About a month ago, I had the pleasure of conducting some storytelling workshops at a summit for the GLBTA Alliance of GE. Held once a year, this conference offers gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees of GE (as well as their allies) a chance to come together, share stories around their achievements and discuss the challenges they still face in the workplace. This gig was especially meaningful for me because I am the “G” in GLBTA. This is no news to many of you, especially if you ever watched the video of me starring in my high school’s production of “The Music Man.” It was as if I was channeling Paul Lynde, Liberace and Charles Nelson Reilly all at once.
At one point during the conference, a short film was shown. Produced by GE’s GLBTA Alliance, this video was intended to convey a richer, more compelling story around the benefits of diversity in the workplace and of employees being out and open. It was very well done, especially in how it looked at these benefits from two different angles.
The more obvious perspective was a personal one, as gays and lesbian employees talked about the freedom and joy that comes from being able be wholly themselves at work. When a company hires someone, they hire the whole person, not just a slice of him or her. And when people feel safe and secure to bring that whole person to work each day, they are happier and more fulfilled as a result. As one lesbian employee exclaimed in the film, “I cannot imagine preparing for my wedding if I wasn’t out at work. Just like everybody (else), I wanted to celebrate my life.”
The less obvious perspective was a more practical one.
Gay and lesbian employees talked about how much mental and emotional energy was spent on trying to stay in the closet, as they dodged sensitive questions, avoided getting too close with coworkers and perpetuated falsehoods of their own creation. It is a constant source of anxiety, like keeping several plates of lies spinning at once. Now imagine, they asked rhetorically, if the source of that anxiety was gone and all that energy was now free to be directed towards our jobs. Consider how much more focused, inspired and productive we could be!
Adding to this pragmatic point of view was the perspective of GE executives who spoke at the summit. They echoed the sentiments around wasted energy, but added to that the sheer competitive advantage that comes from having as much diversity as possible evaluating a situation and tackling tough problems. As I listened to these executives talk about the need to foster diversity and openness, I got the sense that it was not just a matter of common decency, but also one of common sense.
From a pragmatic perspective, I know this to be true, having witnessed the advantages derived from having diverse perspectives coming together to look upon a situation. This is why we always identify and recruit outside thought leaders to participate in a client’s StoryFinding session. Having them in the room with us helps ensure we are looking at our clients’ challenges and opportunities from every possible angle.
On a more personal note, I know how distracting and draining it can be to be in the closet at work, having lived there for the first four years of my career in New York. When I switched jobs, I vowed “never again” and have stuck to that. I take my work very personally and therefore want to, need to feel free to bring my whole person to my work.
Today is National Coming Out Day. In the spirit of that day, I encourage you to not only celebrate diversity when you think about your brand, your business and your workforce, but also insist on it. You’ll be the richer for it, in more ways than one.