useful because they are straightforward observations. You can respond (or not) to them- no pressure. ‘Your comment was patronizing.’ Rather than a question: ‘Why are you so patronizing?’ or an accusation: ‘You’re so patronizing.’
This is the first step toward improving relationships and interactions among your co-workers and supervisors. When you practice direct and honest communication, you set the tone and model for others. Next steps include developing and practicing empathy and working with the group to foster trust and cohesion among employees. Investing in a program that accomplishes this is well worth it. Not only do LGBT employees benefit; all employees and the organization as a whole benefit from improved communication and interaction. Workers who are comfortable and confident confronting each other participate effectively in teams and their overall performance improves. Company loyalty increases as the culture of the organization promotes honesty, directness and respect. Sounds like a great place to work.