check the box

Should Employers Be Asking Staffers Whether They’re Gay Or Trans? Yup

The giant financial media company Thomson Reuters is asking employees in a new survey whether they’re gay or straight or bi or trans or whatever. The Newspaper Guild of New York, where the company employees hundreds, thinks this is a disgusting invasion of privacy. They are wrong.

Some Guild members were “shocked” when they spotted the question, which many saw to be an invasion of privacy. It wasn’t.

While the question was certainly of a personal nature, there was the option not to tell the company about which group you identify with — a perfectly reasonable response. But collecting data on employees’ sexual orientation and gender identity is important for the same reason they should collect data about ethnicities and gender: to ensure a diverse workplace, and to ensure employees are adequately protected from discrimination. And that includes in important areas like health benefits. With data on whether their staffers are gay or trans, Thomson Reuters can adequately adjust health care benefit policies (although I’d argue companies should offer equal health benefits whether they have hard data to show they have queer employees or not.)

The Newspaper Guild writes on its blog: “But the question remains, why ask? Why ask employees to divulge something that’s irrelevant to their work, none of the company’s business and can become a ticking time bomb for discrimination in the future?”

Because the information is relevant to creating a more equitable work place. And, for a company in the business of journalism, it’s an asset to be certain you have people representing all demographics when you’re charged with reporting on the world. Collecting this data on a voluntary (and anonymous) basis is the only way to accomplish it.

The Guild further writes:

The question was particularly jarring in light of an e-mail sent to all staff from CEO Tom Glocer (the same guy who’s against income inequity, except when it comes to cutting Guild members’ compensation). On October 11, Glocer urged TR employees to “speak out against prejudice and discrimination” after recent anti-gay violence in New York, New Jersey and Belgrade:

“Fortunately, the Thomson Reuters community is too enlightened and civilized for such violence to occur within our own company. However, subtler forms of discrimination and harassment may exist against gay, lesbian and other colleagues. I call on each of us to stand up for our colleagues and denounce prejudice and discrimination in its many forms, violent or subtle, whether directed on the basis of sexual orientation, religion, race, national origin or otherwise.”

Tom, consider this a denouncement of a subtle form of prejudice in the company survey.

Sexuality wasn’t the only area where the survey got way too personal. Employees were also asked about disabilities and long-term health conditions, like depression, diabetes, arthritis, dyslexia and other physical impairments that “may not be readily apparent.”

Again, health conditions that “may not be readily apparently” (like sexuality!) force the company to ask about them in order to ensure health plans satisfactorily cover those conditions. I’m not sure why the Guild has such a problem with Thomson Reuters collecting data about its staffers, when that data can be used to make the company a better place to work. Anyone care to offer suggestions?

It might go along way for Thomson Reuters to assure employees the data is collected in aggregate and cannot be used to personally identify anybody, and explain why such information is worth collecting. But gathering this information is necessary for the same reasons we want the U.S. Census Bureau to start doing it: otherwise, we might as well be invisible.

UPDATE: As commenter Bob points out, one flaw in the survey is the grouping of sexual orientation and gender identity as an either/or option. The solution: Ditch the web survey’s radio buttons (where users can select only one option) in favor of check boxes (where multiple options may be selected) to account for, say, trans employees who identify as straight.