Inclusiveness Dilemma: The Challenges Dealing With Differences at Work

College football star Michael Sam’s announcement last week that he is gay, and would soon the first openly gay NFL player, rekindled some hot workplace topics.

His acknowledgement has talk shows buzzing about whether National Football League players would be comfortable with a gay teammate in the locker room.

I think most people concentrated on one area of the locker room — the showers. Would male NFL players be comfortable showering with a teammate who was homosexual? So far, no NFL players have said they would not be.

What would HR do?

I wonder what most HR professionals would tell an employee who came to you and said, “I don’t want to work with Tim; he’s gay, and I don’t agree with it.”

I’m assuming 99.9 percent of HR Pros would come up with something like this:

You know Mr. Employee, we are an inclusive and diverse company, and that means we support all of our employees and don’t judge them based on things like sexual orientation, religion, etc. If you feel uncomfortable working with Tim, maybe this isn’t the place for you to work.”

Seems about right, right?

Sometimes, real life is harder to handle

Now let’s add some real-life to this scenario. What if, in your work environment, employees had to share a community locker room-type shower environment as part of the job function. You have a dirty, chemical-filled work environment, and employees regularly shower after their shift as a normal course of their daily working environment.

Now what would you say? Does it change what you might tell Mr. Employee?

You’re lying to yourself if you say it wouldn’t. All of sudden you start trying to make concessions and talking about building individual showers, or asking Tim to shower in a private shower and locker room. You start accommodating, like being “gay” is a disability.

What if it is your policy for employees of the same sex, when traveling, to share hotel rooms. This is a common practice with many companies.

What do you tell Mr. or Ms. Employee when they feel uncomfortable sharing a hotel room with a gay employee? Do you make an accommodation for that employee to have their own hotel room?

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What if your top salesperson came to you and said they don’t want to work with a gay employee, the salesperson who controls and has your largest client in their back pocket – 60 percent of your current business. Do you give them the same line above? “Go work someplace else!”

What it means to be an inclusive employer

I’ll be honest with you — you won’t because executives would have your job for letting that person walk from your company.

Oh, I’m sure you’re reading this saying “No Tim, I would!” That’s great for you. You have to know most people are unwilling to lose their job over something like this. That’s real life HR in the trenches.

It seems simple. So what that we have employees that are gay — who cares? Well, that’s the thinking until another employee cares, and then HR has issues.

Being an inclusive employer doesn’t mean you just look for the gay employee.  It also means that you value the beliefs of the person who doesn’t agree with the gay lifestyle for whatever reason that might be.

That’s really, really hard to except for many of us. I want to tell the gay-hating employee to go take a walk, but if I do that, I cease being “inclusive” and begin being “exclusive.” It’s HRs job to make it “all” work.

So, what would you do with an employee who has a problem working with a gay employee?

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.

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