Ask the White Guy: Do You Need to Know the Orientation of Your Coworkers?

In response to a comment from a reader regarding diversity "propaganda," the White Guy drives home the point of the importance of diversity training and LGBT-friendly workplaces.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

It’s not the role of Pfizer to promote LGBT propaganda. All employees are equal and I have not to know about colleagues’ sexual orientation.

Note to readers: This is why diversity training must be mandatory. We know the orientation of most of our coworkers; we learn about their spouses, their children and their families. A workplace would be a very cold and sterile one if you didn’t have that kind of interaction. However, if the workplace isn’t LGBT-friendly, your LGBT coworkers don’t have the freedom the heterosexual folks have. Aside from the punishment of hiding yourself for the majority of your waking hours, it is almost impossible for a person to be promoted very far without having a comfort level with their superiors. Promotions, especially to senior management, require a great deal of mutual trust—something that is impossible to develop if you’re forced to hide such a fundamental part of who you are. (Read more about diversity training on

Please think about this e-mail. Can you imagine the workplace atmosphere surrounding this person? If you’re tempted to agree, put a group that’s near and dear to you in place of LGBT. For example, try this on for size: “It’s not the role of Pfizer to promote Black propaganda. All employees are equal and I have not to know about a colleagues’ cultural background.” Or “It’s not the role of Pfizer to promote woman propaganda. All employees are equal and I have not to know about colleagues’ gender.”

Also, let’s not make an issue of the company at hand in this article and response. I recently got a death threat from a guy using the e-mail from the bank he works at. There are creeps working at every company. Training helps them tuck in their creepiness while at work.

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  • I am so tired of people who think that I want to talk about my orientation at work. I don’t. I want to talk about going to the movies with my partner, or a neat new restaurant we found. I want her to be invited to after-hours events – just like my heterosexual co-workers partners are. Until and unless heterosexuals stop talking about their spouses, stop getting subsidized healthcare for their spouses, stop displaying pictures of their spouses in their offices or cubicles and so on I’m being treated differently if I can’t do the same. It really seems to me that when people object to talk about “orientation” they’re really objecting to assumptions their making about sex lives. And that’s just really no one’s business – heterosexual or not.

  • I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel in my company if I weren’t allowed to bring up my partner in casual workplace conversation.

    Saying that one doesn’t “have to know about colleagues’ sexual orientation” is unrealistic – plus it tells those GLBT co-workers that they are unwelcome in socializing with the rest of the group. It speaks heavily of personal insecurity and the irrational compulsion to ostracize any element that unveils that insecurity. How would the original commentator feel if they were ostracized for having children, or being too short, or being single?

  • This is an issue of bringing your “whole self” to work. I’m fortunate that I work for a company that prohibits discrimination based on orientation but others are not so lucky. I was able to come out at work and can talk freely about my partner and our family and do not have to be subjected to de-humanizing hetero -normative comments. ATWG is correct in stating that knowing the orientation of your co-workers should create a relationship of trust. With trust not only do you get along better you can collaborate and work together better.

  • It is very hard on individuals to have to hide your identity at work (and elsewhere). I know. I did it for over 20 years. I couldn’t talk about my life while everyone around me talked about their husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and children. I was too afraid as I worked in a very gay-phobic atmosphere. I changed jobs and decided to be “out” at work, never to hide again. How refreshing and liberating it was to make this change.

  • I am White, Christian and over 21–and, yes, heterosexual. I do not and never have seen tolerance and respect for other people’s rights as “propaganda.” Fortunately, I think that the next generation, the ones I know anyway, has generally moved ahead on these issues.

  • Kirk Snyder’s research shows that “out” people make 150% the salary of those who aren’t out.
    A wry joke I used to tell may illustrate the point. I had my picture of my husband on my desk at work and always talked about him as my partner, brought him to work parties, even was thrown a wedding shower and then baby shower by my co-workers.
    But I would joke that I had never told anyone at work that I was gay and that was nobody’s business what my sexual orientation was.
    Point being – there’s no propaganda in living a normal life – you cannot operate as a colleague when you are hiding the very basics of your existence.

  • Although I have not been encouraged by my employer to be open, I haven’t been I haven’t been chastised for it either. I’m thankful that I work for a company that has a high percentage of LGBT employees, however I’ve never really been that comfortable talking about it to upper management. There is also a long way to go before seeing equality in my company. A start would be offering same-sex benefits.

  • What about the Military and the “don’t ask don’t tell” rule. How do they get promoted? I have a son who is gay and he chooses to not mix his personal and professional life. I’m all for those who want to, however in my opinion, it’s their choice, and it should be respected.

  • I would prefer to have it known of my orientation because most discussions around the office seem to focus more on Straight lives than on Gay lives. Not knowing their orientation is mostly for those folks who are in the closet and fear the wrath of being out in the workplace. Being an out employee for 32 years, i see no reason to be in a closet but to some, that is their survival. I totally feel sorry for those folks who are not secure enough to be out.

  • April Klungland

    If I were to answer the question posed, “Do You Need to Know the Orientation of Your Coworkers?,” my answer would be “No, I don’t NEED to know the orientation of my coworkers.” But they don’t NEED to know that I have a daughter and a boyfriend either, but I tell them about it anyway. None of my personal information is a “need to know” for my coworkers, but I also can’t imagine going to work day after day and not feeling comfortable talking about that part of my life!

    Keeping your personal life and professional life completely separate is very difficult, and no one, regardless of the reason, should feel as if he/she should have to do that! The camaraderie I feel with my teammates is partly because we share pieces of our personal lives together. If I found out a teammate did not share his/her personal stories with me because he/she is afraid of how I would react, I would feel deeply saddened. My role as a coworker and friend is never as judge, but simply as someone who feels and lives through similar events and circumstances as those around me.

    But it is because some people are afraid, or close-minded, or downright stupid that the diversity training is a must! Saying that it’s propaganda is ridiculous. No one is trying to sway your beliefs! No one is attempting to make you believe something you don’t. The training is designed as an educational tool, promoting tolerance and inclusion.

    Get off your soap box and realize that the people around you, regardless of skin color, cultural background, religious beliefs and sexual orientation, are simply living their lives, making it through each day one step at a time, just like you.

  • What’s next? Do my co-workers “need” to know what sexual positions I like too? Give me a break.

  • Well, yes and no w/re: any outfit’s/any person’s role in such matters. How’s about, leaving the issue of roles aside, the fact that it is in the common interest and the interest of companies and individuals to comport themselves humanely and with decency. Dewy-eyed, pie-in-the-sky idealism? Mayhp, but it makes good business sense, and even better common sense. Life’s too short and uncertain but for the oblivion that awaits us all at our journeys’ ends.

    The absolute last frontier of tolerance is so overlooked, and yet so basic. We clamor for religious tolerance (which given the parochial concerns and claims of all faiths, is akin to impossible), but short shrift (and outright hostility) is routinely
    given to any who openly reject any and all such grand and ridiculous claims. I’d like to see some ink (pixels) splashed about onthe matter of the much maligned and abused freethinker in corporate AmeriKKKa and the wider culture. For a nation established on the preimise of now establishment of an state religion, we’ve certainly dropped the ball on the score of truly embracing free and unreserved consideration of just what relative merits religious faith offers as opposed to all of the very real damge (homophobia, racism, sexism among the lot) nearly all religions instill in the faithful.

    Well, so long as you’re about diversity, I shouold like to see a bit of attention given to that matter.

  • June 30 Guest, you must be somewhat lacking in imagination if you can’t think of how it would feel to NEVER mention that you are meeting your wife after work, or anything else about your family for fear that you’d be stopping your career in its tracks, or opening yourself up to sniggering remarks as you leave meetings…

  • Being a gay man of 64, it bothers me that most heterosexual people in this wonderful country of ours, could care less why we are like we are, or bother to find out. We are targets of hate most of the time, even in casual conversation. I have had my car painted, death threats among other things at work, but no one cares but me. When I say anything, I am just over reacting. I am just trying to be me, no more, no less..

  • Great response to the original comment about Pfizer and LGBT propaganda. It also helped me understand the implications behind this topic.

  • I don’t need to know my coworker’s orientation, but it may be better for her or him if I do know it. I have a close family member who is gay. It would make everyday conversation easier if people knew that, so I think the same probably holds true for gay people.

    On the other hand, my relative say, “As long as people don’t know you are gay, you find out what they really think.”

  • Just to make a small point here, none of us knows the exact orientaion of any one of our co-workers unless we have been told of it directly. Being married to an opposite sex partner, for example, is no proof that the person in question is straight. It is quite possible that the person is bisexual and the person he or she fell in love with happened to be of the opposite, rather than the same, sex. If we all did not take for granted that a person is straight unless obviously otherwise, and thought about how we actually don’t know this about many people we work with, not just the LGBT, I wonder what effect it would have on this “do we need to know someone is gay” reasoning process and discussions.

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