During a job interview, applicants expect to be grilled with a lot of questions.
Eric Loewenthal, 20, is ready. But he also has a few questions of his own.
Such as, do you offer domestic-partner benefits?
And, do you have a sexual harassment policy that protects gay and lesbian workers?
Loewenthal, president of the University of Maryland's Pride Alliance, is one of a growing number of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who are more comfortable coming out in the workplace. Along with the usual concerns about pay and job duties, they also want employers to be clear about their attitudes toward gender and sexuality issues.
Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director of the WorkNet project at the gay rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said more people are coming out to their families and friends at an earlier age, often encouraged by the positive images they see in the media. "Naturally, this is going to spill over into the workplace," he said.
The transition is not conflict-free. No federal law prohibits discrimination against workers for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Only 14 states and the District have such a law that extends to both public and private employers. Courts and state legislatures have become battlegrounds for disagreements between employers and employees on such laws and how they will work.
Meanwhile, as the regulations are sorted out, things can be a bit confusing for workers, who might find it best to assess employers individually.
Herrschaft said several clues can help a worker evaluate a prospective employer. First, look for a mention of sexual orientation in the organization's policy on equal employment opportunity. While companies do not always live up to these pronouncements, the statement does set a tone for how the company views diversity issues, he said. It also suggests that internal recourse would be available for workers who felt they were treated unfairly.
Another tip-off, Herrschaft said, is whether a company offers domestic-partner benefits. HRC tracks whether large companies offer such benefits, among other indicators, in its annual "State of the Workplace" report. As of Dec. 31, HRC had counted 7,149 private employers and colleges and universities that provided domestic-partner benefits. It also found that 40 percent of the companies in the Fortune 500 did so.
For workers who are uncomfortable asking direct questions about policies, Herrschaft recommends an indirect approach, which can be tailored to the specific job.
For example, he said, if the position is in marketing, ask whether the company has considered niche campaigns aimed at minority groups, including gays and lesbians. The interviewer's reaction to the suggestion can give a strong hint about workplace culture.
Not sure which approach to take? Students and recent graduates can look to their university's career center for guidance. For example, the University of Maryland's Career Center includes a special section devoted to issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
If students have concerns not addressed in the myriad pamphlets and handouts the center has on hand, they can turn to Emily Morris, a program director at the center who also serves as the liaison to the university's Office of LGBT Equity.
Morris said her role as liaison is primarily outreach and general community education, but she is available to answer students' questions -- and they often have plenty, as graduation approaches. "In general, college students who identify as LGBT may find support or an inclusive community on campus but aren't sure what they'll find in the workplace," she said.
Loewenthal, a junior computer science and business major, does not expect problems to come up often. He has done his homework, and he said he found that most big employers are progressive on these issues.
He even keeps rejection in perspective: "If they see my sexuality as a negative, I wouldn't want to work there anyway."
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Join Mary Ellen Slayter with Human Rights Campaign's Daryl Herrschaft for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. Oct. 26 at www.washingtonpost.com.