Homophobia at the Office

By Thomas Roulet

TO better understand the causes and consequences of homophobia in the workplace, we interviewed 18 gay and lesbian auditors in the Big Five accounting firms in France and followed up with them over the course of two years.

The good news is that our study revealed no obvious discrimination against the 18 employees. The bad news is that at work almost all of them reported hearing a number of comments or jokes aimed at sexual minorities. Most of the auditors we studied kept their sexual identity hidden from their co-workers. Doing so, they felt, could prevent them from suffering overt discrimination—but it also allowed their colleagues to assume that using homophobic slurs is “harmless”.

To hide their sexuality, gay and lesbian auditors lied constantly about their personal life. Since they worked long hours, they spent a significant share of their time concealing part of their identity and feeling insecure during personal discussions. Something as mundane as a discussion about dinner plans for Valentine’s Day can be difficult for employees who are not “out”.

Gay and lesbian auditors reported constant social discomfort as they wrestled with deciding whether to disclose their sexual identity and, if not, how to conceal it.

We observed that the rhetoric of performance in the workplace is associated with virility and heteronormative masculine values. Some employees, therefore, made overtly sexist comments, demeaning the behavior of other male colleagues as “effeminate”.

To fix the problem of workplace homophobia, managers should be on the lookout for such toxic rhetoric—and they should stop using such rhetoric themselves.

Mentoring, though an imperfect solution to diversity issues, can play a role. We observed that in the global firms’ UK offices, there were more networks for mentoring LGBT employees. The challenge is to find LGBT employees who are out at the most senior levels to act as mentors.

Thomas Roulet is a senior lecturer at the School of Management and Business at King’s College in London.

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