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‘Hiding sexual preference causes more stress at work'

How tolerant is the Netherlands on the work floor? Jojanneke van der Toorn, Professor of the Workplace Pride Chair, the first in the world dealing exclusively with LGBT inclusion in the workplace, answers questions on the International Day against Racism and Discrimination.

1. You are researching the position of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) employees on the work floor. What's it like for these people in the Netherlands?

‘Many people think that things are fine here because the Netherlands is tolerant about these things compared to other countries. But research by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research shows that LGBT people are more likely to suffer a burn-out: among homosexuals and lesbians, the percentage is as high as 21 per cent and among bisexual employees it even rises to 22 per cent, substantially higher than among heterosexual employees (12%). So far, there is too little data available to comment on the situation for transgenders. Dutch people are generally tolerant of people with a different sexual preference, but they often find it more difficult when that preference is specific and visible. This explains why LGBT employees often feel they cannot really be themselves.' 

2. What's your advice to these employees?

‘They may suffer harrassment, or be afraid that that might happen, which is why by no means everyone in a working environment is open about their sexuality. That can cause a lot of tension because they are keeping something secret and so they constantly have to be on the alert. Colleagues may sense that there is something wrong, but they can't quite put their finger on what it is. Recent research seems to suggest that this group suffers more harrassment than people who are much clearer about their sexual preference. This group also seems to fare better, with fewer psychological problems.'

‘I would never tell people to simply be open about it; it's much too personal a choice for that. But it may be good to know that "coming out" seems to correlate well with greater wellbeing. If you have any problems, go along to the confidential counsellor or talk to a colleague whom you trust. And consider joining your company's LGBT network if they have one, so you can exchange experiences with colleagues.'  

3. What can employers do to become a truly inclusive organisation?

‘First of all they have to be aware of the image that they portray. Do the mission statement, the website and job vacancy texts make it clear that everyone is welcome? That way you attract a more diverse group of applicants. What's equally important is that more diverse employees, once they are in the company, should be made to feel welcome. Make sure that the diversity policy is implemented throughout the whole organisation. It's not enough to have a good confidential counsellor or to organise courses on implicit prejudices for staff and managers. Such courses can help make people aware of their prejudices, but the work has to be organised such that these prejudices have as little effect as possible on behaviour.'  

‘And talk to your staff to find out what's going on and what's needed on the work floor. I've just started a survey on LGBT parenthood and work. Employees who adopt a child, for example, face a completely difference challenge from staff who bear their child; they often have to spend long periods abroad and need to ask for leave to do that. It's important that employers understand that and are prepared to cooperate.'