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Published 14 August 2012 15:27, Updated 16 August 2012 04:16
I recently interviewed Sydney management blogger, employee engagement consultant and author James Adonis. These credentials partially explain why I wanted to speak to him. But on this occasion there was another reason. Adonis is an openly gay man and the story I was writing for BRW was about a growing human resources focus on workplace inclusion policies for so-called “GLBT” employees. This was a subject I had earlier written about in a BRW blogin which I took issue with the concept of a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender “community”.
“Were I to take it upon myself to lump this assortment of people under one catch-all umbrella term I would be rightly accused of stereotyping, marginalising and demeaning a diverse group of individuals according to my own ‘mainstream’ social mores,” I protested. “I would be described as narrow-minded, myopic and exclusionist. But no such charges are levelled at hardline gay activists, politically correct HR people and those gullible managers and consultants who have hitched a ride on the latest bandwagon.”
Having expressed my views on such a controversial subject I decided that I should explore the issue in more depth for BRW. That story is coming up in a week or two, but in the meantime I wanted to write about my conversation with James Adonis.
Adonis does not consider himself a “GLBT person”, but he can see that some people may derive comfort from the collective. “It’s a natural human feeling to want to belong,” he says.
Belonging to a community of employees with perceived common interests may provide comfort in a workplace that is intolerant. But Adonis wonders just how big a problem discrimination against gay employees is today, as opposed to when the GLBT term was coined in the 1990s.
He acknowledges anecdotal evidence and survey findings which suggest that homophobia remains a problem in Australian workplaces – even though this is at odds with his own experience as a management consultant and former corporate employee. “I’ve worked with hundreds of clients over the past decade and not once has anyone ever raised GLBT issues with me. Maybe they do it well and it’s not an issue for them?”
Adonis says he has never been discriminated against for being gay, but agrees that even in a much more tolerant and accepting corporate environment being gay requires some management.
As a regular on the speaking circuit he knows that his sexuality may be an issue with some in the audience.
“Every single time I do a presentation or speak at a conference I open with a little joke about my sexuality. I don’t want people thinking, ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ My view is, let’s get it out of the way so that they can be impressed by the content of my presentation, as opposed to spending the whole time wondering about my sexuality.”
Adonis admits that even in a workplace which promises a gay-friendly – or in HR parlance, GLBT (or LGBT)-friendly – environment, unless employees believe they are safe, chances are they will stay in the closet. Older gay people, in particular, are more likely to keep their sexuality to themselves.
“Being older and gay in the workplace is probably going to be a different experience from younger gay people. Older people are more likely to hide their sexuality just in case they’re discriminated against, whether or not they have ever experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace,” he says.
Adonis recalls that when he first joined the corporate workforce he was still in the closet – at work, and with family and friends. This meant that he would assiduously – and nervously – avoid any conversation with colleagues about his private life. The question he most avoided, on Mondays, was the perennial: “What did you get up to on the weekend?”
“I had to find different ways to talk about it,” he says.
Although he has never suffered overt discrimination since coming out, Adonis says some colleagues and managers have had difficulties coping with his sexuality. In his book Corporate Punishment (Jossey-Bass, 2010) he recalls, with typical good humour, a homophobic executive he reported to.
“He was a workplace psychopath and he was noticeably so uncomfortable with my sexuality he would never let me walk behind him. Ever. I’m not sure what he thought I was going to do in the middle of a professional working environment, but nonetheless he would stand perfectly still with his back to the wall until I was the one walking in front of him,” he says.
Rather than report the executive to HR, Adonis simply pointed out the behaviour to his colleagues so that they could share in the hilarity and absurdity of the situation.
Such obvious homophobia did not impede his career. By the time he was 24, he was managing 100 people.
Adonis emphasises that it’s up to employers to provide a workplace in which all employees are able to perform at their best. But there’s no doubt that homophobia in the workplace – as in society generally – is a complex issue.
One gay executive who responded to my original blog shared my distaste for GLBT committees and policies – but he argued that they still had a place.
“You’re right – gay people, of which I am one, should laugh at these silly committees, and your argument that there is little affinity for one subgroup with other members of the ‘rainbow’ resonated with me,” he wrote. “It’s just that a gay person’s perspective is that discussions about our rights are still something of a political football and so we tend to welcome this kind of support, as fatuous and inconsequential as it can sometimes be. I am looking for a senior job and I am not at all convinced that the overt discrimination at board level hasn’t simply been replaced by covert discrimination.”