It’s Monday and you’re at work.
Your colleague asks “How was your weekend?”
You think about your weekend, carefully filtering the details before you speak.
You don’t feel entirely comfortable sharing honestly.
This is the reality for many LGBTQ+ people, according to diversity and inclusion leader Vessy Tasheva.
In the latest episode of Hive Learning’s Inclusion Works podcast, Vessy explained that however well-intentioned organisations are, many are failing to make LGBTQ+ employees feel like they belong.
I realized I was gay, let’s say somewhat late, compared to other people. I was 20 at the time and it was a very sudden realization. I felt like finally my life made sense, because there were a lot of experiences those 20 years before that, that didn’t quite fit in. It was a shock. It was relieving but it was also very very overwhelming.
Just for some context, I am originally from Bulgaria and I studied there from 2005-2009 at the American University in Bulgaria. There was no single person on campus who was openly gay.
So I felt like, by not coming out, I’m lying or pretending and I felt like an alien. I wanted to break this feeling. I wanted to face all of this, so I approached it in a very organized manner. Whenever I tell people, they are like “Oh my God, you’re so funny.”
I did a whole list of people who I wanted to speak to, like my closest friends, some acquaintances who I wanted to tell personally, then my family. I approached the student magazine, and I told them that I wanted to ‘come out’ to everyone publicly. I just wanted to get on top of this. I followed the checklist, one by one. When the story came out, I didn’t have any negative experiences. I think part of it was that I was owning it. It felt very empowering. I was very proud of myself to approach it in a bright way.
Professionally, there have been situations where jokes at work were quite divisive in a way, because they did not make me feel like I belong. There have been jokes that have been racist, homophobic or sexist and I’ve experienced situations where the leadership hasn’t been able to respond or manage those in an appropriate way.
Very few companies would intentionally be against diversity or inclusion or belonging. Most companies care, but caring doesn’t mean actions and doesn’t bring results.
What are some of the unique challenges LGBTQ+ individuals face in the workplace and also in society, more broadly?
LGBTQ+ people go back to the closet after graduation. Knowing that when people ask you, “How was your weekend?” you have to hold back some information because you don’t think it will be accepted.
In reality it doesn’t matter if it will be accepted, because the fear is alive. You are really experiencing it every time you are in that situation. It’s like if you are walking in the street, and you are holding your partner’s hand and you are thinking, “Will someone attack me?”
Even if you don’t get physically or verbally attacked, in that moment, considering it, it’s already abusive, and it’s shaped by the expectations that society has, what you see in the news, and all of that.
It means, as an employee that you are not able to give your whole self because your energy goes into holding something back, hiding something. You are trying to protect yourself, instead of being creative, contributing.
What’s one simple thing that anyone could do this week to build inclusion in their workplace?
I always say the first thing is go to the leadership team, and try to understand why they think that inclusion is important to them.
In many organizations, let’s say the CEO gives a call to the Talent team or the L&D and says, “This is a priority, you work on this. Here is a budget.” And there the communication stops.
Those people who are working on it don’t necessarily understand what the business is trying to achieve. Is it important for the CEO because they see it as a competitive advantage? Do they want it embedded in the business strategy? Do they see it solely as related to the employer strategy? Do they see it as important for internal innovation, do they see it as a way to acquire markets? What’s the case? Why is it very important? Without understanding the why, regardless of your role in the company, you don’t know what resources you can ask for.
To hear the full interview with Vessy, including more ideas on how to build inclusion in your workplace, download the Inclusion Works podcast in your favourite podcast app or by clicking HERE.
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