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Discrimination Of Sexual Minorities In The Workplace Social Work Essay

“Qualified, hardworking Americans are denied job opportunities, fired or otherwise discriminated against just because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT)” (Human Right Campaign). Even with the passing and enforcement of employment anti-discrimination laws, statistics show that persons with minority status such as people of color, persons with disabilities and women continue to experience discrimination in the workplace, particularly sexual minorities – LGBT persons (Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2005). LGBT individuals who are also ethnic minorities are at an even greater disadvantage, with African American transgender people faring the worst (Grant, Mottet, Tanis, Harrison, & Keisling, 2001). To date, no federal law exists which consistently protects LGBT individuals from discriminatory practices in the workplace. It is still legal in 29 states to discriminate against employees and job applicants based on their sexual orientation, and legal in 38 states to discriminate based on gender identity (Human Rights Campaign). Within the state of Florida, there are no provisions in place which formally address discrimination based on gender identity; however a Florida court ruled that a person with Gender Identity Disorder (gender dysphoria) is within the disability coverage under the Florida Human Rights Act, as well as sections of the act that proscribe discrimination based on perceived disability. There is no state-wide non-discrimination law that protects individuals based on sexual orientation (Human Rights Campaign).

Vocational psychology researchers, practitioners, and LGBT advocates have made significant attempts to call attention to the vocational concerns and needs of both ethnic and sexual minority groups. Over the past few decades, work discrimination has become a topic of interest in the fast growing literature regarding the vocational issues and challenges of LGBT persons (Chung, 2001; Gedro, 2009; Loo & Rocco, 2009; O’Neil, McWhirter, & Cerezo, 2008).

Work Discrimination

Chung (2001) defined work discrimination as, “unfair and negative treatment of workers or job applicants based on personal attributes that are irrelevant to job performance” (Chung, 2001,p. 34) and proposed a conceptual framework that describes work discrimination along three dimensions: a) formal versus informal, b) perceived versus real, and c) potential versus encountered. Formal discrimination refers to institutional policies or decisions that influence one’s employment status, job assignment, and compensation. Informal discrimination refers to workplace behaviors or environments that are unwelcoming. Perceived discrimination refers to acts perceived to be discriminatory; whereas, real discrimination is based in actuality/reality. Potential discrimination refers to discrimination that could occur if a persons’ LGBT identity is either revealed or assumed. Encountered discrimination refers to discriminatory acts one experiences.

Findings from Research on Work Discrimination against LGBT persons

Following is a brief overview of some of the recent research findings on work discrimination of LGBT individuals. In their report entitled Bias in the Workplace, Badgett, Lau, Sears, and Ho (2007) summarized research findings about employment discrimination of LGBT persons from four different kinds of studies throughout the United States. Surveys of LGBT persons’ experiences with workplace discrimination (self-reports and co-worker perceptions), revealed that 16% to 68% of LGB persons reported experiencing employment discrimination, with 57% of transgender persons reporting the same. A significant number of heterosexual co-workers also reported witnessing sexual orientation discrimination in the work place against their LGBT peers. Of note, 12% to 13% of respondents in specific occupations (e.g., the legal profession) reported witnessing anti-gay discrimination in employment. An analysis of employment discrimination complaints filed with governmental agencies in states where discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited, findings revealed that LGB persons filed complaints at rates similar to women and racial minorities (e.g., people of color). An analysis of wage differentials between LGBT and heterosexual workers revealed that gay men earn 10% to 32% less than heterosexual men with similar qualifications and that transgender persons reported higher rates of unemployment (6% to 60% were unemployed) with incredibly small earnings (22% - 64% of the employed earned less than $25,000 per year). Finally, findings from controlled experiments - where researchers compare treatment of LGBT people and treatment of heterosexuals by presenting hypothetical scenarios in which research participants interact with the actual or hypothetical people who are coded as “gay” or “straight - also revealed significant discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the workplace.

According to the American Psychological Association (2011), those who self-identify as LGBT are particularly vulnerable to being socioeconomically disadvantaged; this is important as socioeconomic status is inextricably linked to LGBT persons’ rights and overall well-being. Although LGBT persons tend to be more educated in comparison to the general population, research suggests that they make significantly less money than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts.

In 2009, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force published the preliminary findings of their National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS). A staggering 97% of survey participants reported experiencing mistreatment, harassment, or discrimination in some form on their jobs, which included privacy invasion (48% said “supervisors/coworkers shared information about me inappropriately” and 41% said “I was asked questions about my transgender and surgical status”), verbal abuse (48% said “I was referred to be the wrong pronoun, repeatedly and on purpose”), and physical or sexual assault (7% said “I was a victim of sexual assault at work” and 6% said “I was a victim of sexual assault at work”). Survey respondents also reported experiencing unemployment at twice the rate of the population, with 47% having experienced an adverse job outcome – being fired, not hired or denied a promotion at some point in their careers due to their gender identity. Similar findings were reported in the NTDS’ official report, Injustice at Every Turn. Other significant findings were that 57% of participants reported trying to avoid discrimination by keeping their gender or gender transition a secret, and 71% by delaying the transition. Sixteen percent reported that they had to resort to work in the “underground economy” to earn income (e.g., prostitution or selling drugs). Unemployed respondents reported experiencing devastating outcomes, including double the homelessness, 85% more incarceration, and increased negative health outcomes, including twice the rate of HIV infection and nearly twice the rate of current drug use to self-medicate/cope in comparison to their employed LGBT counterparts (Ramos, Badgett, & Sears, 2011).

Frye (2001) argued that transgender persons are regular targets of workplace discrimination even more systematically than their LGB counterparts. In an attempt to ensure professional survival and avoid discrimination, many LGB employees choose not to “come out” at work; however because transgender persons may possess physical and behavioral characteristics that clearly identify them as transgendered at some point in their lives (mainly during gender transition), they are more susceptible to having their sexual minority status revealed against their will (being “outed”). More so than LGB individuals, transgender persons are frequently targets of hate crimes because of their visibility (Frye, 2001).

How/ Why Work Discrimination is related or important to career counseling.

“In the United States, a dominant career-related belief is that the individual controls his or her own career destiny” (Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2005, p. 1); however, individual control is always exercised within a context that varies based on the degree to which it supports one’s career goals. In the case of LGBT persons, factors such as heterosexism, socioeconomic status, and racism may restrict access to certain occupational opportunities. Work discrimination in any form can have a profound effect on one’s career path and development (Neary, 2010). “LGBT people face a complex set of choices that are unique to them because of their sexual minority status” (Gedro, 2009, p. 54). Many of them have to confront “exclusion from certain types of jobs, such as elementary school teachers and child care workers; physical assault, verbal harassment and abuse, destruction of property, ridicule, trans-phobic jokes, unfair work schedules, workplace sabotage, and restriction to their careers” (Kirk & Belovics, 2008, p.32 as cited in Neary, 2010). In the case of transgender individuals, concerns about personal safety while at work preclude the focus on career interests (Neary, 2010). Because of the large amount of energy it requires to integrate a positive gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender identity, as well as cope with discrimination (within and outside of the workplace), career development for such persons to be postponed, hindered, or misdirected (Alderson, 2003 as cited in Gedro, 2009, p.56; Haley, 2004).

Pepper and Lorah (2008) identified 3 major problems related to the job search process – an integral part of career development – which poses several challenges for transgender persons: 1) potential loss of work history, 2) navigating the job interview process (many struggle with confidence and self-esteem issues), and 3) if an employer asks about work experience under another name. Although slightly different, such challenges may be generalized to LGB job-applicants as well. Helping LGBT clients prepare for these problems is essential in assisting them in their career choice and job search efforts (Neary, 2010).

Work discrimination also has a significant impact on LGBT persons’ mental state, with the most common psychological issues include increased levels of stress and anxiety, depression, lack of self-confidence, drug and alcohol dependency (Neary, 2010), and attempted suicide (Grant et. al., 2011).

Implications & Suggested Interventions for Career Counselors

Like all other clients, the LGBT client may require help with career planning, self-assessment, career exploration, career or job transitions, job search strategies etcetera (Neary, 2010; O’Neil et. al., 2008). Career counselors working with sexual minorities need to create a LGBT-positive/affirming counseling environment, in which clients are free to explore their personal needs, interests and values in a safe place. Such an environment includes tangible and process-related forms of support and affirmation (e.g., displaying quarterly newsletters from the America Psychological Association’s Division 44 and other reading materials or paying careful attention to unique aspects of assessment interpretation) for LGBT clients. Intake forms should encourage them to note their gender presentation, and gender-neutral washrooms should be made available (O’Neil et. al., 2008).

Counselors and other helping professionals involved in the career development process of LGBT individuals should ensure that they develop relevant multicultural knowledge, skills and awareness for conducting culturally appropriate career discussions, realizing that more traditional approaches will likely be ineffective with this particular population. (Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2001). When a LGBT client presents for career counseling, counselors should assess whether they are competent to provide the services requested (O’Neil, et. al., 2008). It is also imperative that career counselors assess their personal biases, stereotypes, and assumptions about the LGBT client presenting for counseling. A client-centered approach is recommended given that the issue of trust building is critical with the LGBT population. From a narrative perspective, adopting a stance of “informed not knowing” will allow the LGBT client the best chance to share their story about their career and life in their own words. Following, the counselor and client collaborate to deconstruct the cultural narratives of gender and heterosexism that promote negative messages and replace them with a more accurate and affirming narrative (Neary, 2010). In the case of personal dislike to LGBT individuals, O’Neil et. al., (2008) advised that counselors refer the client to another professional, receive continuing education and supervision, and engage in personal exploration of the topic as a means to prepare for future clients with similar concerns. The career counselor’s ability to provide effective services to their LGBT clients will be improved by staying current with the relevant literature (O’Neil et. al., 2008).

Career counselors are encouraged to help improve cultural sensitivity where their clients are concerned; this can be achieved by using appropriate names, pronouns and other terminology preferred by their LGBT clients to help validate their identity. Career counselors should also make it a point to educate themselves about the different legal issues experienced by their clients and investigate any written workplace policies that may hold relevance to LGBT individuals, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (O’Neil et. al., 2008; Human Rights Campaign). Further, career counselors should identify and attend to all of the salient aspects of the client’s identity, as clients may identify themselves with an array of sociocultural backgrounds. This is especially important for transgender clients who not only suffer discrimination in the workplace, but in almost every aspect of their lives: education, housing, public accommodations, receiving update identification documents, and health care (Ramos, Badgett, & Sears, 2011).

Pope (1995) as cited in Gedro (2009) outlined four useful interventions for career counselors working in their work with sexual minorities. Pope suggests a discussion about discrimination interventions (exploring the nature and extent of discrimination and any resources available to the client should he or she chose to change their job or career), dual-career couples (e.g., Do you openly reveal the relationship at work?), overcoming internalized transphobia or homophobia with the client (many sexual minority clients possess an intense self-hatred and - loathing), as well as supporting LGBT role models (particularly those who do not work in “safe” occupation).

Finally, career counselors are also strongly encouraged to serve as advocates for their LGBT clients. One author noted that a weakness in the field is “the reluctance or inability to see career counselors as change agents who can help not only individuals to change but systems to change as well” (Hanson, 2003 as cited in O’Neil, 2008, p. 299). Neary (2010) cited Muniz and Thomas’ (2006) five strategies in organization settings that career counselors can use to help cultivate an affirmative LGBT work environment. They include: 1) setting up the context – advocating in the workplace for anti-discrimination and harassment policies, 2) preparing for resistance – taking steps to make the concerns and needs of the LGBT population more visible, 3) leadership commitment – gaining commitment and support from the leadership/management of organization, 4) becoming familiar with or launching affinity and/or resource groups for LGBT persons, and 5) continued learning – additional diversity training (Neary, 2010). The Human Rights Campaign Foundation provides a 5-step checklist for advocating for the rights of transgender persons, and the NCTE’s list of 52 Things You Can Do for Transgender Equity, is also a useful guide for initiating social advocacy (O’Neil, et. al., 2008).


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