Surveys have often uncovered sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace in the United States. A recent NPR poll found that 20% of LGBTQ people faced discrimination while applying for jobs. Another survey conducted by American Progress reported that 28% of lesbian, gay, and queer workers lost a promotion due to sexual orientation discrimination. 

Do you run a large company or a small business? If so, it is imperative that you create a safe work environment for all of your employees. This means that you must work to fight sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.

What is sexual orientation discrimination? Is this type of discrimination illegal? How can you approach these issues with your coworkers and employees?

Read on to find out everything you need to know to make your workplace safe and comfortable for everyone. 

What Is Sexual Orientation Discrimination?

In short, sexual orientation discrimination is treating someone differently because of their sexual orientation. In some cases, it occurs based on someone’s perceived sexual orientation. While this sounds simple enough, it can take on many different forms.

In some cases, this may take the form of not hiring or promoting someone on the basis of sexual orientation. In others, it may take the form of uncalled for workplace punishment or termination. 

However, this behavior doesn’t always come from superiors. It may also come from coworkers in the form of hostility or harassment. 

Commenting on or joking about someone’s sexual activity or identity is harassment. Refusing to work alongside someone based on their sexual orientation is hostile and discriminatory.

These negative behaviors fall under the category of discrimination regardless of the perpetrator’s sexual orientation or gender. The perpetrator’s intentions are also not as important as the actual outcome of their behaviors. In other words, believing that your discriminatory actions are “funny” or “playful” does not excuse them.   

Is Sexual Orientation Discrimination Illegal?

Employers often inquire about the legality of sexual orientation discrimination. What legal obligations do you have to fight these behaviors? Can affected employees bring you to court?

It depends on where you live and whether or not you work in the public or private sector. 

First, let’s look at Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act protects workers from discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. What about sexual orientation?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared that Title VII covered sexual orientation. However, individual state courts often fail to uphold this standard. Because the Supreme Court has refused to take on the issue, sexual orientation is not a protected group on a national level.

That said, almost half of US states and the District of Columbia illegalized sexual orientation discrimination. This includes California, Maryland, New York, Washington, and more. Based on pressure from activist groups nationwide, we can expect to see more states follow suit. 

Finally, sexual orientation discrimination within the federal government is illegal. In 2014, President Obama passed Executive Order 11478. This protects federal employees at every level as well as federal contractors.  

How to Fight Sexual Orientation Discrimination in the Workplace

Whether sexual orientation discrimination is illegal in your state or not, you should fight it in the workplace. Doing so shows that you care about your employees. It also prepares your business for the transition to stricter discrimination laws in the future.

1. Educate Your Staff

The first step is to educate everyone who works for your business, including yourself. Some states require this training. Others may not, but without education, discrimination will persist.

Start with an online training program that covers topics such as sexual harassment and different kinds of discrimination. Pair this process with a compliance tracker to ensure that everyone completes the course. 

When you ask everyone to complete this program, you guarantee that everyone has received the same information. Some people may feel embarrassed to ask questions openly. These programs provide the privacy to learn without judgment. 

Make sure information about workplace discrimination is open and available. Give your employees documents to keep at their desk or in their locker. That way, they can review what they’ve learned multiple times.

2. Create a Clear Anti-Discrimination Policy

Once education is underway, craft an anti-discrimination policy. Include the parameters of sexual orientation discrimination and prohibited behaviors.

You must also explicitly state what will happen if this anti-discrimination policy is violated. Don’t make these decisions on a case by case manner. Consider a system of warnings that could result in termination over time.

Include your Human Resources department in this process. They will have a strong understanding of any laws in your state pertaining to the matter. It is possible that your state requires a specific response to workplace discrimination. 

Once you have a clear anti-discrimination policy, create both physical and digital copies for everyone in the company. Hold a meeting to discuss the policy and answer any questions. You may want to have everyone sign a notice stating that they’ve reviewed the policy. 

3. Provide Channels of Communication

For those who face discrimination, communicating the problem may be intimidating. Employees may fear that they face retaliation, anger, or termination for speaking out. These feelings tend to increase when the perpetrator is in a position of power or is highly valued by the company.

Allow your employees to communicate directly with Human Resources. Don’t ask that they go through you or another high-level employee to report problems.

In addition, consider opening up a whistleblower channel. A whistleblower is someone who works within an organization and wants to make their allegations public. The channel allows anonymity and security, lessening the chance that people will continue to work under stress.

When you open a whistleblower channel, all messages will go to a designated person or department in your company. The process is secure, protecting the whistleblower from retaliation. 

4. If You See Something, Say Something

If you witness sexual orientation discrimination but it isn’t directed toward you, should you say something? Yes, you absolutely should. 

Standing in solidarity with a protected group lessens the hostility they may feel at work. It can be much harder to report discrimination or harassment if it appears that no one else notices it. Plus, the perpetrator may listen to you even if they wouldn’t listen to the person they’re harassing. 

This policy is not conditional. It doesn’t matter if the person in question is in the room. It doesn’t matter if names aren’t named. 

If you see inappropriate behavior or hear inappropriate speech, act. If you’re not comfortable reprimanding the person in the moment, tell someone who can. The onus of stopping sexual orientation discrimination should not fall entirely on the person facing said discrimination. 

5. Hold Wrongdoers Accountable

The most important thing to remember when fighting discrimination is that consistency is key. Creating a clear, explicit anti-discrimination policy is the first step. The second is maintaining consistent accountability.

That means that no matter who breaks your anti-discrimination rules, the punishment must be the same. If employees feel that you are favoring certain people, they may feel uncomfortable reporting issues in the future. Plus, you will send a signal to the perpetrator that the rules don’t apply to them.

You should also act swiftly and maintain transparency. While you don’t want to act without judging the situation, you don’t want to leave anyone hanging. For example, an employee who has faced discrimination may feel uncomfortable continuing to work with the perpetrator in the present. 

The best thing to do is contact Human Resources as soon as you hear of an allegation. Follow their protocol on how to proceed. This may involve talking to all parties individually.

It isn’t always appropriate to inform the entire company of an incident. However, make sure that anyone involved knows what’s going on. That way, they trust that you are taking them seriously and know that their own job is not at stake.

Harassment Alert Is Here to Help

Are you ready to fight sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace? Are you unsure of where to start? We’re here to help.

We provide ready-to-use training programs, whistleblower channels, and more. When you sign up for an account, you can access our free policy creator and manager. We also throw in compliance, certification, and reporting tools for free, too!

Give it a shot and try Harassment Alert now. Select your state and the package that works best for you. We’ll put together the tools you need to rid your workplace of harassment and discrimination. 

Additional Information

Workplace Sexual Harassment Examples and How to Prevent Harassment in the Workplace

Anti Sexual Harassment Training By State

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