What are the ramifications of discussing a colleagues sexual orientation
August 16, 2005 3:14 PM   Subscribe

What are the ramifications of discussing a colleagues sexual orientation in the workplace.

I was asked by someone about the sexuality of a colleague at work. Specifically, if said colleague is a lesbian. To which I replied to the best of my knowledge no. I also mentioned this conversation to the colleague in question who has then made a complaint to management about the situation leading to 4 employees being put into a disciplinary situation.

I have a few questions:

1. Is there any way to argue this out as being natural behavior and hardly case for a disciplinary action?

2. If someone merely enquired to your sexuality - not in a derogatory / bigot / insulting way would you be offended?

3. Does it neccesarily infer that from the persons reaction that they view someone thinking they could be of a different sexual orientation as an insult indicate that they are the one who is intolerant?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total)
While I don't think there is anything inherently wrong about discussing a person's sexuality, I always tend to shy well away from any discussions in the workplace relating even tangentially to sex.

I guess I would equate it to discussing someone's ethnic background -- not necessarily degoratory/insulting in and of itself, but you're getting really close to a very fine line.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:29 PM on August 16, 2005


1. Is there any way to argue this out as being natural behavior and hardly case for a disciplinary action?

No. Natural behavior is not always professional behavior, e.g., urinating is a natural behavior, but you don't do it on the bosses desk.

2. If someone merely enquired to your sexuality - not in a derogatory / bigot / insulting way would you be offended?

Does it matter? The question is improper along the lines that it is none of your business who I sleep with, as it has no impact on the quality of my work, or our working relationship.

3. Does it neccesarily infer that from the persons reaction that they view someone thinking they could be of a different sexual orientation as an insult indicate that they are the one who is intolerant?

Is that relevant to the question being asked within the workplace? If that person has issues with self-image, it is for that person to work out irregardless of a coworker's opinion about how that is worked out. /opinion
posted by Rothko at 3:31 PM on August 16, 2005

I wish there was more detail here since something doesn't add up. A asks B if C is gay. B tells C that A asked the question. Now 4 people have been hit with the HR stick.

Who's #4 and are you one of the 4? Not that you can answer, but still.

Natural behavior or not isn't relevant. A company can target any non-protected behavior or class as a prohibited thing and the scope of that discretion is almost always wider than people think - go a little googling on "right to work." If this conversation violates the rules, you're out of luck. If it doesn't then odds are still that they can use their discretion.

All that said, if I were you I'd be looking for a less hypersensitive place to work. Protecting someone's right not to be harassed is good but to the point where people are sanctioned for idle (if inappropriately snoopy) conversation turns into multiple-person writeups is over the top for my taste.
posted by phearlez at 3:38 PM on August 16, 2005

Ambiguity in a corporate environment is your friend. Being extremely difficult to "peg" helps you because people are bigots, consciously or not. I'm brown can pass for being Italian, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Indian, Mediterranean, etc... Keeping my religion and ethnicity secret is to my advantage (even though my name gives it away) because you never know what kind of preconceived stereotypes your colleagues hold.

People don't talk about it directly (the bias against certain characteristics) but as soon as someone discovers the truth, they put you into a category based upon their construct of life. My advice: despite what people say about the US being an open and inviting country, be extremely cautious about what types of information you reveal because people say one thing but think very differently, and it's difficult to discern honesty.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 3:38 PM on August 16, 2005

Why did you immediately tell your coworker that another coworker thought they were gay? Did you not think that that might be a little intrusive?
posted by billysumday at 3:41 PM on August 16, 2005

2. If someone merely enquired to your sexuality - not in a derogatory / bigot / insulting way would you be offended?
Not a whole lot different than asking if I had a family, or another personal question that's not need-to-know.
posted by Kwantsar at 3:44 PM on August 16, 2005

1. Sure, draw a parallel between asking if someone is a lesbian and asking if someone is an Eskimo. Well, unless people at your job would get disciplined for asking if a coworker was an Eskimo.

2. I wouldn't be offended. I'd file it under "Shit that isn't really anyone's business, but which I don't care if people know about", just like I file questions like "What race are you, I can't tell" and "What did you have for lunch today?"

3. It seems that way to me.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:47 PM on August 16, 2005

1. No. See Rothko's comment. Whether or not your company's management overreacted or not is irrelevant.

2. A co-worker who is not a friend? Yes. It's none of their business. My rude response to that question is "I'll answer you in a minute, but let me ask you something, you know, quid pro quo. Do you like anal sex?" (I'm well aware that I get gossipped about quite a lot in the workplace: since I used to have a shaved head, silly people automatically assumed I was a dyke. Doesn't bother me that they'd think I was gay, what bothers me is their rude curiosity.)

3. This is irrelevant to your work situation, but sure, it could mean that. It could also mean that they're touchy about having their personal life gossipped about.

Some unwarranted advice: abstain from discussing co-workers' personal lives. If someone asks you about a colleage's sexual orientation, say you don't know, you don't care, or tell them that's not a discussion you have about your coworkers.
posted by Specklet at 3:51 PM on August 16, 2005

That's an inappropriate conversation to have in the workplace. It may have been innocently intended, but that doesn't excuse it. Just because it isn't an insult, doesn't mean it's acceptable. If we worked together and you told me I had a nice ass, that wouldn't be an insult. But you would face disciplinary action for that, too.
posted by raedyn at 3:51 PM on August 16, 2005

Read Specklet's unwarranted advice again. It may have not been requested, but it's good advice.
posted by raedyn at 3:52 PM on August 16, 2005

Sorry, I accidentally posted before spellchecking or previewing other comments. I didn't mean that to come acrtoss as harshly as it did.
posted by Specklet at 3:53 PM on August 16, 2005

I'm going to take a slightly switched tactic here.

I tend to be more annoyed when people ask about other co-worker's spouses, but do not ask about my partner.

Basically, it means that either (1) they are afraid of offending me by mentioning my sexual orientation, or (2) they are uncomfortable with my sexual orientation.

If they are afraid of offending me, simply mentioning my partner shouldn't offend anyone. That probably would have been a better tact. "Do you know if Ms. Flannel as a domestic partner? I know this great girl who'd be a wonderful match for her." "She's not gay." "Oh? Ok, then."

If their uncomfortable with my sexual orientation, so much crap for them, they better get over it real quick. I'm not a flamer, but I'm not hiding who I am simply because I am gay. Just like people talk about their spouses, I'm going to talk about mine.

But even gay people are sometimes uncomfortable with their sexual orientation. Often it is due to the stigma that says that god is out to get them, which causes depression and repression.

I guess the question is, is it akin to talking about someone else's sex life, or about their possible choices in spousal units. I tend to think the latter, as long as it is approached carefully, and constructively.
posted by benjh at 3:57 PM on August 16, 2005

In my line of work asking if a colleage was a lesbian would usually ber a preface to something like "...because I'm wondering if she's free on Saturday night" There's a wide range of appropriate workplace behaviors. However, in the absence of any indication to the contrary, I think the assumption that it's okay to discuss the sexual preference of one person to a third person is a bit of a stretch. That is, I wouldn't do it.

I'm not sure I understand your question #3 at all since I'm not sure which person you are referring to. If the non-lesbian is the one you're referring to, it seems to me that intolerance is much less the issue than intrusiveness into her private life. I wish we lived in a world where everyone felt happy being open about their sexual preferences, income, age and weight. However, we don't, and there are good reasons that your colleague might find herself in an awkward position due to speculations about her sexual preference. Referring questioners to her would probably be a more appropriate route if there is a next time here.

Anonymous, if you'd like to send a follow-up to any of the questions asked in this thread, I'll post it for you.
posted by jessamyn at 4:01 PM on August 16, 2005

To which I replied to the best of my knowledge no. I also mentioned this conversation to the colleague in question who has then made a complaint to management about the situation leading to 4 employees being put into a disciplinary situation.

Tell-taling like this does nobody any favors, least of all yourself.
posted by wackybrit at 4:08 PM on August 16, 2005

1) No. It was inappropriate. You're not raging homophobes, you just acted inappropriately in the workplace.

2) If it was ended by ". . . Because I'd like to go out with you", ". . . because I know a girl/guy I think you'd really like", etc, no. If it's because they're just curious, I wouldn't set management on them, but it would be kind of annoying. If it was out of the blue, it'd be rude and implies they aren't "just" curious, they've got some preconceptions they want to verify. And if it was because I was talking about how I like to bang hot chicks, well, they're annoying because they're stupid.

Look, if one of your co-workers wasn't part of a clear racial group, would you speculate about their ancestry around the water cooler? If you saw a Middle Eastern guy, would you debate whether or not his wife wore a hajib? These questions are not wrong in of themselves, but there are all kinds of subtext working under them that make them inappropriate.

3) No, see above. Some people (myself included) don't enjoy gossip about their sexual orientation simply because we believe it doesn't matter and we wish people would stop pretending like it was.
posted by schroedinger at 4:14 PM on August 16, 2005

what Specklet said, but more harshly.
posted by matteo at 4:44 PM on August 16, 2005

Job = career, healthcare, money for food/shelter/kids/mortgage/retirement, etc. As long as that can still be endangered just because some idiot disapproves of what you do outside of work or any other personal factors irrelevant to workplace performance, it's reasonable to react negatively to a co-worker's attempts to drag your personal life into the office. Asking whether someone is a lesbian is not remotely on par with asking if so-and-so is Lithuanian. There are still workplaces where even questions about someone's sexual orientation is enough to raise serious professional problems for the object of gossip. Avoid Avoid Avoid.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 4:50 PM on August 16, 2005

OK, another assho, er, opinion. I think in a friendly atmosphere (as opposed to an uptight/rigorous/extremely "professional" place), it's not a big deal to ask someone about themselves. Asking about another person could be dodgy, mostly because I don't think it's your information to share.

My response when asked about somebody else? "I don't know -- I haven't slept with him/her." Usually they laugh, but it shuts 'em up.
posted by rob511 at 5:02 PM on August 16, 2005

Personal experience here. Sorry it's so long, but this is a sore spot with me.

(First off, some background. I'm 'out' around people I know, but I don't feel obligated to discuss my sex life with minor acquaintances or coworkers, and I don't feel like it is automatically their right to know who/what I sleep with.)

At my last job, a coworker --- we'll call her Shithead --- started gossiping about my sexuality. Specifically, she told lots of people that I was sleeping with her boss, and that the boss was trying to install me in Shithead's job. One of the five managers at work heard the gossip first-hand and warned the director that I might have a grounds for a slander suit.

They did nothing to stop it.

A month later, Shithead's boss and I both received emails from a sockpuppet Hotmail account telling us that everyone knew "our little secret," warning us to watch our backs, and instructing us that karma comes around three-fold. I took the email to the director, and he made us go to the university police. The police shrugged -- there was no Penal Code violation (e.g., no specific threat of violence).

The director did nothing about the email, would not investigate who had anonymously sent it, and would not instigate any disciplinary action. (Though we all knew it was Shithead.)

A month after that, I found a butcher knife in my front yard. Called the police, they filed a report. I reported it to the director in a voicemail and he never said a word about it.

When I told the management that being in the office with Shithead made me uncomfortable, they said there was nothing they could do about it. Meanwhile, Shithead complained about her performance evaluation and was transfered out from under her manager/my presumed girlfriend.

A few months later, Shithead quit so she could go torture some other people.

Fast forward three years. Another employee who had a beef with said manager (who is indeed a good friend of mine) filed a whistleblower complaint against me and the manager for "misuse of office resources." I quit on the spot, because I knew that the charges (I never did learn what they were) were bogus and that the management would do nothing to protect me.

Moral of the story: If you're curious, please ask me about my orientation -- don't ask someone else. I may tell you to fuck off, but I may well take your forthrightness as a sign of respect and show you the same in return.

Basically, it's no one's business. It's not even very interesting -- or shouldn't be, at this point.

If you have to know, though, go to the source.

posted by mudpuppie at 6:17 PM on August 16, 2005

Avoid this topic at work.
posted by caddis at 6:25 PM on August 16, 2005

So getting to know your coworkers (are you dating anyone?, do you have a family?) is a bad thing now? I thought the ultra-politically correct days were over. I'm glad I don't have to tiptoe around "How was vacation with your family" and other small talk that adds strength to an office. I've worked in hyper-PC places and in relaxed beer-on-friday places and I can promise that the beer-on-friday places have workers that are more productive and get along better on a business level.

That said something's not adding up and this seems like petty office bickering. I can't imagine turning around going "Yeah so blah blah wanted to know if you're a lesbian, I told them no -- but", what was that suppose to accomplish? I also can't believe they went around and told HR -- talk about not making friends for what seems innocuous.

That aside, the HR will cover their asses and you're not going to argue it at all. I'd hate to work in your environment ("Did you see Sopranos?" "No I didn't" "Don't get HBO?" "Are you inferring I'm poor!?").

I'm not that blind to miss that stereotypes do exist, but are they going to get eradicated by pissing everyone off? I would think "Wow, she's a hard worker, great person and a lesbian! Maybe gays are just like you and me!" would be much more beneficial.

Of course I would never ask anyone their sexual orientation unless I had good reason to, I just don't care enough.
posted by geoff. at 6:25 PM on August 16, 2005

Oh I think mudpuppie has a good point, that if someone is asking about the orientation and isn't seeking further romance there's a good possibility that something else is afoot that's larger than which sexual organ you prefer (i.e. irrational paranoia, performance anxiety, other things going on in their life).
posted by geoff. at 6:28 PM on August 16, 2005

A lot of people are going to feel threatened (rightly or wrongly) when they hear their sexual orientation/ethnicity/home life/etc. are the subject of conversation between co-workers. It's bad policy to discuss the personal life of a co-worker with a third party, especially if you are the initiator. I can understand how you can end up in the discussion when you don't initiate. If you aren't paying attention it's easy to respond to such questions before completely considering the possible negative outcomes. It's a drag.
posted by Carbolic at 6:46 PM on August 16, 2005

Yeah, you made a mistake. This isn't a matter of PC, or hypersensitivity, or anything like that. It's basic social skills. When any person A, not just work colleagues but all social acquaintances, asks you for personal information concerning B that B hasn't publicly declared/shared the correct response is always: "I don't know/I'm not sure, why don't you ask her yourself?" Otherwise what you're doing is, at best, gossiping behind person B's back about topics she probably wants kept private. This will go on to inspire defensiveness, paranoia, and a general atmosphere of mistrust. This is a "natural" case only in the sense that humans have been talking behind each other's backs since the beginning, but it is not a nice thing to do and it's especially bad in office environments where it can drastically lower general productivity. Your management is correct to step in and squash this and send the message that such behavior (which, as others have pointed out, can be tantamount to "shadow discrimination") isn't acceptable.
posted by nixerman at 8:27 PM on August 16, 2005

The discussion is completely inappropriate on all levels. A person's sex life has no business in the workplace unless they are a pornstar or prostitute.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:50 PM on August 16, 2005

ikkyu2: It isn't like discussion of sexual orientation is necessarily discussion of sex. You wouldn't be able to bring up someone's partner or kids in conversation without evoking sex, if that were the case.

The reason this is not being considered okay right now is that homosexuality is not considered okay by everyone. We can mention that Steve would get along great with Loraine and we should maybe introduce them. We're not saying, "Hey they should have dirty sex together." When homosexuality is introduced, however, not everyone is comfortable with it and that's going to cause problems. Discussing the possible compatibility between Brad and James shouldn't be over the line, but it may very well be for some. (OMG, penises touching!) I don't think this is reasonable at all.

Now you could say that personal relationships should not be discussed at all at work, but honestly, how can you not? If you're spending half of your waking life with a group of people, it would be unnatural to not talk about anything personal.

Now the issue in question no doubt has its own set of circumstances. It's hard to judge tone and intent just from this description. It may have been an innocent question or it could have been intended as an insult or gossip. I don't think it necessarily requires disciplinary action, but that depends on the circumstances, obviously. Really I think the more bent out of shape people get over situations like this the more it will harm the ability to talk about homosexuality (Or anything personal, for that matter) in public. If we freak out about asking "Are you gay?" then we're reinforcing that it's definitely not okay to be gay.

Of course, harrassment, like in mudpuppie's story, should be dealt with appropriately. And really, if it had been something besides sexual orientation it would be as wrong.
posted by ODiV at 9:50 PM on August 16, 2005

Do you work or is your company based in a state that has laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation? If so, the company has no choice but to take formal and visible action, or else it could face a huge lawsuit for "creating a hostile environment". It has nothing to do with appropriateness, it's the law. The net effect of such laws is to make all personal issues off-limits in a corporate environment. Get used to it.
posted by fuzz at 6:46 AM on August 17, 2005

"Inappropriate discussion"? Good lord, have you ever worked in an office? People discuss other people constantly, in every possible context: salary, sexual orientation, possible misappropriation of office supplies, who's part of the cabal, &c &c &c. It's called "gossip," it's an ineradicable part of human nature, and there's nothing to be done about it and not much point condemning it.

What I don't understand is what phearlez focused on: why go to the woman and say "Hey, X asked if you were a lesbian?" That's just asking for trouble, and I don't see what you were hoping it would achieve.
posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on August 17, 2005

"Inappropriate discussion"? Good lord, have you ever worked in an office?

I have - long enough to see people dismissed over remarks they'd made, which they felt were innocent at the time.

One of my co-workers spoke about her "partner" for 6 years; I knew that the partner was a violist, liked to summer at Tanglewood, even where the partner shopped for comfortable shoes. It was not until I met her partner that I found out said partner was a woman; I'd been curious, but there is simply no acceptable way to inquire.

You can certainly discuss someone's partner or children without ever touching on the topic of that person's sexual orientation, by the way; and if you want to keep your job, you had better do so.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:53 PM on August 17, 2005

You can certainly discuss someone's partner or children without ever touching on the topic of that person's sexual orientation, by the way; and if you want to keep your job, you had better do so.

Are you kidding? Do you just avoid mentioning names or gender specific pronouns all together? "Did you see this movie with your partner? How did they feel about it?" Did you do this for all of your co-workers for six years (or longer)? No one talked about their "wife" or "husband"? I don't see how it's possible to not reference sexual orientation. Unless by 'sexual orientation' we mean 'not straight'.

And about children... Well, they come from sex, don't they? In many of cases, the children are going to be the offspring of the parent.
posted by ODiV at 2:17 PM on August 17, 2005

The only correct response to such a question is this:

Don't know. Don't care.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:38 PM on August 17, 2005

So getting to know your coworkers (are you dating anyone?, do you have a family?) is a bad thing now? - geoff

There's also a difference between asking someone directly VS going behind their back and asking someone else. If you don't think it's okay to ask the acutal person you're inquiring about, then it certainly isn't a topic it's okay to ask someone else about. Of course there are people in every office that break the office decorm rules everyday. But personally, I don't want to be one of those people.
posted by raedyn at 11:26 AM on August 18, 2005

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