How can I be a good straight ally at work?
April 7, 2012 7:19 AM   Subscribe

How can I show my support for a new co-worker in my company's homophobic environment?

There are several people at my work that I know are homophobic, many are directors and managers. My new co-worker knows that I am not, but I worry that he will miss professional opportunities because of people's prejudice. I'm not sure how accurate that is, but I am concerned about it.

Here it seems like people are treating him well, but in the past these same people have made disturbing homophobic comments in my presence- knowing that I am straight, of course.

I've been struggling to parse dealing daily with people whose views I find offensive so it may be my own emotional reaction to want to DO something and I don't want to overstep my bounds, I mean he's a grown man after all.

Is there a way that I can reach out and further support this person without seeming paternalistic? I mean I'm sure he's aware that people are homophobic here to some degree- it's common in this region.
posted by abirdinthehand to Work & Money (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think all you can do is be his friend and treat him like a normal person. (I mean, since he is.) If you hear the people around you make homophobic comments, tell them to knock it off, whether the guy is around or not. If he does overhear a comment, you could just look at him, roll your eyes, and say something like, "Christ, what an asshole."

Thanks for thinking about this.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 7:27 AM on April 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Disparaging comments like that are exactly the sort of thing that are flat against company policy in just about every place I've worked. If you have a Human Resources group, I'd go have a chat with them about this sort of thing. In addition to being completely unacceptable from the standpoint of basic human decency, comments like that create the sort of conditions that open your company to litigation.

Is there a way that I can reach out and further support this person without seeming paternalistic?

Stand by company rules (if they exist) on harassment and elimination of a hostile workplace. Backing the rules isn't paternalistic in the least. You don't have to be the target of the comments to be upset by them. In some cases, it may be considered a duty to let management know about these things because of the risk.
posted by jquinby at 7:29 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tell him flat out that your co-workers are homophobic dickheads, that they tend to make worthless comments, and that he shouldn't take any of their shit.
posted by lobbyist at 7:31 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

jquinby, are you not aware that in the U.S., there are no federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in the workplace?

Anyway, if somebody made homophobic or racist or sexist comments in my workplace, I hope I would just say something, maybe "I don't agree with that kind of talk" or "I don't think that's funny." I hope I would do so even if there wasn't a particular coworker I was concerned about.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:42 AM on April 7, 2012

(Not being critical of you, OP -- just saying that I think that's a better tactic than tipping off your coworker that there are homophobes on the loose. Sadly, there always are, and your coworker probably has encountered them before.)
posted by Wordwoman at 7:48 AM on April 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think being sensitive is good but you don't want to be his little watchdog pal, meaning, don't spring to his defense when there's no good reason for it. If he's an adult, he can fight his own battles and handle his own trolls, snotty remarks, etc.. And he can figure out who's who in the zoo without your "warning" him about your colleagues.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:40 AM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

At my work, every employee gets a printed copy of the employee handbook. On pages 4 & 5 of the handbook, there is the company's policy on discrimination & harassment. Working from memory here, it says that discrimination based on a multitude of factors including sexual orientation is prohibited & that harassment is considered discrimination (being denied promotion or payraise on one of the protected factors is also considered discrimination).

Perhaps your company has something similar, where every employee gets a printed copy of the handbook. If so, I would encourage you & this coworker to know where the discrimination & harassment policies are, & highlight them. That way, if someone calls your new coworker a slur, either of you can grab your copy of the handbook, open to the highlighted passage, hand it to the offender & ask them how what they just said matches up with the highlighted passages.
posted by AMSBoethius at 8:51 AM on April 7, 2012

When your coworkers make inappropriate comments, you can just say "Dude. HR." In my experience, people know exactly what you mean by it and usually just back down without much fuss or defensiveness. If they do put up a fuss, you can say "Hey, I didn't write the policy, don't yell at me," and go back to your work.

It's not Taking A Stand with capital letters, but it seems more likely to have the effect you are looking for (reduced anti-GLBT statements) with minimal drama.

(This assumes you do have an employee handbook which spells out that GLBT harrassment is not acceptable).
posted by bunderful at 9:35 AM on April 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've found that best thing to do when someone says a homophobic statement (whether your coworker is present or not) is reply, "That's an awful thing to say!" Most people get stammery and back down. The ones who don't? Well..then you know who the true asses are.

If you're not comfortable saying that, then rehearse it in the mirror at home until you are.
posted by ladygypsy at 9:41 AM on April 7, 2012

Response by poster: I have spoken out against their homophobic comments. They simply stopped saying those kinds of things around me and I am sure they will not make hateful remarks around my gay co-worker because they are aware of his sexual orientation-- they know that it is wrong to say those types of things.

I guess there's no way to shore up against potential discrimination if there is no outright incidents to back up any claim. I don't really know how their minds work or if their discrimination would come to have a larger effect on his career here, but I do know that people favor those that they like and whether you're uncomfortable or actually abhor someone's lifestyle it will have an impact on how you think about them in all aspects.

I'm sure people in more liberal places are homophobic too, and just never actually say their thoughts out loud. I will look at our employee handbooks, that's a good idea.
posted by abirdinthehand at 9:41 AM on April 7, 2012

Best answer: As you say, "...they simply stopped saying those kinds of things around me." You can't make the world spin the way you think it should. If you aren't encouraging or participating in the bashing, and if you treat him the way you'd treat anyone else, you are supporting him. If he's the kind of guy you'd go to lunch with, go to lunch with him.
posted by judytaos at 10:01 AM on April 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

That's a good thing you're doing.

Just don't use him to fight some battle of your own. I mean, maybe he diesn't want to fight this particular battle right now, so follow his lead. I get that this workplace homophobia is a pet peeve of yours, I respect that, but don't use him as a figurehead for the cause.

Not saying you will, just something to keep in mind.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:12 AM on April 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Also, on further contemplation: I'm a lesbian, and if one of my superiors was a secret homophobe, I wouldn't appreciate being told about the negative things he or she said when I wasn't present. It would just depress me and make it harder for me to do my job. Maybe that's just me.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:42 AM on April 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

I agree with the others - go higher up and report these people for violating any company policy. No, there may not be a Federal rule against LGBT discrimination, but many companies don't NEED Federal rules to realize that's not cool. Every place I've worked has had anti-discriminatory policies.

If you're unsure, call your HR department and ask. For example I sat in on an interview where my boss didn't want to hire someone because "she's too young!" (the applicant was almost 30 - not like they were 12). That was my boss's ONLY reason for not wanting to hire this person. Federal guidelines say you can't discriminate against someone for being "too" OLD, but there's not Federal rules for discrimination based on "too" young. However, I called my HR department with my concern, and they were livid, and spoke to my boss, without naming me (though I'm pretty sure my boss knew it was me, as I objected while she was saying it.... :-o )

As for the outright incidents, you have the incidents. "On March 24th, John said XXXXX" "On April 2nd, Mary said XXXXX". They may not be "incidents" in terms of a big show with lots of witnesses to back you up, however if your HR is good, they will address ANY concern. If there's a concern your coworkers are making harassing comments, your HR will require solid proof to have them fired, but probably not to simply talk to them and remind them what type of discussions are and are not acceptable in the workplace. Again - no one was there to back up my claims about my boss's discrimination (well, the other people there agreed....) but HR still spoke to her.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 10:56 AM on April 7, 2012

If you aren't encouraging or participating in the bashing, and if you treat him the way you'd treat anyone else, you are supporting him.

I disagree - support is an action. What you're describing is merely passive. If you want to stay out of it, then you can, but staying out of it is in NO WAY "support".
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 10:58 AM on April 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm gay and I can't tell you how happy it makes me when straight people use their privileged and "unbiased" position to call out homophobia and let people know they think it's just stupid and ignorant and not something that intelligent balanced people feel.

However used to it your co-worker is, it's still shitty to be in a vulnerable position where keeping on getting wage depends on you putting up with environments in which it's okay for others to insult who you are. If he's heard a lot of it, it's probably not better: it's likely worse.

Thanks for caring about and wanting to do something about this; the world needs more people like you.
posted by springbound at 10:30 PM on April 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have had better luck by describing the behaviour I dislike as either rude or unpleasant (rather than wrong, which it is also). So I might tell people that I find that language unpleasant or whatever, and not appropriate for work. And if it's a general opinion (e.g. gay men are wimps), then I simply state that I disagree in a really, realky bored eyerolling tone. I treat this kind of stuff as a distraction from more important things like work, or what was on tv last night. YMMV, I use and laugh at my reputation for being comedically PC to good effect.
posted by plonkee at 1:38 AM on April 8, 2012

I am a lesbian, and I have, in the past, gone to people who have made homophobic comments and said something along the lines of, "I'm sure you didn't mean anything negative about that joke/comment/whatever, but as you may know, I am gay and some people might think you have a problem with me when you make comments like that. I'm sure that's not what you intended." Usually, they are very apologetic and the comments stop.

I've worked in pretty civilized workplaces where I was valued for my contribution -- I'm sure that in some workplaces, this tactic would backfire. On the other hand, I wouldn't really want to work in that kind of workplace unless it was my last resort.
posted by elmay at 6:49 AM on April 8, 2012

The other thing you can do is befriend your new colleague. Of course, that he's gay and you're not homophobic doesn't necessarily mean that you have a lot in common or that you both will like each other. But you can make a point of saying hello, and making friendly small talk, and asking how he likes the new job and if he needs help with anything, offer to get lunch together, and establish yourself as being open to getting to know him and being a potential ally.

Really, that's a nice thing to do for *any* person in a new job.

I wouldn't mention that he's gay or bring up the office conservatism or your own political thoughts. Just having a friend or ally in the workplace can help you get through shit.
posted by bunderful at 3:31 PM on April 8, 2012

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