How to Be Welcoming

Brian Taylor

January 29, 2010

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:

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