- Eliminate a culture of bullying. A culture that sanctions bullying against LGBT+ persons can emerge in several ways, and one is through offensive humor. DEI communications should emphasize this, and supervisors and managers should firmly prohibit such comments.
- Encourage managers to be self-reflective about their roles. All managers should reflect on their own behavior to evaluate the possibility they may be a workplace bully
- Ensure disclosure. Since LGBT+ workers who do not feel comfortable being “out” in their workgroups have been shown to experience more negative work attitudes, higher stress and less successful careers, top managers must provide a work culture devoid of any nuances of prejudice
- Remember that one size does not fit all. Ensure that policies, procedures and DEI initiatives are carefully designed so that all persons believe they are protected from co-worker mistreatment.
- Foster and encourage reporting of mistreatment. Strong DEI initiatives should provide co-workers with a language and behavioral repertoire for addressing bullying when they see it.
Editor’s Note: This article, Part II of a two-part-installment, is an excerpt from “Bullying and Sexually Marginalized Workers: A Threat to the Employee Value Proposition,” published in the Q4 2021 Journal of Total Rewards. Part I examined the problem and existing research in the area. Part II offers managerial recommendations to help ensure all workers experience a bully-free workplace
Being cognizant of the limited amount of research and practice in the field of LGBT+ workplace bullying we outlined in Part I of this article, we make cautious recommendations to guide managers.
First, a culture supportive of all workers will have effective, clear, thoroughly communicated and strongly enforced non-bullying policies that emphasize no tolerance for bullying. Managers should not assume that all workers understand and remember the policy. A clear education and knowledge maintenance strategy is important.
Targets of bullying need to be supported and must understand available mechanisms to report to decision makers. But policies by themselves are not sufficient.
Do Not Create a Culture of Bullying
Institutional bullying reflects a culture that supports bullying. A culture that sanctions bullying against LGBT+ persons can emerge in several ways. One is through offensive humor. It has been said that sexually marginalized persons were among the last groups that it was “OK to joke about.” Even though gay jokes are now generally vigorously opposed in the broader social culture, they are pervasive and are fully inappropriate in a strong culture of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Some research shows that jokes denigrating LGBT+ persons reflect feelings of threatened masculinity. However, any type of joke or figure of speech that stereotypes a group should be off limits. DEI communications should emphasize this, and supervisors and managers should firmly prohibit such comments. In organizations that prize creativity and innovation, humor is often pervasive and can be appropriate. However, any type of humor degrading groups of persons should not be tolerated.
Managers Should Be Encouraged to Self-Reflect
All managers should reflect on their own behavior to evaluate the possibility they may be a workplace bully. Such behavior can become deeply embedded in daily actions and thus difficult to identify without honest and deep introspection. If a bullying culture exists, managers concerned with inclusion and civility need to respond with meaningful and effective change efforts.
Importance of Disclosure
Top managers must clearly and visibly support a non-bullying culture that actively includes all marginalized groups, including LGBT+ workers. These workers may be in the unique situation of deciding whether to disclose their sexual orientation while risking discrimination and vulnerability.
Since LGBT+ workers who do not feel comfortable being “out” in their workgroups have been shown to experience more negative work attitudes, higher stress and less successful careers, top managers must provide a work culture devoid of any nuances of prejudice. While LGBT+ workers must make their own decisions about disclosure, a strong DEI culture can clear this path.
Learn the Language
Inclusion requires that all workers, particularly managers, know the appropriate language.
- The LGBT+ acronym continues to evolve. Language should be inclusive of all genders and avoid binary language. Managers should ask for preferred pronouns and recognize that some terms, such as homosexual, are not favored. Use a reliable resource, such as the Human Rights Campaign, to guide understanding.
- Because language and understanding of LGBT+ workers is evolving, mistakes are inevitable as people work together on these challenges. Managers should help workers understand the importance of apologizing for missteps and foster a culture of inclusion so LGBT+ workers respond appropriately to these mistakes.
Ensure LGBT+ Workers Can Voice Concerns About Bullying
Some LGBT+ bullying targets may not be out to their co-workers or feel their orientation will be disclosed if they report a bully, and therefore remain silent.
Mechanisms must be in place that allow employees to discretely share their experiences of being bullied. These mechanisms, such as grievance protocols or similar processes, should be clearly communicated, and should result in timely, appropriate resolutions, with a guarantee of no retaliation.
Be Aware That LGBT+ Is Not “One Size Fits All”
As the research discussed, gay men and lesbians have different workplace experiences from each other, and bisexual workers have different experiences from gay men and lesbians. Heterosexual workers’ experiences are different from these LGB groups. Thus, ensuring that policies, procedures and DEI initiatives are carefully designed so that all persons believe they are protected from coworker mistreatment is critical.
Offering employee resource groups for a wide range of identities may provide avenues for people of similar perspectives to share their own experiences and build support for each other.
Know What LGBT+ Bullying Looks Like
Because sexually marginalized persons may be “closeted” and cross all racial and ethnic boundaries, bullying might look different to this group than it does to others. Managers can learn to spot symptoms, such as inappropriate jokes or excluding sexually marginalized coworkers from social activities.
Consider adding items in climate survey items to determine who is making complaints about bullying — and who isn’t. Are some persons not coming for assistance because they believe they are not fully included in the organizational culture? Are some asking for more assistance than others? Such research can be useful to determine where and why bullies exist and reveal areas of focus in DEI programs.
Don’t Take for Granted That Majority Persons Are Bullied Less
Keep in mind that all workers can be bullied. As our first study showed, gay men and lesbian workers reported less bullying than heterosexual workers. Thus, organizations must ensure that no particular group of persons is singled out as worthy of protection or focus. In other words, all employees should be protected from bullying.
Research shows that if work environments permit any form of abusive behavior such as incivility or sexual harassment, then other types of dysfunctional conduct are more likely to also occur. Therefore, when the work environment is free from all types of harassment or bullying, it is a more pleasant and productive space for everyone.
Ensure Bystanders Have a Language and Repertoire for Dealing with LGBT+ Bullying
Strong DEI initiatives should provide co-workers with a language and behavioral repertoire for addressing bullying when they see it. Providing some suggested interventions for supporting or even protecting a bullying target, particularly one who may feel more bullied than others, would assist LGBT+ and all workers to feel a part of their work group.
General Advice About Bullying
As organizations strive to make their workplaces more inclusive for the LGBT+ population and mitigate potential workplace bullying incidents, leaders should consider if bullies exist in their organizations. In addition to the obvious signs, there are several subtle behaviors managers can look for that can also identify a bully, including: veiled intimidation; removal of a worker’s responsibility; isolation/exclusion; taking credit for or undermining a person’s work; and creating a feeling of uselessness.
While the research and practice implications of LGBT+ workplace bullying are still in their early development, enough is understood to enable organizational leaders to make wise, compassionate decisions and take affirmative action to ensure all workers are included, able to fully contribute to the organization and are free from the pain of bullying.