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Sexual Orientation And Diversity In The Workforce

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5443 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Today’s organizations are becoming increasingly diversified in many ways. With respect to sexual orientation, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employees constitute one of the largest but least studied minority groups in the workforce. Although invisible, sexuality is at the core of each worker’s identity. Therefore, it poses a number of complex challenges towards organizations and their human resources department. The ‘Don’t ask don’t tell (DADT) policy of the U.S. Military presents a striking example of the silence surrounding their identity on the work floor.

In this paper, the impact of silencing as well as the ways in which the voice of LGBT employees and other invisible minorities can be heard is studied.



Diversity includes cultural factors such as race, gender, age, color, physical ability, national origin, etc. The broader definition of diversity additionally includes religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, language, lifestyle, beliefs, physical appearance and economic status (Wentling and PalmaRivas, 2000). The word diversity is not contained in any report or law; instead, it grew out of academic and popular press usage.

Diversity in the workforce

With respect to the workplace, diversity refers to the co-existence of employees from various socio-cultural backgrounds. Every human being is unique, but at the same time, every individual shares biological as well as environmental characteristics with any group of others. In this context, diversity can be generally defined as recognition of the people who share such common traits. These traits -the characteristics that make up a whole person- both unite and divide us. In the domain of human resources (HR), however, the term diversity can represent three major working definitions:

– the politically correct term for employment equity/affirmative action;

– the recruitment and selection of ethnic groups and women;

– the management of individuals sharing a broad range of common traits.

The first definition represents the most narrow view of diversity and is usually found in organizations without formal diversity policies or programs. The second definition reflects the reality of many diversity programs focusing on employment regulation concerns. And finally, the last definition is the broadest and generally used in organizations containing diversity programs (Grobler, Wärnich et al., 2006).

Dimensions of diversity

When talking about diversity, one should keep in mind the differences between primary and secondary dimensions. Primary dimensions are those human differences that are innate and that have a drastic impact on us. Age, ethnicity, race, gender, physical abilities/qualities and sexual/affectional orientation are examples of primary dimensions at the heart of individual identities. Alternatively, secondary dimensions are more changeable and can be discarded or modified during our lifetime. Such dimensions add depth and individuality to our lives. Education, geographical location, marital status, income, military experience, religion, work experience and parental status are illustrations of secondary dimensions. The primary and secondary dimensions can be represented as a circle, with the primary dimensions at the centre and the secondary dimensions surrounding them. An illustration of both groups of dimensions can be found in Figure 1(Grobler, Wärnich et al., 2006).

Figure 1: Primary and secondary dimensions of diversity

In any initial encounter, people identify by the primary dimensions that are most readily observed: age, gender, race and physical abilities/qualities. Since most individuals live in homogeneous communities, or at least in circumstances far less diverse than our society as a whole, their entry into the workplace may be a first encounter with a diverse population. During this kind of first encounter, phenomena such as stereotyping and prejudice might appear.

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Stereotyping works against people’s individuality and limits their potential. Generally, if the stereotype is that the person is not competent, then people may not perform competently. This illustrates that, to a large extent, people perform in line with the expectations placed on them. Clinging to negative stereotypes about people other than ourselves leads to prejudice, which means processing our stereotypes such that one’s own sense of superiority to the members of that group is reinforced. It is the role of the appropriate institutions within a country to recognize and eradicate both stereotyping and prejudice (Grobler, Wärnich et al., 2006).

Managing diversity

Managing diversity can be defined as:

“A planned systematic and comprehensive managerial process for developing an organizational environment in which all employees, with their similarities and differences, can contribute to the strategic and competitive advantage of the organization, and where no-one is excluded on the basis of factors unrelated to productivity” (Thomas, 1996).

On the work floor, managing diversity presents a key issue for governments as well as private organizations. Its importance has mainly been brought about by the free movement of labor due to globalization. The fight for human rights by certain minority groups, who feel excluded from the employment sector, discloses another impulse for the current significance of diversity management. Within the context of equal opportunities in the workplace, workforce diversity again plays a major role. This equal opportunity philosophy is aimed at ensuring that organizations make the most out of the uniqueness of a diverse workforce, which might assist the organization to be more efficient and effective, rather than losing talent. Broadly, diversity management is the systematic and planned commitment by the organizations to recruit, retain, reward and promote a heterogeneous mix of employees (Grobler, Wärnich et al., 2006).

Valuing diversity

For organizations to fight discrimination, it is essential to value diversity. This valuing starts with recognizing the fundamental difference between valuing diversity on the one hand, and employment equity and/or affirmative action on the other. Employment equity is an officially authorized approach to workplace discrimination. For instance, it is against the law to reject a person a job or job advantage because of age, race, sexual orientation, gender or other primary characteristics. Affirmative action is a reaction to the under-use of protected groups in various job classes in which a business attempts to attract people from such groups because of their failure to do so in the past as a result of inequity. Valuing diversity surpasses both concepts and leads to management designed to reap the benefits offered by a diversified workforce (Grobler, Wärnich et al., 2006).

Whereas affirmative action and employment equity are government-initiated, legally driven attempts to alter -from a quantitative standpoint- the composition of a company’s workforce, valuing diversity is a company-specific, necessity-driven effort to alter -from a qualitative standpoint- the utilization of the company’s workforce. In an organization that values diversity, managing diversity becomes a substitute for assimilation (Grobler, Wärnich et al., 2006).

Sexual orientation

Within the framework of diversity management, sexual orientation represents a non-observable or underlying type of diversity, as opposed to more visible traits such as race or gender. The reason is that gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees can choose to what extent they reveal their sexual orientation in the workplace. Lately, sexual orientation has received a growing amount of attention, including through the prohibition of employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for both private and public employees. Another indication of this increasing attention regards the mounting number of organizations that fight against this type of discrimination. For instance, in the United States, in many large organizations, Lesbian and Gay Employee Groups are demanding the exclusion of discrimination based on sexual orientation, the provision of guidance to enhance tolerance in the work environment, and the equal treatment of significant others (e.g. relating to health care benefits) (Van Hoye and Lievens, 2003).

Parallel to the social and societal developments, there has been an increase in scientific investigation on sexual orientation in the workforce (Van Hoye and Lievens, 2003).

Sexual orientation in the workforce: Literature overview

Three research streams can be clearly distinguished within the literature on sexual orientation in the workplace. The first research stream studies the discrimination and minority status experienced by lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in the workplace. A second strand of studies takes the issue of coming out at work as the focal point. In fact, one of the work-related decisions that all gay, lesbian, and bisexual people face, is to what extent they unveil their sexual orientation on the work floor.

The third and last research stream relates to the more specific work-related issues of gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees (as opposed to the general character of the studies belonging to the first research stream) (Van Hoye and Lievens, 2003).

Within the first research stream, it was found that the majority of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have once experienced discrimination on the work floor (Croteau, 1996). Here, the construct of heterosexism seems to play a central role. Heterosexism can be defined as “an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any non-heterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community” (Herek, 1990). Research has demonstrated that heterosexism in the organization can lead to a decrease in perceived productivity, job contentment, organizational commitment, career dedication, and organization-based self-esteem. In addition, it can lead to an increases in perceived health problems, psychological distress, and turnover intentions among gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees (Van Hoye and Lievens, 2003).

The outcome of the second research stream reveals that there are five different levels of coming out, namely acting, passing, covering, implicitly out and explicitly out (Chung, 2001). Nevertheless, other possible classifications do exist. The concealment of one’s sexual orientation has negative consequences at the individual level (depressing work attitudes, low job contentment, anxiety, etc.), group level (dysfunctional communication, low work team cohesion, etc.) as well as organizational level (higher turnover and lower productivity) (Van Hoye and Lievens, 2003).

To date, very few studies have taken the approach of the third research stream. An example of a scarcely studied topic within this field of research concerns the influence of the sexual orientation of job candidates on their evaluation by HR professionals. One of the motives that almost no research has specifically examined the consequences of sexual orientation on hiring decisions, is that it is very difficult to examine this issue in field settings with real candidates. Thus, although the outcomes of such studies are insightful, not enough research has been carried out so far to draw sound conclusions.

For an illustration of the sexual orientation policy of the SAC company (Scottish Agricultural College), see appendix. SAC is an innovative, knowledge-based organization supporting the development of rural communities and industries. (MOET IK NOG TOEVOEGEN)

Diversity policy worldwide


The United States

We first introduce the general conditions for acceptance of sexual diversity in America since these have shaped the context for coping with sexual diversity, and more specific LGBT, on the work floor . LGBT rights are very complex in the Americas since acceptance of the phenomenon varies widely between Canada, the United States or the Southern Americas. We will here focus on the United States (U.S.). In the U.S., LGBT-related laws include amongst others: government recognition of same-sex relationships, LGBT adoption, sexual orientation and military service, immigration equality, anti-discrimination laws, hate crime laws regarding violence against LGBT people, sodomy laws, anti-lesbianism laws, and higher ages of consent for same-sex activities. Generally, it was not until 2003 that sexual acts between persons of the same sex became legal in the U.S. However, many other laws are still not recognized on federal level and a wide spread amongst states concerning the enabling of those laws exist. We will now discuss the policy concerning LGBT discrimination in the work environment in the U.S.

Legislative policy: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)

Employment discrimination refers to discriminatory employment practices such as bias in hiring, promotion, job assignment, termination, and compensation, and various types of harassment. (Source) In general there is no common law that states that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is wrong and discrimination against employees who are gay, or simply appear to be gay, is legal in many workplaces in the U.S. (Ragin, 2004)

The first bill on the subject of sexual orientation discrimination was introduced in Congress in 1974. However it was not until 1994 that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a proposed bill in the United States Congress that would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by civilian, nonreligious employers with at least 15 employees, was introduced. [1] It failed in 1994 and 1995, though by 1996, missed passage in the Senate by a 49-50 vote. Until 2009, every proposal in the legislative history of introducing the law failed. Furthermore, many versions of the ENDA only concerned LGB and did not include provisions that protect transgender people from discrimination. Currently, only twenty-two states have laws that ban sexual orientation discrimination: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. As a result of the limited coverage of States that enabled the law, LGBT people face serious discrimination in employment, including being fired, being denied a promotion, and experiencing harassment on the job. [2] 

Additional to the differentiation between the several states of the U.S., another distinction in employment discrimination based on sexual orientation that can be made involves the difference in coping with diversity between public and private sectors. [3] Extensive anti- discrimination legislation protecting public sector workers makes workers in the public sector less likely to be arbitrarily fired than workers at private companies. (Boris, 2010) As a result, the public sector in the United States is noticeably more racially diverse and gender balanced than the private sector. The more protective climate and diverse workforce in the public sector may result in LGBT individuals feeling more comfortable in openly expressing their sexual orientation at work. If this is the case, the public sector may employ more openly LGBT employees. (Boris, 2010)

Attitude of employers and employees towards LGBT in the workforce

Generally, American workplaces have undergone a partial revolution over the last quarter century when it comes to LGBT equality. Public attitudes toward homosexuality became more liberal during the 1970s, then increasingly conservative through the 1980s, and then more liberal since 1990. (Roberson, 2009) Today, sexual orientation diversity is a key part of workplaces in the U.S. An estimated 8.8 million gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals live in the United States. (Bell et al., 2011) While it is difficult to ascertain how many of these individuals are in the labor force, U.S. Census data reveal that more than 86% of men and women in same-sex couples are employed, and that employment probabilities for gay men and lesbians lie below those of married heterosexual men, but above those of heterosexual women (Leppel, 2009).

The issue on employment discrimination based on sexual orientation has become more important for many employers, workplace diversity programs have been major initiatives in US corporations over the last several years. (Day & Schoenrade, 2000) An increase in share of LGBT in the workforce since was already reported by HR managers in the eighties. (Day & Schoenrade, 2000) In response, in May of 1993, the Board of the Society for Human Resource Management, the premiere national association of American human resource practitioners, passed a resolution to include sexual orientation in its statement acclaiming the value of a diverse workforce (HR News, 1993). (Day & Schoenrade, 2000)

However, several surveys demonstrate that LGBT on the work floor is far from an accepted concept, discriminating practices are laid out by several surveys. A first example appears from a 1990 U.S. census in where Allegretto and Arthur (2001) found that after controlling for differences associated with being married, gay men earned 2.4% less than their unmarried heterosexual counterparts. (Ragin, 2004) Another range of surveys that study behavior and acceptance concerning LGBT on the work floor is cited by Day & Schoenrade (2000) A first example is a survey reported by the National Defense Research Institute in 1993, which found through several national public opinion polls that a majority of heterosexual American workers report being uncomfortable with the idea of working with homosexuals. (Day & Schoenrade, 2000) When respondents were confronted with the issue of working with homosexuals, one study found that 27 percent said that they would “prefer not to” and 25 percent said that they would “strongly object”. A second example involves a survey from Wall street Journal in 1993, which found that 66 percent of surveyed CEOs reported being reluctant to include a homosexual on a management committee. Leppel (2009) proved that discrimination on the basis of sexual rientation appears to drive up the unemployment of same-sex partners relative to that of married partners. Similarly, probabilities of being out of the labor force for same-sex partners are greater than those of heterosexual men and less than those of heterosexual women. (Leppel, 2009)

Several reasons were sought for these discriminating behavior against LGBT. One persisting cause in the U.S. is the existence of strong religious believes. A survey of Kansas Citians found that 47 percent felt that their religious beliefs and morality strongly conflicted with homosexuality (Day, 2011). Other issues involving a negative attitude towards LGBT in the workforce are related to heterosexism and homophobia in organizational America today. (Gedro, 2010)

Human resource management and LGBT

An appropriate approach of human resource management to LGBT in the workforce is urgent because the trend in American society for more and more gay men and lesbians to make their sexual orientation known since this openness may create conflicts in the workplace (Day & Schoenrade, 2000) There is some evidence that human resource departments are not fully supporting this growing need. For example, a sample of human resource professionals found that even though most believe that sexual orientation must be formally addressed in the workplace, and that they would individually speak out against anti-gay acts, only 20 percent of their companies have diversity programs that specifically address gay and lesbian work issues. (Day & Schoenrade, 2000) This increased openness in sexual orientation may also be a reason for an increasing experiencing of LGB employees as a symbolic threat. Although a law has been approved, many Americans still oppose gay marriage. One consequence of this is that some heterosexual employees may experience symbolic threat when faced with LGB co-workers who are out at work and wish to bring their partners to company social events. Ragin (2004) already presumed that this symbolic threat of homosexuality could increase if gay marriages would be legalized in some states, and LGB workers could bring their spouses to workplace events. (Ragin, 2004)

Attitude of labor unions towards LGBT in the workforce

One interesting aspect is how labor unions U.S. are reacting to the recent discussions on sexual orientation in the workforce since unions, as democratic organizations , have a social obligation to represent the interests of all of their members. (Boris, 2010) However this can cause problems when the majority interest conflict with issues of inclusion and social justice for the minority such as LGBT employees. This might lead to the exclusion of minority interests or groups within unions. It should be noted that there is a strong differentiation between the several unions in their response to this minority group. As many research has pointed out, especially structural and demographic factors help to determine an American union’s level of responsiveness to sexual diversity with American unions. (Boris, 2010) Gender mattered as unions with a female majority were more likely to address the concerns of LGBT members. Other examples of factors playing a role in determining a union’s response to LGBT issues are the role of individual agency on the part of union leaders, activists, and rank-and-file union members. (Boris, 2010)

DADT policy in the U.S. military

An example frequently cited when discussing LGBT policies in the U.S. is the issue of gay policy in the U.S. military. In 1993, new laws and regulations pertaining to homosexuals and U.S. military service came into effect reflecting a compromise in policy. This compromise, colloquially referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” holds that the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion which are the essence of military capability. (Burelli & Feder, 2009) Service members are not to be asked about nor allowed to discuss their homosexuality. This compromise notwithstanding, the issue has remained politically contentious. (Burelli & Feder, 2009) While the decision to remain in the closet may be a functional and adaptive reaction to a hostile work environment, it also increases the risk and stress associated with losing control over the disclosure process. (Ragin, 2004)

Recent progress in enabling discrimination laws

In recent years, several members of Congress have expressed interest in amending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At least one bill that would repeal the law and replace it with a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation-H.R. 1283-has been introduced in the 111th Congress. (Burelli & Feder, 2009) An Act of Congress providing a mechanism to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was signed into law by President Obama on 22 December 2010. As of February 2011, the Pentagon has started starting to dismantle DADT.

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Regarding the ENDA, we have to remain patient. In 2011, the U.S. Senate will reintroduce the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the 112th congress. In the meanwhile, hundreds of companies in U.S. have enacted policies protecting their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.  As of March 2011, 433 (87 percent) of the Fortune 500 companies had implemented non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, and 229 (46 percent) had policies that include gender identity. [4] 


The issue of workforce diversity has not been a key problem in Africa before as much as it is today. Together with globalization and the need for an increasing number of organizations to spread globally to reach customers worldwide, the concept of diversity management gained attention. Managers must recognize the need for understanding more about the diverse workforce, which is deeper than what we see at the surface level (Henry and Evans, 2007).

During the 1990s, the liberalization of economies and structural adjustment policies, brought about by the Brentwood institutions, opened the doors to free market economies, especially in Africa. These free market economies have stimulated the free movement of labor as a commodity, which in turn has resulted in an increasingly diversified workforce across the continent. Further, the privatization of most of the state-owned enterprises in Sub-Saharan Africa also created an open door for migration of labor from all over the world (Henry and Evans, 2007).

South Africa

To meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, as in many other countries, South African businesses must address the best and brightest employees. Moreover, managers should understand that they can only compete successfully if they recognize the emergence of the diversified workforce and find the means to harness its energies, talents and differences for tomorrow’s challenges (Grobler, Wärnich et al., 2006).

The major groups providing diversity in the South African workforce are ethnic groups, women, younger workers, South Africans with disabilities and minority groups in the context of sexual orientation. With respect to the latter, it seems that at least 10% of the South African population is homosexual. This means that 10% of the men and women in the workforce, representing around one million people, are gay.

However, while the workforce is increasingly diversifying, discrimination still presents an enormous problem in South Africa. In fact, research demonstrates that discrimination still exists in organizations, and that many South African workers still suffer from employment discrimination. Within the organization, it’s up to the HR professionals to develop and enforce policies and measures that protect the diversified workforce against illicit discrimination.

To rectify the injustices of the past, the South African government has come to some actions. Amongst others, the following legislation has been introduced: the Labour Relations Act, No. 66 of 1995 (as amended); the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act, No. 108 of 1996; the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, No. 75 of 1997 (BCEA) (as amended); the Employment Equity Act, No. 55 of 1998 (EEA); the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, No. 4 of 2000; and a Code of Good Practice on the handling of sexual harassment included in the Labour Relations Act (Section 203(1)).

For example, Section 9 (2) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (No. 108 of 1996) states that: “The State may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including age, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth” (Grobler, Wärnich et al., 2006).


LGBT military laws

  Homosexuals allowed to serve in the military

   Homosexuals banned from serving; repeal of policy underway

  Homosexuals banned from serving (or homosexuality illegal)

  Data not available


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Boris, M. B. (2010). Identity at work : U.S. labor union efforts to address sexual diversity through policy and practice. Advances in Industrial and Labor Relations, 17, 185-205. Elsevier. doi: 10.1108/S0742-6186(2010)0000017009.

Burrelli, D. F., & Feder, J. (2009). Homosexuals and the U . S . Military : Current Issues.

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