Author and Organizational Consultant, Lily Zheng, discusses corporate Pride, LGBTQ+ policy considerations and expanding the inclusion conversation beyond the margin.
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Nate Randall: Today I'm pleased to be joined by diversity and inclusion consultant, executive coach, and author of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace, Lily Zheng. Lily, welcome. It's great to have you.
Lily Zheng: It's great to be here.
Nate Randall: So let's just dive right into the deep end here. June is Pride month. Companies are rain-bowing out their logos, posting videos with smiling employees and families marching in Pride parades. How do we feel about this? Is this a little superficial? Is it just window dressing or is there real power here?
Lily Zheng: Of course, it superficial. And, and there is real power in having this visibility in place so long as these companies also backup their words and their advertising with real actions. So what I tell my clients, and I work with many companies that do fly the rainbow flag and change their profile pictures, is that by showing all of this visible support for Pride, you are telling LGBTQ+ communities that you are supporting them and that's powerful so far as you're actually telling the truth. And what I mean by that is, if there are companies that are only willing to show the Pride flag during Pride and only talk about supporting the LGBTQ+ community during Pride, but don't do anything concrete in terms of policies, in terms of practices, in terms of support for anti-discrimination legislature, that is insincere and the community can pick up on that.
Lily Zheng: So I would say, for companies looking to change their programming and change their branding during Pride, is that that's a commitment. What you are doing by doing that is saying that you are here to fight for the community and, thus, if you don't fight for the community after showing all these things, then you're actually losing trust in the eyes of LGBTQ+ folks. It's a double edged sword here, by committing to that, you have also put on the responsibility to do some good work and to work with us to make the world a better place for LGBTQ+ people.
Nate Randall: Beyond the PDA of Pride month, if you will, there are a lot of things that companies really should be doing to embrace inclusion, I would call it. So we are expanding the notion a little bit and I, being in HR for so long, have seen a lot of different instances of noninclusive cultures. And they can be as simple as you have a fairly aggressive vocal culture, and the introvert personality can't thrive. That's not inclusive. It could be gender. It could be just based on basic language that we're using in some of our policy documents. What are the small things that maybe as you're out there talking to companies, helping them transition, helping them become more inclusive, what are the little things that sometimes surprise people that they might not think about?
Lily Zheng: I would start talking about HR things on the small level. I would start by really looking at that language, like you mentioned. So examining policies and procedures for gender language. Usually policies will have something like "men and women", "he or she" and simply changing that to "all employees" or "employees of all genders" or gender-neutral singular "they", can make a huge difference for people in the workplace that don't feel included under the binary labels of man or woman. And that's a very, very minor wording change that creates quite a strong feeling of inclusion for people who need that and doesn't hurt people who aren't impacted by it. That's one of the small practices.
Lily Zheng: Other things you can do include looking at your policies and seeing if there are unnecessary gate keeping procedures for allowing people to access resources. For example, do you give maternity leave or paternity leave, or do you only give maternity leave? In which case, that's not great for fathers. Giving paternity leave will give fathers more of an opportunity to have an active participation in their new child's first couple of months. Similarly, with regards to gender, spousal benefits. Are you giving those to spouses of gay men, lesbian women, queer couples etc? Are you requiring that they be married under law to get these benefits? Do domestic partnerships count?
Lily Zheng: These sorts of questions are important to look at from a policy perspective because if you're not aware of ways in which your policy could be exclusive, you'll find out at the worst possible moment, which is you have someone actually try to access that policy and then get told, "Oh I'm sorry. This is not for you." And that feeling of getting told that the policy, which is nominally for everyone is not for you is a very, very negative experience for many members of the LGBTQ+ community. And if companies can, and they almost always can, that should be something that they try to avoid.
Nate Randall: What should we think about when it comes to medical coverage?
Lily Zheng: Medical coverage should cover the current WPATH Standards. I can't think if we're currently on the Standard of Care seven or eight, and that means that we should be covering gender related surgeries, we should be covering hormone replacement treatment or therapy. We should be covering facial feminization surgeries, basically covering things that help employees feel at home in their own bodies with their own genders. I think the biggest complaint that we tend to hear from this space is these sorts of procedures are cosmetic. And while, ideally, we wouldn't necessarily need a physician's note to say that they're not cosmetic, it's very clear that many of these procedures are things that people genuinely need to survive and thrive and are far more than just cosmetic surgeries.
Lily Zheng: So I would follow the example of Starbucks, for example, which has quite a good healthcare coverage policy that covers pretty much every aspect of trans related care that people asked for. And it's important to remember that just covering the care does not mean that every employee will use it, in fact, very few employees are going to use it and very few trans people among that are going to use it, but is far more important to have that policy and practice such that when somebody needs it, it will be there for them.
Nate Randall: Yeah, and in my experience, if you don't know if these things are covered by your medical plan, they're probably not. Reach out to your broker and ask if these things are covered. That's a great starting point. What about facilities? What do I need to think about? I'm building a new facility, I'm renovating a facility, we're in an old facility and we need to modernize it.
Lily Zheng: Right. Depending on how much money you have, there are a bunch of different solutions of varying effectiveness. I think one thing you can do… So this is actually the cheapest solution, but it's a somewhat controversial one is de-gender your bathrooms. Make your multi-stall men and women's bathrooms simply multi-stall all gender bathrooms and if people are concerned about privacy, you can add additional privacy options. For example, expanding the heights of the dividers to be floor-to-ceiling and just ensuring that all the stalls are stalls, that there aren't necessarily urinals around. That, I think, would be the most inclusive, but for many companies they do shy away from that option because people are scared of genders mixing, though it happens all the time. It happens in people's houses. All of those bathrooms are gender inclusive bathrooms, but workplaces do seem to be scared of that.
Lily Zheng: Another option, which is ironically, more expensive is to create a third gender inclusive bathroom, ideally multi-stall so that there can be multi-stall men's, women's, and all gender bathrooms such that the people who feel comfortable with it can use the all gender bathroom and folks who don't feel comfortable with it can use the men and the women's restrooms. I've seen this done to great effect at Stanford University, actually. They have lots of all gender restrooms and, interestingly enough, the all gender restrooms are more accessible. They're on different floors than the men and women's restrooms. So basically, you are somewhat implicitly told if you are somehow uncomfortable with this inclusive bathroom, you have to go out of your way to go find the binary bathroom, which totally puts it on its head and it puts inclusion as the norm that I think should be the case everywhere.
Nate Randall: This is a good one to just maybe speak a little bit honestly here. There are people, many of them, I'm sure, who, for whatever reason, are extremely uncomfortable and even outwardly aggressive towards gay, trans, others. There are so many different types of human experiences out there. I think it is understandable that not everyone would get along. As an HR person, what's my role here with not only this sort of micro aggressive behaviors that are underlying a lot of these issues in the workplace, but the outwardly "I don't agree with this for whatever reason" or just outright aggressive behavior? What's my role as the HR person? How do I get in there and change minds, or do I?
Lily Zheng: I think, first and foremost, the HR representative's job is to protect whoever is being aggressed upon. So first and foremost, your responsibility is to, for example, the LGBTQ+ community employee who is feeling marginalized, who is feeling isolated. You need to help that employee out, completely separately from the situation. Just say do you need to switch offices? Do you need to switch locations? Do you need more flexible time to avoid this person? What can I do with you to help you feel more welcomed in the workplace? And then deal with the person doing the aggressing in the similar manner.
Lily Zheng: So after you've dealt with the LGBTQ+ employee and helped them feel safe, you can talk to the person that's doing the aggressing. First, I think as HR, you do need to be clear with your policy, so it's important to always lead with, for example, "this organization is a nondiscriminatory workplace and so we don't tolerate this, this and this. It does seem like you're doing this, this, and this. I want you to know that it won't be tolerated here".
Lily Zheng: Once you've said that, you can say, "with that being said, I want to understand where you're coming from. I want to help you figure out what it is that you need and, since it's also my responsibility to tell you the law, I'm also going to tell you what I can and cannot help you do as an HR representative".
Lily Zheng: And so I think that's a very professional approach to take that both, does not tolerate discrimination and is also not robotic and cold to the people doing the aggressing. The overall goal here is to get them to stop doing their behavior or at least to reconsider their behavior so taking an overly bureaucratic tone with them is often not going to help. It will build resentment. So you want to approach it with empathy, with kindness, with understanding, and also with firm boundaries around what you can and can't do.
Nate Randall: And that's, I think, the point. I don't think anybody is really saying that all of the minds in the world need to be changed to be the same as everybody else. You can have your own reasons for not liking a certain behavior or not liking a certain thing out there, but everybody has the right to have their own human experience and not be marginalized, not be aggressed upon, all of those things.
Lily Zheng: Right.
Nate Randall: It's perfectly fine for somebody not to agree with my lifestyle, but that doesn't give them the right to harm me in my career, in my work, and in my home, whatever it is.
Lily Zheng: Exactly. So if you take that approach and tell people that you're not setting out to brainwash them and change their mind, you're simply laying down the rules of what will and won't be tolerated, what is and what is not expected of them in the workplace, and it becomes, honestly, a very straightforward conversation. You can simply say, I don't care whether or not you personally like this group of people, but if you do these behaviors, that is illegal and there will be consequences. So just don't do these behaviors and we're going to be in the clear.
Lily Zheng: And I think that is one of the most, I think that's one of the most straightforward things you can do working in HR is to set those boundaries for the organization. And to also work with the affected person such that they can help you articulate their needs as well. But, I think it's not as hard as people make it out to be. Your job is not to necessarily do the deep cultural change work, unless it's in your job description, in which case that's a pretty fun job. But for most HR professionals it's not. And so I would say leave it to the pros. I would say if you really do you feel like your organization needs deep cultural change work, bring in a consultant. Talk to leadership. See if there's something that your people operations or R&D can do to fix that issue, but your job is to be clear and adamant and straightforward with the policy and protect the people who need protection.
Nate Randall: Yeah and my hope is that we're moving to a place, quickly is my hope, where we don't have to have a specific month for black history or we don't have to have us specific month for Pride or we don't have to have this and that and the other thing. That we're really celebrating being a good person. I think that a lot of this just comes down to if we treat each other with respect, if we all strive to be good people, then we won't need much of this stuff and it will be an inclusive world. But maybe I'm a total dreamer.
Lily Zheng: Yeah. I'm going to push back, respectfully, on that. I would say that the importance of Pride month, of black history month is not necessarily to push people to be better people, but to push systems to be better systems. And many of the largest problems in today's workplaces cannot be solved by everyone being respectful and polite to each other. And some of those changes that need to happen are related to our nation's history of slavery, are related to our nation's history of pushing down LGBTQ+ communities and building equity for marginalized groups is something that goes beyond simply acting respectfully in the workplace. So I think the importance of Pride month, Black History month, and Women's History month etc. is to raise awareness of the deep-seated cultural issues and the deep-seated structural issues still in our organizations and fight back against them. So I can also identify a world where we have no more need for these sorts of identity focused months, but that the world in which we've built equity, and that's a world in which we've built true inclusion for everyone. And I don't think we are anywhere close to that world yet. I don't think I'm going to see it in my lifetime, but that doesn't change the fact that I think it's a very, very important thing to fight for and I'm going to defend Pride month for as long as the LGBTQ+ community continues to be marginalized.
Nate Randall: Very well said. I appreciate that. And so what are the biggest things that you think need to change immediately? Or, stated another way, what are some of the most impactful things that you've seen occur in organizations you've gone into?
Lily Zheng: Leadership needs to take a position. I think this is a stickler for many people, but I think if leadership takes a stand and comes out in support of the LGBTQ+ community, that makes a world of difference. Leaders often don't say anything or they only say platitudes and hope that the rest of the organization will get things done without them. But I think it's a poor choice to take. It's a poor road to go down because, without that explicit leadership support, people lower down in the organization don't feel empowered to make the decisions that they need to do to protect the LGBTQ+ community and to help the LGBTQ+ community thrive.
Lily Zheng: With that explicit leadership support you see this empowering effect that goes down the line in which people every day can say, "I think that this is the right thing for the LGBTQ+ community and I know that our leadership supports me, supports us, in doing this work so I'm going to do this work." It makes such a big difference for leaders to take that stand. And to take that stand knowing that is not going to be popular with everyone. Sometimes you can't be popular with everyone. Sometimes you just have to take a position and say our organization doesn't stand for homophobia. Sorry. That's how it's going to be here. So if you are homophobic, we're putting a line in the sand saying you did not belong here. And are there homophobic customers that you're going to lose? Yeah, probably. But this is a commitment. Again, you are choosing the side of inclusion, and I don't like to frame it as picking sides, but ultimately, as a leader, you can't make everyone happy and that something that most leaders know from a business context, but they don't quite understand that from the people perspective.
Nate Randall: There is not enough representation in leadership of anybody but white men, essentially. So what can organizations do to change that?
Lily Zheng: There's a couple of ways in which we can solve this problem. I think one is to figure out how it is that companies bring in leadership to begin with. And if you look deeply into that, most small and medium-size companies bring in leadership through path dependent reason, mainly they were around when the organization was founded, their friends of the founder, they know folks, they're just good buddies and because of homophily, if the founder is a cis gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied straight white man, yeah, it turns out that their friends are probably going to be like that, too. So if those are the processes by which people are brought in, it's going to be very hard to shift leadership. Now there are some organizations, mainly more mature ones, that actually have processes in place for leadership selection, whether those processes involve external searches or internal promotions. When you have companies with those policies in place, you see more diversity simply because the road to leadership is paved. It's more explicit with regards to what you need to do and if there are clear procedures, there are clear targets to make sure bias doesn't creep into the process.
Lily Zheng: Without these clear structures, without these clear procedures, the entire system is built on bias to begin with and it's often very difficult to tweak. So if I ever work with clients like that, for example, small startups, I tell people that you don't have a hiring process, therefore, I'm just going to give you quotas. You need to be hiring such and such identity to keep your organization growing well. Otherwise, you're going to have huge problems down the line. And if they don't listen to me then that's typically what their organization does. And then they come back a few years later and say, "Help, Lily. Our organization is full of white men. We had no idea how this happened."
Nate Randall: Yeah, and the product isn't as good, you don't have the diversity of thought and experience and-
Lily Zheng: Well, the product is great for white men. They've really got their audience down, but the thing is most companies don't want to, or at least not on paper, they don't want to design for only white men. But if that's the case, you need to put some of these diverse experiences into your organization and not just into your organization, but into your leadership. There's no other way to get around it.
Nate Randall: Ramping up your culture, helping everybody feel included, I've talked to some people who say, "Oh they're celebrating this. Why are they pushing this on me? Maybe they should celebrate me." How do you? How do you get this really great culture that's positive vibes and everybody's marching in the same direction accomplishing great things?
Lily Zheng: So I think there is a missed opportunity in the diversity and inclusion space with regards to how we're talking about Pride and celebrating things. And if you really look at the pushback, if you go through the comments section, which is always a bad idea, on articles online, you start to see a pattern. And that pattern is this marginalized group gets to talk about their identity in the workplace, but no one else gets to talk about their identity in the workplace. Why can't I talk about my identity in the workplace?
Lily Zheng: I think many D & I practitioners scoff at that. They say "well there's no point in you talking about your identity in the workplace because this workplace celebrates white straight men every day". But I think they're missing the point. I think the reality is most of our workplaces are identity blind in terms of conversations. People just don't talk about gender or race or sexuality or income or etc. in the workplace. So when these marginalized groups start bringing up identity, that actually touches a sore spot for many people in the organization who wish that they could talk about themselves. And what I hear as a consultant is that there is an unmet need here. And that is, we need to be designing workplaces that allow everyone to bring their identity experiences into the workplace and that means we need white people to actually feel comfortable talking about whiteness rather than just leaving it unspoken and invisible and normalized. We need men feeling comfortable talking about masculinity instead of leaving that to be invisible and normalized in all of these ways. And so I think by bringing the identity conversation to the privileged folks as well and helping everyone frame their own experiences in terms of these actual identities, that's a really powerful approach.
Lily Zheng: I was recently teaching a class and this white man was talking and then he was like, "I don't know anything about what it is to be a man or what is to be white. I just never had to think about that." And then we had a conversation and I ended up asking him about his expertise in the organization. He was like, "Oh yeah, organizations work like this, this, this, this." He really knew what he was talking about. And then I said, "That's how they work for white men. So you are an expert in how this organization functions for white men. So you actually know a lot about masculinity and you know a lot about whiteness in this organization. You've just never framed your experiences in terms of those identities because you've had the privilege to just say that they're normal."
Lily Zheng: So by reframing normal as unique, everyone's normal is unique, including the privileged people, I think we really give people and in to the identity conversation which is currently being taken up by diversity and inclusion and I think the unfortunate side effects of that are that members of the majority group or the privileged group are feeling resentful.
Nate Randall: Resentful and, I think, guilt and fear. So if I were to talk about my challenges and how I don't identify with the white privileged leadership group, I'm sure there would be plenty of people who could tell me why I am the white privileged leadership group. It's an uncomfortable and revealing position to begin.
Lily Zheng: Yeah, and I think this is really telling of the current climate in our workplaces which is that we made a lot of progress with regards to diversity and inclusion, but we have this pervasive problem, you're not the only one, where people of privilege feel uncomfortable sharing their experiences. And it turns out, members of marginalized groups actually feel very similar things said they say things like, "Oh I'm a black woman but I grew up in the relatively high income household and I don't feel like I get to talk about my experiences because I'd be taking away from black women that came from more disadvantaged circumstances.". Or "I'm a transgender person but I don't experience discrimination because I'm conventionally attractive and I can pass as a cis gendered woman and I'm straight and I'm married to a man so I don't go through the same challenges that the rest of the trans community so I don't feel comfortable talking about my story." And I think one of the biggest secrets is that the vast majority of people don't feel comfortable sharing their stories. Everyone is scared of being judged by everyone else and the number of people sharing their stories is actually a very, very small minority. And I don't know if you were aware of this, but many minorities have the same concerns.
Nate Randall: Yeah, it's fascinating, so the HR take away from that, that I hear is, facilitating conversations can be very, very powerful for everyone involved.
Lily Zheng: Assuming that the conversations are psychologically safe and well facilitated and well moderated, yes, absolutely. If you set the right ground rules I think those conversations can be really powerful places of group empathy. And learning.
Nate Randall: What I want people to hear from this is that trans inclusion or gay inclusion or women inclusion or people of color inclusion, it all really just comes down to trying. And trying to do good things and, as you said earlier, I think, making sure that we're able to make the right policy decisions to enable an environment like this to grow.
Lily Zheng: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What I would add on that is that all of these types of inclusion are telling me that we need to be treating people uniquely and we need to be seeing people as the sum of their identities and experiences and as having unique needs to thrive in the workplace. So we can't get by by treating everyone the same anymore because it just turns out everyone is not the same. Even if you had a group of all straight white men, you're still going to see differences among the groups. Some of them are going to be veterans. Some are disabled. Some are single fathers. You have all this difference in our organizations and we need to stop applying a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all model to our workforce, especially as the diversity and inclusion conversation continues to expand in this country like I hope that that's the biggest take away. We really need to be seeing people as their full selves and recognizing that people's individual needs require different resources, different support, different treatment, etc., so we can validate people of all races, all genders, all sexualities, all abilities, etc. etc.
Nate Randall: Well, thank you very much for taking the time. I know you're extremely busy and all of the great work you're doing so I really appreciate you coming on and sending some of your knowledge my way.
Lily Zheng: Yeah, thank you so much for the invite. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to chat.