• September 5, 2015

How to Be Welcoming

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Last fall, a front-page article in one of my university's publications caught my eye. It listed all of the ways in which the campus was welcoming for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, and it got me thinking about what it would be like to work and live at a place that was not so welcoming. In fact, I almost had.

Several years back, my partner was offered a position reporting to the president of a major research institution on the West Coast. The institution knew all about his partner (me), and engaged in a dual-recruitment strategy. So far, so good.

During the final "courting" weekend, both of us were invited to the campus—him for final job negotiations and me to interview for positions. But oddly, throughout the weekend, we were never invited to a meal with the president or any of the people who would have been my partner's colleagues. And none of the senior administrators greeted me or acknowledged my presence in any way, although I was in the main administration building, and even the president's office suite, for much of the day.

We ultimately turned down the job offer, relying on a gut instinct that told us the administration was not as open or welcoming as it claimed.

My experiences in higher education with my partner of 21 years have helped me understand how the environment and culture of a campus is crucial for gay and lesbian employees and their partners or spouses. Certain experiences, like how we have been treated in the hiring process, have shaped our views about academe and our career decisions. We've learned that some elements of a dual recruitment may be more important to gay and lesbian couples than to their straight counterparts.

In mulling all of that, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to my institution—and give us a competitive advantage in hiring—if we could strengthen our support even more for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered applicants and attract top candidates. So I tried to locate a list of practical suggestions and strategies.

But I couldn't find a good list. So I decided to make one myself. I reflected on my own experiences, when my partner and I were on the job market, and surveyed many of my colleagues (both straight and gay) across the country to pull together some best practices.

The following ideas, then, are not mine alone, and I'm grateful for all the good advice I received from people kind enough to contribute. The suggestions are intended to signal to applicants for teaching and staff positions that an institution values them and their partners regardless of their orientation. My hope is that these ideas will spur others and help create work environments that encourage retention for us all, gay and straight. One of my close friends and colleagues at Penn State cautioned me not to be "preachy" in this column. So I have tried my best not to preach.

Housing policies. If your institution is fortunate enough to own rental or for-sale properties for employees, ask whether the policies permit same-sex couples to rent or buy together and allow the nonemployee partner to remain in the home if the employee passes away or is unable to work for health reasons.

Health benefits. With health care at the center of our political landscape, medical benefits are the most important category to consider. Investigate whether your institution offers those benefits to nonemployee partners on the same terms as to married couples. If there are cost differences, that fact signals discrimination to gay and lesbian couples and may be enough to convince a talented applicant to seek employment elsewhere. (That actually happened at one college I know of, causing administrators to revise the benefits policy and permit coverage for same-sex partners).

Tuition remission. Many institutions invest considerable money helping employees advance their education. Does your institution allow married spouses and children to access those benefits and, if so, does it also allow the same level of access for nonmarried couples and their natural and/or adopted children?

Partner career day. Columbia University holds an annual career day so that partners and spouses of employees are able to seek open jobs and gain advice about advancing their careers. This is an example of the institution's saying, "We care about our employees' personal lives and want to help find career options for their partners." For candidates who are part of an academic couple, this idea signals that the institution is willing to take steps to help couples find opportunities. By advertising the event on the Web as open to "partners," Columbia communicates that it is truly a community, not just an employer.

Partner policies. It is important for campus leaders and administrators to understand the policies applicable to same-sex couples and to be able to point to an easy-to-use Web site for applicants to gain clear and accurate information. Although human-resources staff members are expected to be experts on employment policies, everyone in a hiring role should have some level of knowledge about domestic-partner policies, so that when questions arise, there is no uncomfortable pause. Your human-resources department should create a one-page document outlining these benefits and post it to the institutional Web site.

State laws. The 50 states have remarkably different laws regarding domestic relations. Regardless of your position on same-sex marriage, it is helpful to understand your state's laws on this and other matters, such as hate crimes. Does your state allow civil unions and marriage rights, or prohibit them? If you are a hiring manager, it may not be appropriate to voice a personal opinion during an interview about the underlying social policy, but the ability to answer job candidates' questions about your state's laws on this issue shows that you have taken time to do research on questions that may be important to them.

What constitutes a couple? Many institutions, even the most progressive, require a same-sex couple to provide written evidence of their relationship before any benefits are extended to the nonemployee partner. Some requirements are lenient, others are reasonable, and still others are onerous (requiring bank statements, tax records, and mortgage documents). What makes a "couple" at your institution? Do policies apply equally to same-sex and opposite-sex couples? If you are a hiring manager, are you aware of the policies and requirements? If the requirements seem complex, you may find it helpful to contact human resources to understand the reasons underlying the requirements. Some policies may be based on state law, giving the institution little leeway, which is helpful to explain to job candidates.

Publications. In academe, we love our campus publications, from admission brochures to alumni magazines. Pick up a few of your institution's publications and flip through to see what types of nouns are used. Do they use only terms like "spouse," "husband," and "wife"? Or do they use "spouse, partner, or significant other"? Job candidates are savvy and, as they visit a campus, will grab publications to learn more about the place. Recently, when reading an alumni magazine from my graduate school, I noticed that the donor envelope tucked in the center asked for my "spouse's occupation." I e-mailed the alumni director and noted that while same-sex couples tend, on average, to have more discretionary income to donate, they may not give because of the term "spouse." The alumni director changed the wording for the right social reasons, but two other reasons exist to make that change: increased donations and improved rankings. As we all know, U.S. News & World Report ranks institutions, in part, based on the percentage of alumni giving. Welcoming language in campus publications can increase giving and contribute to a rise in the rankings.

Interviews. We all tend to use language that reflects our own comfort zone. We routinely use the term "spouse" without intending any offense. Given that many states and local jurisdictions preclude us from directly asking candidates whether they are gay or lesbian (although no federal law does), it is important to use broad and encompassing language during interviews. It may be helpful to avoid pronouns such as "he" and "she" if a candidate mentions a "significant other." Try to allow the candidate to use the pronoun first. Asking about a candidate's marital status is not allowed in any state.

Meals. An important component of any interview process is to include meals. They allow candidates to feel more relaxed and give managers a chance to evaluate the applicants' interpersonal skills. My partner and I each have often been asked if "your wife can join you" for such dinners. That question immediately sends up a red flag. For interviews that include meals, it is helpful to create a comfortable environment and extend an invitation to the candidate's partner. Consider carefully who from the institution should attend the meal. It may help, when appropriate, to invite another same-sex couple, to speak about the climate both on and off campus.

Web-site audit. Campus Web sites are often a conglomeration of individual pages developed by divisions across the institution. It is virtually impossible to control all of the content. As a quick test, try searching your college's site for the term "spouse," and then again for the terms "spouse" and "partner." A simple audit will take no more than five minutes but may provide insight and revealing data. Remember that if you can check the language on your Web site this quickly, so can job candidates and their partners.

Neighborhoods and schools. When attracting any candidate from out of town, issues such as commute time, safe neighborhoods, and high-achieving school districts become important. The location of safe (accepting) neighborhoods may be of special importance to LGBT candidates. It is helpful to have such information in an easy-to-find location on the Web site, and to build a list of contacts across the campus who can speak to those issues. Don't assume that school districts are not pertinent to gay and lesbian employees. The numbers of gay and lesbian parents with children are increasing, and according to the organization Colage (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), 10 million people in the United States have one or more gay parents.

Social networks. Develop a "partners club" with institutional support (for example, a Web site) so that new hires can see the level of support and interaction that their partners will enjoy on the campus. The club need not be expensive to create and may be managed by employee or nonemployee partners. But it's a symbol that campus leaders encourage full participation of all who are connected to the institution. These clubs can be strong supporters of fund-raising and volunteer efforts.

Career assumptions. The adage "Don't assume anything" is useful advice. At times it is easy to adopt certain academic stereotypes and make assumptions about candidates and their partners. Try not to assume that a lesbian candidate's partner is interested in working for the athletics department, or that a gay candidate's partner wants a job in student affairs or the design department. When the openly gay executive vice president of Princeton University announces (as he did, in The New York Times, last November) his marriage to his partner, who is an executive of a global company, all assumptions should be thrown out the window.

After the hire. Several of my colleagues offered valuable insights, one of which in particular caught my attention as worthy to pass along. After hiring someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, be cognizant of issues related to burnout, workaholism, and the "overtime trap." Many childless gay and lesbian employees tend to work longer hours, possibly to prove that they provide as much (or more) value to an organization as their straight peers. That is by no means a universal truth, but certainly something for managers to consider.

Where else to turn. Finally, there are many helpful online resources to learn more about these issues. One excellent resource is the Human Rights Campaign, which your institution can link to from its Web site.

If other suggestions occur to you, I encourage you to share them via e-mail: careers@chronicle.com.

David W. Hanson is associate vice president for finance and special assistant to the executive vice president at Emory University.


1. dmundy - January 29, 2010 at 09:08 am

This is a wonderful article. As a member of a same-sex couple, both of whom are on the job market for the first time... at the same time, I have started experiencing these frustrations.

This is wonderful content, and I would add that in addition to the HRC, schools should contact their local, state-based organization (most states have one). More so than the HRC, state-based groups are on the ground locally and can provide more detail. To find your group, check out: EqualityFederation.org, which is a Federation of state based groups. They have a list and contact information for all state groups.

2. jpkirch - January 29, 2010 at 10:21 am

Thanks for contributing this - you've got soem great information and advice to assist campuses in helping to provide more open and accepting environments for all employees and their loved ones.

3. pporter - January 29, 2010 at 11:15 am

I agree. This a very compelling and salient article. I'd be interested to see how/if these paradigms apply to interracial marriages? Do the same concerns apply? Are there ways to determine if institutions are friendly to such a union? I'd imagine so, but you never know.

4. timebandit - January 29, 2010 at 01:55 pm

This is an excellent list of policies for diversity, a nice checklist for institutions to attend to.

A small tangential point - I am concerned that it may present too rosy of a picture of the chances of academic/higher ed couples being able to both be recruited into the same or same-region universities, which is a stretch no matter what gender the partners may be...

5. gfloresedd - January 29, 2010 at 01:58 pm

Great information! I hope it is used to better society for gay and lesbian people. I recently completed my dissertation about LGBT isues in education and it was very difficult and had to go through many loop holes to finally have my dissertation approved. Gay and lesbian people have it hard and so do the ones who try to pursue research that promotes sexual orientation social justice.

6. damschroder - January 29, 2010 at 04:34 pm

This is a great article, and I agree with many of the points, as it relates to lesbian and gay candidates. Our campuses need to be more open and welcoming across the board. I would note that there are a number of issues that could be added to make a campus welcoming to transgender candidates, and while the language of this piece is inclusive of them, I think that the list is a bit lacking.

7. activisthistorian - January 29, 2010 at 07:03 pm

This piece does a great job of addressing ways that colleges can be more supportive of and less discriminatory towards gay and lesbian couples - both through formal policies and informal social practice. LGBTQ Centers on campuses across the country do much excellent work in these areas as well. See http://www.lgbtcamupus.org A more inclusive essay would acknowledge the fact that many LGBTQ people are not coupled and can't even get jobs because in their scholarship, their activism, their gender expression, and their personal lives they are deemed too radical, too queer, or too deviant. Of course this is true to the greatest extent for transgender people. The other thing the essay does is reproduce homonormativity. Once the gay couples get the same treatment as straight couples, then the only employees remaining who will have their personal lives, needs, and priorities overlooked with be single people (regardless of orientation). This is to say, if we are pushing for more family-friendly work places which address all kinds of families (and this is generally a good thing), then let's also extend our concern for the campus environment created for single people who don't get to use their super university benefits for anyone (such as parents, siblings, etc) and whose own personal commitments (friends, lovers, family, etc) are rarely recognized as legitimate (as children, husbands, wives) when structuring one's work schedule. And of course MUCH can be done on campuses across the country to give teeth to non-discrimination policies re: sexual orientation and gender identity. Anti-gay bias incidents happen all of the time on college campuses. Why? There is indeed far more work to be done than this somewhat benign list suggests.

8. amanders - January 30, 2010 at 10:39 am

I was recruiting a faculty member who had not disclosed he was gay. When he asked what kind of social opportunities were available in the community, I said, "It depends on what you are looking for" before I continued to talk about the cultural opportunities. He looked at me in shock when I made that comment and that moment in some way confirmed to me he was gay and I was not responding in the right way. I would like to know how I might have handled that situation better. That awkward moment has bugged me ever since. He did not take the job and I figure many of the errors as stated in this srticle were made throughout his visit.

9. locutus - January 30, 2010 at 02:12 pm

re: pporter

There are surely some similarities. Some of this generalizes well to other situations. If I were to write something about recruiting minority candidates (perhaps I should) I would certainly include points like not making assumptions, no matter how well meaning they may seem.

10. mercy_otis_warren - January 30, 2010 at 02:58 pm

Activisthistorian makes a very good point about the kind of normativity presumed in this piece. Apparently the normative model is to be coupled, and Mr. Hanson seems to have difficulty imagining an academic world populated with single people, whether they are gay or lesbian, bisexual, *or* straight.

Moreover, and relatedly, is Mr Hanson seriously under the illusion that only "gay childless employees" suffer from the burnout and overwork created by all of those faculty members running off at 3 to watch their kids' soccer games? Again, both singles of any persuasion, and straight marrieds without kids (they exist, you know), are vulnerable to this.

Of course, on many campuses, a lot of this (career day? partners' club? partners at interview meals?) isn't happening for *anyone*, regardless of sexual orientation.

11. rebeccajo - January 30, 2010 at 08:38 pm

What a refreshing surprise to find this article gracing the pages of Chronicle of Higher Ed: bravo to the author and to CHE. For those who have contributed their comments above and to all colleagues in higher education across the country, I have just recently completed my doctoral dissertation and welcome you to peruse it for further, pertinent reading on this subject. The title of my dissertation is, "Lesbian Leaders in Action: Influencing and Transforming Community College Culture."

The link to my work is below. Warmest regards and thank you for your intelligent articles, Rebecca J Kenney, Ph.D.


12. honore - January 30, 2010 at 10:06 pm

David, very insightful article filled with invaluable information. Thank you.

HOWEVER, I think it is also important to convey to the readers that many schools have (on paper) all sorts of politically correct "inclusive", "tolerant" and "difference-friendly" clap-trap that isn't worth the 100% recycled "green" paper it's written on. And I know this from my own very painful experience.

At one Ivy where I devoted 10 years of my professional life, my partner (Engineer) was denied repeated administrative/academic positions and each time an incompetent with a fraction of his credentials was hired (if only for a semester or 2) until the homophobic, heterosexist mostly male White and Asian faculty could no longer "tolerate" the drooling boob or his colossal short-comings. His credentials included Magna Cum Laude from one of the top Engineering programs in the country with professional experience from San Juan to Saudi Arabia. He was and still is a European-descended Puerto Rican who speaks 7 languages.

At a Big 10, "Parthenon" of toxic political correctness and even more fake "tolerance" (at least that's what all the glossy brochures repeatedly touted, when they weren't touting how "world class" the university was), the story was very much the same. At this place, when I came out to my administrative colleagues, my professional trajectory turned IMMEDIATELY southward. I came with top credentials (academically and professionally) but on-campus search committee after search committee consistently chose the "superior" candidate who predictably came with inferior credentials but always spewing on cue the predictable and trite fake testaments to "social justice" (more like "just us") and got the position.

A few things to keep in mind...
1. All that glitters is not gold. In fact fake inclusive and tolerant turd-polishing is now a science on American campuses.
2. Get it in writing ALWAYS. My partner was promised professional support (whatever that is), assistance with other community jobs (private firms) and NOTHING was followed-up on by the very HR and faculty/administrators that swore to support our adjustment to the community.
3. Do NOT believe all the "me talk pretty" babble about how tolerant the campus is. If they have to remind you every 10 nano-seconds of it. They are NOT!
4. You DO have EVERY right to be looking over your (professional) shoulder. On more than one occasion, private conversations shared with alleged "allies" were often repeated verbatim by someone who was not part of the conversation
5. The academy is the haven of cowardice and mediocrity and the proof is in the REAL treatment that many of us actually receive.

Madison, WI

13. zuska - January 31, 2010 at 12:44 am

Maybe the burnout and overwork is not being created by the faculty members running off at three to watch their kids' soccer games, but by an academic cultural expectation of ridiculous amounts of work and crazy hours logged in the workplace, an expectation predicated on the image of the ideal academic employee as a married white male d00d with a wife a home to take care of the kids and cook and clean for him and maintain a happy home life for him to return to when he feels like taking an hour or two away from his first love, Academia.

14. sanson_carrasco - January 31, 2010 at 01:42 am

I'm also rather baffled by Dr. Hanson's naive assumptions that all GLBT job candidates are in couples and that a university's recruiting methods need to focus primarily on welcoming the candidate from that angle. I'm certain that not all his colleagues either currently are partnered or in the future surely will be, as if headed for the gangplank onto Noah's Ark, nor do all GLBT applicants consider the university's domestic partner benefits a factor in their decision.

As a single gay male academic, I would find such a couple-centric emphasis during an interview visit off-putting, however kind and well-intentioned my prospect colleagues might be: I would assume that the faculty culture was so geared to that social model that as a single person, I wouldn't fit in. Schools need to welcome GLBT candidates irrespective of their relationship status, and make their communities attractive to job seekers who do and who don't have a "plus-one" to bring to dinner parties.

15. raymond_j_ritchie - February 01, 2010 at 12:11 am

David Hanson certainly lives in a world different to mine. In Australia, I have never been asked anything about my "relationships" with anyone except purely professional questions about authorship of publications at a job interview. And if I was asked I would quickly tell them it was no bloody business of theirs. The supposed affronts over food and drink and hospitality. I have never been given lunch or dinner with a job interview, I have sometimes been offered hotel accomodation for an interview but never the airfare. Here it would be considered very bad judgement to drag along your wife/husband/spouse to an interview - let alone leaving your partner hanging around the place like at bad smell for days on end. I have never heard of anyone who did. As for dual appointments you have got to be joking. Such actions are illegal in Australia even informally.

16. hotsexywear - February 01, 2010 at 03:10 am

good artical

17. davi1880 - February 01, 2010 at 03:59 pm

The author here....

To all who posted comments - THANK YOU! To those who critique that I am too focused on LGBT couples, let me offer that this column is only the first of many. With limited space, the column was intended to offer ideas on only one issue among so many that affect/impact LGBT concerns in higher education. I am open to all topics, so please feel free to share them directly with me....

Thank you again.

David Hanson

18. 11232004 - February 01, 2010 at 04:03 pm

A good article, and thank you for publishing it. I work at a mid-size regional comprehensive, public institution. One comment would be that both gay and straight people are EXPECTING institutions to create spousal hires - when I did a survery regionally, very few places could offer this, especially in these tight budget times. LGBT or straight, I don't want to raise false expectations. Places do it when they can, but they can't always!

19. mwjones1 - February 02, 2010 at 02:49 pm

Thanks, Zuska. Not to de-rail this comment thread, because I, too, was incredibly appreciative of this advice, but as a married mother of two young kids, I am completely offended by the comments regarding parents shirking their academic responsibilities for their parental ones. I have worked unbelievably hard to ensure that no one could EVER make such a comment about me, that I assure you I err on the other side: my kids suffer so that I can maintain my career and support them. And when that career evolved (due to very specific local circumstances) to require that I ALSO return to graduate school and earn a PhD, while maintaining my full-time work load and all the ancillary responsibilities that requires, neither my colleagues nor my students have been the ones to suffer from that additional burden, either. My kids have; my husband has; I have.

I get a nice tuition discount, but my family income is still at least $3000 less each year that my grad work continues, as I pay for the fees and books and travel to the nearest university where such grad study is possible. So now, I have less time and less money and twice as much work as I did before.

Could I do go somewhere else? Not in this academic climate without a PhD. I could choose a different line of work, but I love teaching, so my family has chosen to make these sacrifices. And I show up at work with a smile on my face, glad to have a job doing what I love, and I do everything I can to make those around me feel glad, rather than burdened, to have me as a colleague.

Because I have a wonderful husband (and I realize that is luxury as well), I also have fabulous kids. But I struggle every day knowing that it isn't because of me at all.

I know there ARE people who abuse any situation, but I thought this whole discussion was about how to avoid stereotypes. . . and then I STILL get lumped into the "damn parents who think their personal lives are more important than mine" category? Wow.

20. inallsincerity - February 07, 2010 at 02:04 pm

I second the opinion that it is quite "couples" oriented. I would also like to reiterate one another commenter mentioned about transgender professionals. There are transgender men and women who also hold PhD's and are professors and there are ways to be more welcoming to us as well. While I am a man today and no one would ever give me a second look, my bachelor's is from Wellesley College which is hard fact to hide.

Simple awareness that transgender men exist would mean a lot to me and contribute to a welcoming atmosphere. It would be nice to go to an interview and the interviewer simply not remark about my gender or ask me any inappropriate questions about my genitals, surgeries or childhood. People tend to forget to be professional when they are face-to-face with a transsexual.

I would like to know that there are trans-friendly doctors in town.

I would prefer not to be given a list of gender related restrictions such as a list of bathrooms I'm permitted to use.

I would prefer that my trans-status not be announced in any University publications Like "State U Hires Transgender Researcher in...."

I would like the gender identities (particularly pronouns) of the transpeople who have not undergone medical transition to be respected.

Any other trans folks want to add their ideas?

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