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MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Do you ever feel like your diverse work place is a minefield with opportunities to wittingly offend and annoy your co-workers? Do you ever wish you had a road map to guide you through that difficult terrain? Well, now you do, DiversityInk Magazine is publishing a series of articles about things you just should not say to workers of diverse backgrounds. And the magazine inspired us, and is helping us to bring you our own series.
Today we want to talk about the seven things you should never say to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or trans-gender co-workers. Back with us is Luke Visconti. He's the Co-founder of DiversityInc. Also joining us is Beth Asaro; she is a Senior Executive at AT&T. Welcome to you both. Thank you for coming.
Ms. BETH ASARO (Senior Executive, AT&T): Thanks for having us, Michel.
Mr. LUKE VISCONTI (Co-founder, DiversityInc): Nice to be here.
MARTIN: Now, before we start on this list, Luke. I just wanted to lay some ground work. In theory, one is protected against offensive language directed at you because of race and some other attributes. Is the same thing true of sexual orientation?
Mr. VISCONTI: No. In fact it's perfectly OK in some states to fire someone because you find out or they admit they're gay.
MARTIN: So, given that, how do you advise people to proceed if you want to be honest about who you are?
Mr. VISCONTI: I think you have to assess where you work. Some companies are totally embracing the individual and who they are, and have a very safe and open work place. If you're gay or lesbian, or you have a son or daughter who's gay or lesbian, or you're bisexual transgender, go find a place like that to work, if you can. And if you're doing business, do business with places that respect your opinion as well.
MARTIN: Beth, talk to me about this. You're a senior executive, so, presumably you've, you know, had a lot of experience in, you know, all kinds of issues. Every work place is different, some people don't want to know anything about their co-workers personal lives. Some people want to be very open about their personal lives, whatever constitutes a personal life. Some people talk about their kids all the time. Some people don't ever want to talk about it. How do you advise people to proceed, about deciding whether to come out at work?
Ms. ASARO: Well, I follow the lead of the people that I'm with. Certainly if people are being very open about their personal lives, usually they're open to hearing about yours. And vice-versa, if you've been working with someone for years, and you don't even know where they live, chances are that's just the kind of person they are. And you would follow suit.
MARTIN: OK. Let's go to a list. Number one on the list of the DiversityInc article is, I suspected you were gay.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Luke, help me out here. Do people say that?
Mr. VISCONTI: I think they do, and I think that it's really insensitive to say something like that, because it fits into stereotypes that people have about gay and lesbian people, really unsavory. It's not a very nice thing to say.
MARTIN: Number two is, if someone does discuss his or her sexual orientation, one thing you shouldn't say is, I'm sorry. Beth, has anybody ever said that to you?
Ms. ASARO: Well, at a previous employer I did have someone say to me, you know, I know I'm your friend, and I'm glad you told me. But, really you shouldn't tell anyone else, and kind of in an I'm sorry kind of a mode.
And they were, you know, this was 1983, let's say, and, you know, she was trying to be kind to me and maybe protect me in some ways. Maybe she thought I was naive. But certainly I'm sorry, you know, in just about any situation where someone is opening up to you, is probably not the right thing to say.
MARTIN: Well, how does that affect you to have someone say that to you?
Ms. ASARO: Let's just say it was said to me this week, right. I would feel very sobered to think that there's still people out there, to which hearing that someone else is gay is scary for them. But also too, I would think, gee, what do they really think? You know, what are they saying at home, if they are saying this to me here.
MARTIN: It implies that you have some sort of disability or something that needs to be…
Ms. ASARO: Fixed.
MARTIN: Fixed. Or, something…
Ms. ASARO: As if we could fix it. Yes.
MARTIN: Luke, a couple of things that caused a little bit of head scratching, one was that you advised people not to say, we're not close enough for you to tell me that or why did you tell me that? And the reason that this is a head scratcher for some of us as we were talking about earlier, the fact that there are some work places where people don't want to talk about anything. Like if someone were to come out and say, I've accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, there would be people that would say, gee, you know what, great for you, but, you know, I really don't want to discuss that with you. Can you help me with that?
Mr. VISCONTI: Yes. Why do I need to know that, or I don't need to know that. The problem with saying that is the heterosexual people know that and they exhibit that. There's pictures in their work places, on their credenza, if they're an executive, of themselves with their families at a function in the receiving line they'll be standing next to their spouse. And what's the gay employee supposed to do? Nothing, right? You're not supposed to bring that part of yourself. Well, we're not in a work environment anywhere where people leave all of their personal lives at the front door. You're allowed to be who you are if you are heterosexual, you should be allowed if you're homosexual, as well.
MARTIN: Beth, can you offer some insight here, too? If someone were to say, look you know what, we're not close enough for you to share that information with me. Can you offer some guidance about a graceful way to respond to that?
Ms. ASARO: Well, you want to bring your whole self to work, and if you're in an environment where people don't need to know it, not only are they telling you don't bring it, but they're saying hold it back. So when you're at work, instead of thinking about work, part of you is thinking about what should I say? Did I just say that? Did I say we? Did I just mean me? So you're constantly checking yourself , you know, if you're constantly worried then you might not, quite frankly make the relationships you need to at work. And, you know, work is all about relationships. It's all about who you know to get stuff done. So what you're doing is you're handicapping your employees. Because if they can't be themselves, they can't be everything you're paying them to be.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're speaking with Beth Asaro and Luke Visconti about things you should never say to co workers about their sexual orientation. It's part of our series in conjunction with DiversityInc magazine.
What about those who say that they, look they have religious objections to gay marriage or same-sex relationships, and they say look I'm just, this is how I was raised, I was steeped in this, I have a deeply held religious conviction that this is wrong or immoral and I'm going to be polite in the work place, but this just makes me uncomfortable. Do you have any advice for how people should address this or behave in that situation?
Mr. VISCONTI: Well, if this was in the work place, I would say sorry we've come to this cross roads, but you have to leave because the values of my company are such that I embrace this and if you can't share my values, then you can't work here.
MARTIN: Beth, what if this is my upbringing and this is new to me?
Ms. ASARO: Well that's why, for example AT&T has what they call a code of business conduct, and when we have a new hire training or when we have a code of business conduct every year, it's just part of it. And we talked about it.
MARTIN: Beth, give me a sense that what are some of the things that are talked about as part of that training.
Ms. ASARO: That diversity is part of the culture, and it's actually part of the fabric of the company, and it's a strategy. You know, I might not like the way someone dresses, but that's not for me to tell them it's not appropriate at the work place. Just like one of the seven things never to say to LGBT's, number seven that Luke's got on here, you know, that would be something you would never say to anybody.
MARTIN: Oh wait, we have to ask about this. There are a couple of things on this list. Which bathroom do you use, referring to co-workers as she-male, and what do you like to do in bed? Luke, please tell me nobody ever really said that.
Mr. VISCONTI: That's unfortunately a big one, and if you're confronted with this for the first time or you're exposed to it for the first time, you may be, because of the things right in front of you, say something so completely inappropriate because it's something so new to you that you can't help yourself. But if you wouldn't say that to somebody else, in other words, your co-worker who you know to be heterosexual, you wouldn't ask - to say what do you do in bed. I think that's you know, good common sense not to ask somebody else.
MARTIN: Sexual questions and comments are just off limits, period. Just off limits, period.
Ms. ASARO: Exactly.
MARTIN: Is that protected area, is that sexual harassment?
Mr. VISCONTI: I think yeah. I think asking people about bathrooms and bedrooms, I think that really crosses a very personal kind of a really clear line.
Ms. ASARO: It certainly doesn't forward the work at hand, right. I mean I don't need to know what Luke does in bed so that we can finish this interview. So that we can, you know, it's silly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: What would you recommend as a response to that?
Ms. ASARO: Why do you ask? If it's me and I'm at work, no matter how close that friend is, the answer is, none of your business. If it's a Saturday night and that same friend and I are hanging out having cosmopolitans at my house and she truly or he truly wants to know, you know, I might say, you know there's a lot of books about it, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ASARO: I mean have you heard of the internet, you know. I don't know everything either, but I don't think I would ever answer that question to anybody.
MARTIN: Over time the kinds of comments that we are talking about here, are you hearing more or less of them as time goes on?
Ms. ASARO: Much, much less over time. I think people just realize, I mean frankly it makes them look uneducated. I mean because you got to know some of this stuff is just wrong.
Mr. VISCONTI: And young people don't have this issue.
Ms. ASARO: No.
MARTIN: Can I run one thing past you, though, which another of our guests spoke to us about on an entirely separate issue, and it's this whole question of being ignorant versus being mean. One of our guests talked to us about a fact that, you know, he was born in another country and he came here at a young age, and then he met an African-American professional and he had only seen African-Americans on television on like "Good Times" or something like that. And he tried to give the guy a soul shake, right, and the person reacted rather coldly as you might imagine - so this is just, what is this?
And he asked an African-American friend of his, he said, what did I do wrong? And he said well