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Five questions to ask LGBTQ+ colleagues to start healthy workplace conversations about inclusion (…and what not to ask)

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Asking the right questions is a powerful way for straight allies to understand the experiences and challenges of LGBTQ+ colleagues. Infosys Consulting Principal and business coach Rachelle Harvey transitioned three years ago, and now works to raise the profile of LGBTQ+ issues at work and promote inclusive practices. She nominates some of the most powerful questions you can ask your LGBTQ+ colleagues to start productive discussions that can lead to healthier, happier and more inclusive workplaces for everyone.

 

What to ask: “What challenges do you experience in the workplace that we could help mitigate?”

It’s important to ask this question because people who aren’t LGBTQ+ just don't have this on their horizon; it's just not something that they face every day. It also stops you from making assumptions about someone else’s lived experience. The Golden Rule is that we should treat others how we ourselves would wish to be treated — but the Platinum Rule is really to treat others how they would like to be treated and you can do that by asking them what they need. Diverse thinking is being able to ask people who have different experiences in their lives — and whose world looks different to yours — what challenges they are facing. How would you know that otherwise? Creating a psychologically safe environment should be the mission of any organisation, and by asking this question, you are acknowledging that there are challenges for LGBTQ+ colleagues and giving that mission and their experiences acknowledgement and respect.

 

But definitely don't say…

“That must be a challenge for you…” Assumptions are not helpful and often just reflect your own bias. Importantly, too, don't assume that an answer from one person is representative of all transgender people’s experience or their views.

 

What to ask: “What could our organisation learn from your journey and the challenges you have had to overcome?”

Taking an authentic interest in the answer to this question can not only create a sense of inclusiveness for professional LGBTQ+ people; it can also make the whole organisation better. Companies are only as good as the people and the cultures within them, and that means that there needs to be that two-way learning relationship. When directed correctly with the right focus, curiosity is a healthy thing. If someone genuinely asks you how you are, it makes you feel very much included. And from a business perspective, inclusive organisations are the ones that are going to be the most adaptable, and it's this adaptability and the ability to include all the cognitive diversity in their cultures that will in turn determine their resilience. In asking this question you’re contributing to your company and its culture by learning and taking on board valuable insights from people who've had to adapt, survive and stand up and be authentic.

 

But definitely don’t say…

“It must have been hard for you…” Again, step back and avoid making assumptions about anyone’s journey or experiences. Instead, your question should invite conversation, so use genuine enquiry and active listening to understand fully.

 

What to ask: “Would you be comfortable to share any learnings from your journey that might inspire your co-workers?”

When you have challenges in life you gain great self-awareness, and that can be incredibly inspiring to others, as well as a powerful differentiator. I try to help organisations become self-aware and this question is an example of something that can really help encourage growth, both in individual colleagues as well as in general business culture. Sharing learnings also helps others to build empathy, and an empathic organisation is an emotionally intelligent organisation. When you have an awareness of others’ journeys and the contribution that they can make, it creates a great atmosphere for collaboration — and the most collaborative organisations are generally the most successful ones.

 

But definitely don’t say…

“Tell me about your journey…” Everyone has different levels of information that they feel safe or comfortable disclosing, and you need to be sensitive to how much people might want to share. Make your enquiry an invitation — not a demand — and ensure that the person is as comfortable not answering, as they are answering the question.

 

What to ask: “If our company could do one thing better to be more inclusive for LGBTQ+ people what would that be?”

This is a good question to ask anybody in a diverse workplace, and it's important because we can only get useful feedback around this from the perspective of the people it will affect. That feedback is a gift if you can accept it, and can then contribute to making a more harmonious working environment. Again, it helps to increase inclusiveness in a workplace culture, which in turn is positive not only for those working within it, but for a company's recruitment, retention and growth. The specificity of this question is also very important — it is framed in such a way that the outcome from the question can be tangible, whether that request is, “I wish we had some gender-neutral toilets” or “I wish we had this D&I initiative in place”. So it's a great question because it could be generic, but when you're asking it from the LGBTQ+ perspective it can really drive change in a clear way — if you get even one suggestion that you can work to put into place then you've got continuous improvement happening.

 

But definitely don’t say…

“Why do you want us to do ___ ?” Questions like this can often come across as judgmental or as if you are asking people to justify their needs. If you want to understand more, you could ask, “How would that help?”, which is a more neutral question that can give insight.

 

What to ask: “If you experience homophobia or transphobia in the workplace, how comfortable do you feel to be able to report it to HR or your manager?”

This question is about checking in with your LGBTQ+ colleagues to see how psychologically safe they feel in the workplace. In asking this, you can find out whether they feel that they have a protected, safe way to voice a concern and that they know it will be respected, taken seriously and dealt with properly. The idea here is to understand whether the organisation needs to do more to encourage the feedback or reporting of such incidents. It can also help to get rid of any unhealthy shame they might have in terms of reporting those behaviours, or in being able to express their identity or their sexuality more generally. By checking in, you explicitly acknowledge that this could be an issue, and that it's not acceptable — which also clearly underlines your role to them as an ally.

 

But definitely don’t ask…

“Do you think so and so is homophobic/transphobic?” Avoid anything that insinuates blame, and any finger pointing-type questioning. Don't load the question or make it personal because that's not your support role here. Instead work to understand how the wider culture is supporting an inclusive environment in this way, and what might need to be raised and changed if not.