An Inclusive Workplace: Putting in place GLBTI-friendliy policies

There are some unique challenges faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (GLBTI) workers, and by organisations that strive to be GLBTI-friendly. Solving them is not rocket science. CHRIS GILL, senior adviser, training and consultancy, at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, outlines how it can be done. The principles (if not the law) outlined here are applicable to companies throughout Australia.

Merit, safety & flexibility

Do you know what constitutes discrimination against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex?

The following three examples are all cases that may represent a breach of the Equal Opportunity Act (EOA) that protects GLBTI people from discrimination.

  • Aaron is a very successful sales representative. Everyone knows he is gay. After completing a relevant training course, he applies for a promotion to become an assistant buyer. He thinks the interview is going well when the company owner asks him "How do you think an obviously gay person can represent our company to important clients?"
  • Every time Jack hears his supervisor make anti-gay comments like "Those faggots deserve to die", he feels sick in his stomach. Jack is gay but, like 47% of gay workers, no-one at work knows. He worries that if he tells his supervisor to stop the comments, he will be labelled as gay and picked on by the other guys.
  • Jill's partner Mary has a young child Terry, who has just started primary school. Jill asks her boss if she can start and finish work an hour early each day to pick up Terry after school. Her boss says "No. It's inconvenient for us. It would be different if Terry was your child."

Equal opportunity means that all people should be treated at work according to three principles: merit, safety and flexibility.

Aaron may have been denied merit in selection. Under the EOA, it is unlawful to consider irrelevant personal characteristics like sexual orientation when making recruitment or selection decisions. Even asking Aaron about his sexual orientation in the job interview is against the law.

Jack has been denied safety at work. Under both the EOA and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OH&S), Victorian workers have rights to work free from harassment and bullying. Any repeated unreasonable language or behaviour that makes someone feel unwell qualifies as 'bullying' under OH&S law. If that language or behaviour is related to a personal characteristic like sexual orientation or gender identity, it is also a type of discrimination that is covered by the EOA.

Jill has been denied flexibility in working conditions. When a worker asks for changed hours or duties because of their parental status (or illness), the employer must seriously consider their request and, wherever reasonably possible, grant it. Since reforms in 2001, employers must treat all domestic partnerships equally, whether married or unmarried, heterosexual or homosexual.

Check your policies

Create a GLBTI-friendly workplace policy if you don't have one already. And if you do, make sure it has broad definitions and it makes clear that GLBTI employees have equal access to benefits, for example:

  • Spouse / husband / wife / partner - policies should refer to 'partner' or 'domestic partner' (not 'spouse') so as to include unmarried heterosexual (de facto) and same sex couples
  • Family - defined to include domestic partners (see above) and their children
  • Children - of the employee, of their domestic partner, including adopted children must all be equally covered (e.g. to qualify for 'family leave' or 'parental leave')
  • Household - must be defined (e.g. in carer's leave) to include domestic partner
  • Transgender - transgender people must be treated and referred to with respect and according to their affirmed gender identity
  • Flexible arrangements - the organisation will be as flexible as reasonably possible to respect employees' responsibilities to their families, domestic partners, household members or others who are substantially reliant on them for their care and support
  • Privacy - Requests for working arrangements related to disability, family responsibility or other personal matters will be treated seriously, fairly and confidentially to respect the privacy of the employee
  • Parental leave / paternity leave - if available (often two days paid leave) to 'the father' or 'the husband', rewrite to refer to where the employee is the domestic partner of the mother
  • Relocation allowance - if paid to employees for the extra costs associated with moving their married partners and children, it must also be paid for domestic partners and their children
  • Harassment - include sexual orientation and transgender identity along with (for example) race, age and physical appearance as examples of types of unlawful discrimination
  • Sexual harassment - comments or speculation about a sexual orientation or gender identity are examples of sexual harassment.

More detailed general checklists for equal opportunity policies and complaint handling procedures can be found in the 'Information for Employers' section of the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission website: www.humanrightscommission.vic.gov.au


This article first appeared in Business Community Intelligence, May 2008