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Topic-Tuesday: Surveying sexual orientation

Mary Ramirez Community Leader Apr 02, 2019

Surveying sexual orientation is a relatively new practice in companies. Human resource specialist say the initiative is part of creating a diverse and inclusive environment. Through the data, companies can determine whether they're biased or are on the road to supporting all people. What do you think? Is this an initiative or does this feel intrusive? 


Hi @Mary Ramirez ,

Thanks for another thought-provoking post. TBH I've done more to examine my personal ideals from these posts than from any other conversation/online discussion/other source. Part of that is from a lot of personal introspection over the last year or so and part is from a recognition of how the world is changing. 

But...on to your question.

Whether surveying orientation is intrusive or initiative depends, I think, on the culture of the company and how the respondents feel the data will be used. I've worked for companies that are very openly inclusive, similar to Atlassian's ideals, and others that are very conservative and trend more towards "don't ask, don't tell."  Personal, even as a cisgendered straight male, I would be uncomfortable with the question as part of a company's employee survey, simply because it's none of their (darn) business.  It's also important to remember that in the United States, at least, there are no federal statues listing sexual orientation as a protected class so the information could be used against an employee. 

There are three things from my pop-culture youth that come to mind:

1) Knowledge is power (Schoolhouse Rock)

2) Knowing is half the battle (G.I. Joe)


3) With great power comes great responsibility.

Call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to providing personal information to companies I just don't trust how it may be used so I tend to leave those types of questions blank. 


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Mary Ramirez Community Leader Apr 02, 2019

Wow, I didn't know that there are no federal statues listing sexual orientation as a protected class so the information could be used against an employee. Thank you for sharing. That's interesting because in the state I live in, Arizona, people can be fired for anything. They call it the "at will" state. So I wonder if anyone has been affected by this due to their response to a survey 🤔 . 

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Even in "at will" states, there are protected categories (i.e., you can't be fired for being older, being a woman [or man--but that doesn't usually happen], for your race or religion, or for being disabled).

We need to get gender and sexual orientation covered. I believe there is at least one case about sexual orientation and employment on its way to the Supreme Court. With the most recent picks, it's unlikely to do well, but you never know. Hope springs eternal.

Like Jeff Guth likes this

@Mary Ramirez - California where I live is also an at-will state, but at will clauses don't intersect with federally protected classes. The trouble for a lot of people comes in proving that they were terminated for a protected reason. Companies can easily come up with reasons to get rid of people (hence the advent of the union in years prior, huzzah for human and worker rights!). 

I agree with @Scott Theus that it's not my employer's business and can lead to trouble since it isn't protected. I personally feel like sexual orientation is the business of you, your partner, and people you have chosen to share that information with. 

I can appreciate that they may want to be informed on their company demographics, but much like I don't want employers asking about my kids, this seems like another infringement if I don't know what they're doing with that data. 

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Kat Marketplace Partner Apr 03, 2019

The first step in identifying if there is an issue and/or changing something is measurement. You need a baseline and to be able to track the impact of interventions.

On the other hand, at the time you are asked to provide this sort of information, the trust relationship has not been established either because you are still in the application process or a recent employee, or the question is part of a new initiative yet with no established history of how the information is handled and used.

My workplace extends the invitation to some events to a "plus one" which can be a friend, flatmate, or romantic partner. People leaders should be mindful that a 'don't ask' approach is not treated the same as 'assume everyone is cis-gender and straight' but other than that - how is it relevant to our work in many roles?

The following diagram is brought to my mind:


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haha love the graphic

ngarcia Atlassian Team Apr 03, 2019

What a thought-provoking question! I definitely see the trepidation that may come with soliciting the sexual orientation from surveys (and I would include gender identity here as well).

First and foremost, I think it's important to always consider the current health of your org's culture before going down this road: realistically, have you done anything to signal to LGBTQ+ folks that the company is a safe place before sending out a survey? What would you even do with the data once you got it? Who would have access to it and is there structure in place to keep responses confidential?

Without the foundations in place, simply sending out a survey may feel like a shallow effort (at best) or dangerous to employees (at worst) as others alluded to above. For example, when I was at my old company I made a conscious decision to wait a few months until coming out to my coworkers because of how small my office environment was. A survey just wouldn't have felt safe to me in that context, even though this was only a few years ago in San Francisco!

With that said, I do think that it's important to get feedback from employees about D&I across many dimensions and creating a culture of openness/trust lays the foundation to getting constructive feedback from smaller groups of people who otherwise choose to hold back. As companies grow, open new sites and spin off new teams, it's easy to think of scenarios where the experience of LGBTQ+ people will be uneven even at one single company. If down well and with care, I definitely think that a survey is a good tool to identify these imbalances at the aggregate.

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Mary Ramirez Community Leader Apr 03, 2019

@ngarcia , I think you brought up a great point!! Are companies setting a safe place in the first place?! I think this was *mic drop* worthy. It just made me think. 🤔 

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Thomas Schlegel Community Leader Apr 17, 2019

You know, I live very open with that, but  it should be your own decision, not the one of the company. 

There were times in my life when I would have just lied on such a survey and I can‘t think of a good reason why a company should make lists of their employees and their orientation. For what reason? To make clear how open-minded they are? That should be possible without such a survey. 

In Germany we have strict laws against questions like this. Even in a job interview you are allowed to lie and the employer can‘t do anything against it later. Such lists are not allowed, for good reasons, as we especially know in Germany.

But as I said, I‘m quite open and had no problems at all since I began working in my company, 18 years ago.

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There are mechanisms for privacy (anonymised sp?) of data through a third-party surveyor. Knowing your population is key. Here in the US, it feels like Christian holidays drown out all the other holidays.

For example, if I knew that most of my employees were Hindu, I would make sure we honored Hindu religious practices. I worked at a company that signaled its diversity practices right up front (on its website, through partner benefits, presentations, etc). That's where I learned about the holiday Diwali (celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains). It's a beautiful celebration that we all enjoyed. Further, whenever we had company celebrations that involved food, there were options for everyone (allergen-free, Kosher, vegan, vegetarian etc). People of various gender/orientation/sex worked there and no one so much as batted an eye. 

It was a great place to observe radical acceptance. I'm a non-religious cis-gendered straight female and I appreciated that level of acceptance for all of us.

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Mary Ramirez Community Leader Apr 23, 2019

Hi @Karen O'Keefe

See I think you brought up a great example to what @ngarcia mentioned above. A company who is celebrating holidays outside of the normal ones and including other food options is an example of a diverse and inclusive space without having to even say it. 

I believe actions speak louder than words. 

Like Karen O'Keefe likes this

I'm a bit unsure on this.

If the business of the company is influenced on how individuals personally express their desire (or lack of) sex or the amount of masculine/feminine traits they feel most comfortable expressing, then a case can be made that a company should be able to select for or against certain orientations in the hiring process. 

Else, if the business of the company is not influenced on how individuals personally express their desire (or lack of) sex or the amount of masculine/feminine traits that they feel most comfortable expressing, then it actually doesn't matter how many people of whatever orientation are in their company at all. 

Diversity for the sake of diversity is actually a problem, because it implicitly creates forms of discrimination (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc) . Diversity for the sake of strengthening a unity, however, is a great ideal. But used wrongly it can also explicitly create forms of discrimination.

I would say that the best form of diversity in a company, is when differences are acknowledged, but not mandated. Not celebrating the differences (or rather, you could if you'd celebrate them all equally, which companies definitely do not do, Atlassian included), but celebrating their similarities regardless of their differences. And celebrating how differences can create similarities between individuals. 

Diversity and inclusion is best when the differences aren't brought into people's attention. As a black man, Dr. King's words mean a lot to me: "not by the color of their skin but the content of their character". I suppose I see the census of sexual orientation in a company as counterproductive as a census of racial representation in a company would be. Why does it matter if you're black or white? Why does it matter if you represent one sexual orientation over another? 

Like Kat likes this

I'm also on the fence about this. I don't hide the fact that I'm asexual, but I don't blurt it out.

I would think the company would want to use a third-party anonymizer. Some other company that provides the service of the survey and subsequently the aggregated results to the requester. This way, the data could be provided, but not directly associated with any one employee. I'd be fine with answering the question if this were the case.

I would also think this is something that would be done on a timed basis. Not asked at time of hire, but all employees are asked at the same time, once a year.

What puzzles me is, what sexualities does one even put on such a survey? Would "asexual" even be on that list? Or would it just be a two-answer question, "Heterosexual, Other"?

I think there's an assumption in the original statement that's misleading:

"Through the data, companies can determine whether they're biased or are on the road to supporting all people."

The percentage of your workforce with "orientation a" does not directly measure whether the company is biased or not. Are these companies also surveying whether those individuals are out? Are they asking if employees are comfortable being out, if they're ever had any negative experiences with coworkers as a result?

To @Allan Thompson  and @ngarcia point in a previous post, with only the information provided this sounds like an exercise in "checking the box". 

A more direct answer to the op's question: I learn towards "intrusive" if the data is not anonymized. If it's anonymous, I would call it "informative". Without action, there's nothing about a survey that would make me call this an "initiative".

Like Kerry Wano likes this


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