Posted on / Updated on / in Blog & Employee Handbook & Employee Morale /

When Dancing With The Stars (DWTS) premiered on September 19, viewers were not only holding their breaths in anticipation for the outrageous costumes, awkward two-steps and inevitable falls, but they were also on the edge of their seats waiting to see Chaz Bono—the first transsexual DWTS contestant.

After the celebrity cast of DWTS was released in August, controversy started to brew around the inclusion of Chaz Bono and his female partner.

A quick history lesson in the life of Chaz Bono for all those unfamiliar with his past: Chaz was born Chastity Bono, the blonde hair, rather shy daughter of famous entertainers Sonny and Cher. But just two years ago, Sonny and Cher’s daughter, who made numerous appearances on their variety show in the 70s, became a man. His story was captured in the Oprah Winfrey Network’s documentary, “Becoming Chaz,” which was nominated for three Emmys.

People on blogs and message boards blasted DWTS’s producers for setting a wrong example for children (saying that seeing a transgender on television would confuse children viewers), while others stood behind Chaz for being an advocate of the transgender community.

Of course, Chaz’s mom 65-year-old Cher—who never hesitates to tell the world how she really feels—took to Twitter to defend her son saying, “This is Still America right? It took guts 2 do it. Mothers don’t stop Getting angry with stupid bigots who [mess] with their children!” Cher later tweeted, “I support him no matter what he chooses 2do! It took COURAGE 2 do dwts! TG Chaz has an Unlimited supply.”

All of this DWTS controversy happened to fall on the eve of the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy which prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly. Then there was the claim that “The L Word” star Leisha Hailey and her girlfriend were kicked off a Southwest flight for showing affection (Now Southwest says the pair was kicked off because their loud profanity made people uncomfortable). Back in July, New York made the news when it became the sixth state to legalize same sex marriage. Then, there were the heartbreaking headlines about young students committing suicide after being bullied at school because of their sexual orientation which sparked campaigns such as the “It Gets Better” project and ThinkB4YouSpeak.com.

Safe to stay, the past few months have been filled with headlines concerning the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. (Some headlines were not so obvious about their ties to the issue. When Apple announced Steve Jobs was stepping down as CEO, the new CEO Tim Cook was immediately profiled as the most powerful gay man, but that headline didn’t hit the mass media. Read our blog about that here).

It seems the once closeted (almost taboo) conversation has now become more main stream.

You may be asking, what exactly does this mean for MY business?

Well, what’s happening on TV and in the news often become the topic of conversation around the office and it can create tension when co-workers have different opinions on the topic.

Why should supervisors and managers care? Doesn’t everyone have the right of freedom of speech?

Here’s an example of what can happen at a workplace. Let’s say an employee is frustrated with a situation and spouts off, “That’s so gay!” Here, the employee is using the term “gay” to mean something that is dumb and stupid. This use of the word “gay” in this way is considered derogatory language and a form of harassment. Although the employee may not be making this comment toward someone in particular, other employees can feel uncomfortable and insulted.

When freedom of speech turns into harassment, it can turn into a discrimination claim and a very hefty lawsuit that can be detrimental to a company. Even if the situation doesn’t escalate to involve the court, it can still negatively affect your business.

When employees feel uncomfortable or unable to be themselves it can impede an effective team relationship and productivity can suffer.

A study released by the Center for Work-Life Policy on June 21, reported that 48 percent of around 3,000 U.S.-based LGBT respondents said they were closeted at work.

This means when someone makes a derogatory comment to a co-worker, there is a high probability that it will personally offend the person.

The survey also reported that LGBT employees who remain closeted and isolated are 73 percent more likely to leave their companies than others within three years.

What if this happened to your star employee? What if you lost of your top leaders because of a situation you chose to ignore?

So what should you do?

Back in May, even before the controversy over DWTS and DADT started, lawyers started urging companies to include training to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as part of its anti-discrimination training.

Twenty-one states already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Although federal law does not recognize sexual orientation specifically as a protected characteristic under Title VII, some conduct considered discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation is actionable under Title VII as discrimination on the basis of gender. In other words, employees who are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation can still make claims and win lawsuits for discrimination on the basis of gender.

Employers should be proactive and include policies in their Employee Handbooks prohibiting any kind of discrimination in the workplace. Policies should state clearly what’s prohibited and there should be good complaint procedures. Employers should also train supervisors and managers to understand what constitutes harassment and discrimination.

Even if employees hold different views on the topic whether as a result of religious or personal beliefs, employers must encourage and emphasize mutual respect for individually held beliefs.

As HR professionals, our job is to make sure everything runs smoothly in a business by looking out for the employees and employer. It is important to stay one step ahead of the times so that your policies are in order when unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations arise.

If your business needs help updating policies in your Employee Handbook,  need a professional to lead training or if you need help with any other project or service, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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about the author: Amy Letke

Amy Newbanks Letke, SPHR, GPHR, is the Founder of Integrity HR, Inc. Amy provides workplace solutions to improve performance, reduce liability and increase profits. She is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and business owners achieve success.