A new study recently published in the American Journal of Sociology revealed that openly gay applicants are 40 percent less likely to be granted an interview than their heterosexual counterparts. The study was the first of its kind to test the receptiveness of employers to gay male job applicants. It sent two fictitious resumes to more than 1,700 entry-level, white collar job openings in the U.S. The resumes were nearly identical, except each mentioned a different affiliation with a school organization.
According to the study’s author, Andras Tilcsik of Harvard University, a gay community organization that could not “easily be dismissed as irrelevant to a job application” was chosen for one resume to illustrate skills acquired while in the organization. The resume listed the applicant as the elected treasurer for several semesters, managing the gay organization’s financial operations. The other resume mentioned that the applicant had been part of the “Progressive and Socialist Alliance.” The fictional group was used to separate any “gay penalty” from the effects of political discrimination, since both organizations were likely to be viewed as left-leaning.
According to Tilcsik, “The results indicate that gay men encounter significant barriers in the hiring process because, at the initial point of contact, employers more readily disqualify openly gay applicants than equally qualified heterosexual applicants.” The report also found that discrimination against openly gay candidates was particularly strong in Southern and Midwestern states and employers seeking stereotypically masculine traits, such as assertiveness, were more likely to discriminate against gay men. “It seems that the discrimination documented in this study is partly rooted in specific stereotypes and cannot be completely reduced to a general antipathy against gay employees,” Tilcsik said.
The report has resulted in a number of troubling questions, namely how soon is too soon to come out. According to Kevin Jones, deputy director of the non-profit Out & Equal that works to address LGBT issues in the workplace, the answer requires that gay applicants assess their risks.
Combating Workplace Discrimination
“If you are somebody who recognizes the importance of being out and bringing your full self to work each day, then you’re going to want to target employers who have the right culture in place and who’ve made it clear that they have an inclusive work environment, but in this economy there are many who can’t be choosey about who they apply with,” Jones said. “Then it becomes a matter of trade-offs. What’s more important: Getting a job at the right place or getting a job, period?”
According to Jones, when and how someone comes out to their boss and their co-workers is a personal decision that requires that they assess their personal risk. In other words, they have to figure out the price of coming out in a workplace that has not proven itself to be out and equal. When Jones first came out to a previous employer, he was afraid of how he’d be perceived, afraid he’d be treated differently, but coming out actually empowered him and put him in a leadership position that allowed him to be successful while educating others. Obviously, things don’t always work out that well, but there comes a point when everyone must decide if the stress of being in the closet is worth the risk of coming out.
The results of the study have also led many to wonder if LGBT individuals can trust HR, given that so many employers – 40 percent of those featured in the study – seem to be operating under unfair and unfounded biases while job screening. How are prospective employees in the LGBT community expected to combat something as deep-seated as stereotypes?
“This really isn’t just an HR issue,” Jones said. “Any time anyone is screening prospective employees using criteria that isn’t job-related, it’s obviously very problematic and it’s a difficult issue to solve. Those responsible for hiring need to have a firm understanding of what characteristics are related to job performance and which aren’t. Your sexual identity is no indication of whether or not you’ll be good at your job.”
As the study pointed out, employers seeking “masculine” traits in an employee were much more likely to discriminate against gay men because they were operating under the assumption that all gay men are effeminate. As ridiculous as that seems and as hard as this may be to believe, in some cases it truly isn’t a matter of discrimination based on antipathy, but rather a lack of exposure to the depth and breadth of the diversity in the gay community. As Jones pointed out, the LGBT community comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, personalities, beliefs, and values – and stereotypes often result from being uneducated and not having a great deal of exposure to different types of community members. The only way to combat that is through education.
He said, “By educating employers and exposing them to the diversity in the LGBT community, it will hopefully get to a point where they no longer focus on their own perceptions when hiring, but rather on qualifications. You can’t screen out huge segments of the population based on uneducated assumptions.”
Unfortunately, there is no federal law that makes discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by civilian, nonreligious employers with at least 15 employees, but the bill has failed to become law since the 1970s.
It’s also important that LGBT workers educate themselves about their protections. Many companies have policies in place that prohibit discrimination, so any instances of discrimination will be dealt with internally. Also, despite a lack of federal support, there are states that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in private employment, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. Some of these states also specifically prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and many cities and counties nationwide have local laws that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in at least some workplaces.
The Williams Institute recently released a report summarizing the negative impact discrimination has on lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people. According to Ilan Meyer, study co-author and Williams Institute Senior Scholar of Public Policy, the research showed that LGBT employees who have experienced employment discrimination, or fear discrimination, have higher levels of psychological distress and health-related problems, less job satisfaction and higher rates of absenteeism, and are more likely to contemplate quitting than LGBT employees who have not experienced or do not fear discrimination.
A great deal of this fear and unhappiness can be attributed to the feeling of powerlessness that results from not being able to control how employers perceive you and whether or not they’re discriminating against you for issues that have nothing to do with workplace performance. This is why self-empowerment can be so crucial to the happiness and wellbeing of LGBT individuals in the workplace. Rather than blindly applying at companies that may not have inclusive environments, it’s possible to regain control by doing your own leg work before applying for particular jobs
“Do your homework on a company’s culture and find out if they have employee resource groups,” Jones said. “Get some visibility with the company’s diversity recruitment officer and find out if the company already has out employees. By establishing these relationships going in, you can make sure the right people are seeing your resume. These steps also allow you to circumvent a situation where you’re not sure if you’ve been discriminated against because of information featured on your resume. It’s really important that you learn to be your own advocate, especially when you don’t have a support system in place.”