Somewhere Under the Rainbow: Improving LGBTQ Leadership in the Workplace


This is the second part, in a two part series discussing LGTBQ workplace environments.

As Gilbert Baker (designer of the rainbow flag) put it, “Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible – to live in the truth, as I say – to get out of the lie.”  As LGBTQ leaders, we need to continue to pave the way for those who come behind us but play a current role to help educate and transform the workplace of today.  The problem is, there is no road map or GPS that helps us navigate the sometimes murky waters that still exist with our non-LGBTQ counterparts.

We continue on from our article last month, where we focused mainly on non-LGBTQ leaders that could benefit from renewed awareness around improving relationships with LGBTQ peers and staff. This is the second of a two part series to help raise awareness of key issues on both sides of the leadership spectrum.  Hopefully these tips will help LGBTQ leaders be more aware and inclusive.

Trying to play it “straight” – the Unauthentic Leader

What this might look like:

You don’t acknowledge being LGBTQ or actually say you are not if asked directly.  You participate in off-color jokes against LGBTQ people, and/or you make it a point to take an extreme viewpoint against LGBTQ rights or treatment in the workplace.

How to overcome it:

First and foremost, our hearts go out to you.  It is a terrible thing to feel you have to lie about who you are!  There are clearly industries that still make it difficult for LGBTQ leaders and staff, but your actions are perpetuating this.  If you are not authentic about who you are, how can you be authentic in any other part of your leadership?  And, the truth is most people know or suspect if you are LGBTQ.  We understand you may not be out there waving the flag, but just be yourself.  If asked, you can reply affirmatively and maintain the respect others have for you.  Your value is not in WHAT you are, but in WHO you are; authentic, mature, poised leaders and team members are welcomed in any capacity.  You can only gain respect through honesty; you can never achieve esteem with a lie.  If others are going to judge you, there is nothing you can do about that.  At least let them judge you on the truth.

Trying to be the gay/transgender poster child

What it might look like:

Everything in your office has a pink triangle AND a rainbow.  You wear T-shirts every day that espouse some ‘truth’ of the LGBTQ existence.  Every conversation begins with a news report of the day on some LGBTQ atrocity around the world, and at every staff meeting you make sure to talk about the inequity LGBTQ endure in the work space.

How to overcome it:

The work environment is created to get work done and not to create a platform for every social issue on the planet.  It is great you want to help raise awareness, but to do so at the risk of alienating yourself is not helping you or the LGBTQ community.  Be a champion for LGBTQ equity and rights, but also be a great co-worker and leader FIRST!  When the rainbow or triangle are “shouting” at others, your voice can’t be heard.  Keep it all in perspective, and be proud! These are two ideas that co-exist very well together.

Holding LGBTQ co-workers to a different standard so as not to be seen as playing favorites

What it might look like:

As leaders, we allow the non-LGBTQ workers to go home early to take care of a sick pet or family member, but we don’t afford the same treatment to LGBTQ workers.  We hold one group of people to a different or more stringent standard when thinking about promotions or merit reviews/increases, because we may have to defend our actions and the LGBTQ issue is “bound” to come up!

How to overcome it:

As a leader, it is your role and duty to be objective in all things.  Your actions should be “defendable” in all cases, and you should be able to demonstrate fair treatment of all staff members, regardless of birth gender, age, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identification, and other similar issues.  Simply be consistent, and you will never have to worry.  If there is some concern, run the scenario by another leader that you respect and get his/her opinion; this way you can help maintain perspective outside of your personal decision matrix.

Distancing yourself from certain LGBTQ employees who are “too gay”

What this might look like:

You see that flamboyant individual coming down the hallway and you grab for your cell phone to answer a fake call.  You decline meeting invitations or omit the individual off of meeting requests you initiate so you don’t have to deal with them.   You make it clear to others that you are not “that gay”.

How to overcome it:

We all associate, or not associate, with certain people for a variety of reasons. The key here is to understand why? Why do you distance yourself from certain LGBTQ employees?  What is “too gay”? Is it because they are more out than you? Is their office decorated with pride flags and everything LGBTQ? Are they “too flamboyant” or “too butch”?

It’s a similar question as how high is up? How short is short? How far is far? It’s all a matter of perspective and individual comfort. What is it that makes you uncomfortable about these employees? Are they perceived negatively and as such you don’t want to be seen as ‘one of them’? You first need to understand the underlying reasons for your feelings so you can address this.  The other person knows you are avoiding them, and it casts your leadership and your interpersonal prowess/effectiveness into question, not theirs.


Trying to compensate for being LGBTQ

What this might look like:

You have to be THE BEST at everything in the workplace so you can be seen as the “star” or highest performer, and you will go to any lengths to do it.  Whenever they need an extra ‘body’, you always “sacrifice” because others have family obligations and your LGBTQ life is less important.  When it comes to cleaning, weekend overtime or other unpopular tasks, you are the first to raise your hand so others won’t have to do it and will like you more.

How to overcome it:

The fundamental issue is why are you over compensating, one way or the other? Do you believe that you are inferior to others or that your work doesn’t stand on its own merit? Have you conned yourself into believing that you are not just as competent as your straight office neighbor? If your organization’s culture makes you think like this, then maybe you need to find another place where being LGBTQ DOES NOT MATTER.  However, it is most likely your own feeling of inadequacy and you need to reassess the damage you are doing to yourself.  Be a team player, but also be yourself and take care of you and YOUR family’s needs just like anyone else would do.

Not helping to educate others and the organization around better/improved LGBTQ issues and equitable treatment

What this might look like:

When you see inequitable treatment in the workplace, you don’t raise the issue or concern.  When you overhear leaders being insensitive around LGBTQ issues, you don’t attempt to find a way to help bring about a better understanding.

How to overcome it:

This is a tough one and sometimes a double edged sword. If you try to educate, then you may be seen as pushing your ‘agenda.’ If you don’t do anything, then you’re part of the problem and not the solution. One approach you can take is to step out of the role as being LGBTQ and step up when you see a situation that warrants education in all diversity and inclusion areas, not just on LGBTQ issues. As a leader it is your responsibility to set the example of inclusion and acceptance for all employees.  Think about it this way… If you were Hispanic, would not help to educate the organization on improving relationship with the Hispanics in your workforce, or customers? What if you were Jewish, or Muslim? Wouldn’t it be the same? Holding employees accountable for their behavior, and helping them get there is your job as a leader.

 Some things to think about

  1. No matter what the situation, you are a leader first. Be respected, an educator and thoughtful in everything you do. LGBTQ employees are not there to change the thinking of everyone in the organization, but can be an integral part of change.
  2. Strive to be part of the solution and not just ignore it. If you have concerns or issues, come prepared with an open mind and solutions that could help everyone on all sides of the issue.
  3. Stand up for what is right on both sides of the issue. If LGBTQ staff are trying to use that angle simply to get their way, help to raise awareness and understanding.  Conversely, do not let your LGBTQ peers and staff languish in inequity or mistreatment because of your fears.
  4. Being LGBTQ is not about being “less than” or “odd”. It is simply about recognizing that all individuals deserve respect and equal treatment, and we as LGBTQ leaders can help be a bridge for understanding, listening, improving, and healing for everyone in the workplace. Use your best and worst workplace experiences to make you a better leader for all.



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