Queer people in the workplace: Understanding the microaggressions that impact the lives of queer people at work
Sam Bailey, Marketing Analyst at Nash Squared and part of our team behind the long running podcast Tech Talks, discusses the impact language and behaviour can have on queer people of all identities.
This article contains language that may not be immediately familiar to some, therefore listed below are some examples of definitions and explanations.
- LGBTQIA+ - Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual
- Queer - a collective adjective for members of the LGBTQIA+ community
- Cisgender - when an individual identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth
- Heteronormative - describes the way in which society is most familiar and tailored to the needs of cisgender and heterosexual individuals. A common heteronormative assumption is marriage between a cis man and cis woman
- Gender non-conforming - can describe anyone that does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. This includes (but is not limited to): non-binary, agender, and transgender
Much like the rest of everyday life, the workplace can be a minefield for queer people of all identities. Microaggressions can be difficult to identify and are common occurrences in today’s society, often disguised as humour but can be truly harmful to LGBTQIA+ individuals.
Although microaggressions may seem trivial to some, they can make a huge difference to the comfort of employees and in turn their ability to do their job and contribute to their team and company.
Listed below are a series of microaggressions that commonly appear in (and out) of the workplace that many people don’t realise can make LGBTQIA+ people uncomfortable. The best way to change attitudes to and treatment of queer people is education on what is and isn’t appropriate in today’s society.
Debatably the most common microaggression, specifically in the workplace, is excessively gendered language. The flippant and unnecessary use of ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘he or she’ and ‘sir or madam’ actively excludes anyone that identifies as otherwise. It is not always clear who your audience is, and how they identify, so it is better to address people neutrally, and don’t be nervous to ask for pronouns or how people identify.
‘They’ and ‘them’ continue to be a much simpler and faster way to address someone of unknown gender, and as well as being inclusive and progressive, is just easier than the traditional ‘he or she’. There continues to be a huge debate on the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, to simplify below are several instances where this occurs in everyday language.
- “Someone left their coat in the office, let me put it behind reception so they know where it is.”
- “We are looking for a new manager. They need to be diligent and precise in planning their tasks, and understand how their team operates.”
- “If anybody wants to take a leaflet, they can find them at the door.”
Heteronormative attitudes/ language/assumptions
Something that shows itself in many colloquial conversations and small-talk in and out of the office, is heteronormativity. How many times have you been in a conversation and someone has told you about their partner or stated they have recently got married, and you have automatically said ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ depending on the gender of the person?
The assumption that everyone is heterosexual is one that has infiltrated our entire understanding of society, and even the most progressive and knowledgable in society will often immediately go to ‘husband’ or ‘wife’, without knowing someones sexuality.
Much like gendered language, having an open and neutral attitude, as well as language, around the subject allows individuals to have full autonomy around when, where and who they disclose their sexuality to. If you were to assume a gay man is heterosexual and ask about his wife, he is likely to feel pressured (whether he is open or not) to disclose he in fact has a husband. It is the small things that can make conversation uncomfortable for LGBTQIA+ people.
Inappropriate questions and flippant comments
A huge part of achieving equality is education. However a common misconception and assumption is that this should be solely adopted by the LGBTQIA+ community, when in fact there are millions of resources out there for anyone to properly educate themselves and become a better ally.
Inappropriate questions and comments are a common microaggression for all LGBTQIA+ people, and are more often than not disguised as ‘I am just interested/curious’ or ‘I just want to know’. Additionally these questions are easily identified as they are very often something you would not ask a cisgendered heterosexual person. Listen below are several common questions that are not appropriate and can make queer poeple uncomfortable.
- “When did you know you were gay/transgender/bisexual?”
- “You don’t look transgender/gay.”
- “Have you had surgery?”
- “You’re so brave for coming out.”
- “It must be so much easier being gay.”
- “When did you choose to be gay/transgender?”
Lack of inclusive policies
Changing and introducing new policies to be more diverse and inclusive is driving business right now. Candidates are prioritising workplaces with inclusive attitudes and these are reflective in policy. At Nash Squared we have the ‘Inclusive Recruiters Guide’ demonstrating how to properly adopt welcoming practices that make any candidate feel comfortable.
Policy reflects the attitudes of the business, and by having, in writing, a promise that everyone is equal and has a right to the time and space needed to succeed, everyone is able to perform to the best of their ability. The importance of inclusive values is so every person regardless of gender identity or sexuality feels represented within the organisation. In a similar way to how policy once excluded women in the workplace, everybody deserves to be acknowledged.
Similar to that of policy, enforcement of dress code and uniform can be extremely challenging and uncomfortable for queer people. Not only are dress codes often gender-oriented, ‘men must wear trousers, women must wear skirts’ it is rooted in strict heteronormativity. Queer people of all gender and sexual identites can therefore be subject to discrimination and discomfort surrounding strict dress codes. Although this is not as enforced as in past decades, it is important to note remnants from these practices still remain, and ‘professional’ dress continues to be a difficult concept for much of the community.
The nature of bathrooms, changing facilities and single-sex spaces can be a truly hostile place for all queer people. For gender non-conforming individuals specifically it can be a dangerous place. Having gender neutral facilities is a simple and problem-free solution for this. Much like in your own home, gender neutral spaces are more common than you might originally think.
Everyone needs to use the restroom, and everybody should have the space to do so safely and comfortably.
Detailed above are some of the microaggresions that can exist in and out of the workplace and can be easily avoided to make the lives of queer people and the LGBTQIA+ community feel as safe and included as any cisgender heterosexual person. Much like we have learnt the correct ways to address race and gender, it is time the LGBTQIA+ community was accepted too.
The above information was formulated from personal experiences of myself and peers, as well as the following websites. If you would like to read more about queer experiences and learn how to support the LGBTQIA+ community, feel free to check out the below websites.