How A Chief Becomes An Ally

The old adage that “leadership starts at the top” couldn’t be more true when it comes to establishing organizational culture especially around the issues of diversity and inclusivity. The police chief or sheriff, as the agency executive, must set the tone for the organization and then hold people accountable for conduct that is consistent with their established values, policies, and ethical standards of the organization.

For LGBT employees, the agency executive is an important ally. If the agency culture around LGBT issues has been hostile and homophobic, the executive is really the only person who can initiate effective change. Hopefully the motivation to create an inclusive work place for LGBT employees will come from a sense of value for those employees and for the value of the diversity LGBT employees bring to the table. Unfortunately, change in this area is often motivated by the order of a court or settlement agreement. In all cases, the chief or sheriff is the one who must drive change.

I’ve been asked often by agency managers, mostly lieutenants and captains, and a few chiefs how they can create a positive work place for LGBT employees. Those of us in the LGBT community cannot assume that this is common sense. Changing any aspect of organizational culture takes time and steady, consistent messaging over time. Creating an inclusive and accepting work culture that has traditionally been full of homophobia will never happen overnight and, in fact, may take years. But because the process for creating this type of change is not common sense or a topic commonly taught in leadership schools, I offer the following guidance for our straight allies in leadership who desire to make their agencies a more accepting and successful work place for LGBT employees.

A good friend of mine was recently promoted to chief in a department of about 190 sworn officers. He told me about two officers within the ranks he believes are gay. He told me that rumors about the officers have traveled around the department and he was particularly concerned because one of them was in the process of leaving the department to go to a department known to be more gay friendly. The chief added that he has no “out” gay male officers and wanted to know what he could do to make these two officers more comfortable. He said both were very productive and professional and that having them leave would definitely be a loss. Here is what I shared.

First of all, the organization is already pointed in the right direction, because this new chief cares enough about the topic to ask about it. The traditional approach might have been to hope the two closted gay officers leave so that the organization doesn’t have to deal with potentially having “out” gay officers. The reality is that LGBT employees already exist, so if you are a chief or sheriff reading this article, don’t think for a second that just because no one has ever come out in your department that you don’t have any LGBT employees. In fact, if no one has ever come out, you should be very worried about why.

The path to change starts with looking at agency policies. Check any policy that deals with any type of identity, such as race, gender, and nationality, to be sure that it also includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Just because your state does not prohibit harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity doesn’t mean that you cannot have a department policy that requires equality. It’s not enough to say in general terms that “all people are equal.” For the LGBT employee, seeing “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” spelled out in policy is important and it communicates a value around this difference that establishes equality with other individual characteristics. Including this specific language in policy will then drive discussions in training when work place harassment and discrimination policies are periodically reviewed. New employees coming into the organization will also be trained on the values of inclusivity at this level automatically in the same way that they are about valuing other individual differences.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department created a model approach to changing agency culture in this way when Sheriff Bacca wrote into the department values statement specific language around not tolerating homophobia. You will find LGBT specific language throughout their agency values and policies.

One of the questions my friend asked me was if he should approach the two closeted officers and to tell them that he is “OK with them being gay.” The answer is definitely no. First of all, you don’t know for sure about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity until they come out about it. There are all kinds of reasons that one’s sexual orientation or gender identity might be mis-perceived. It’s never a good idea, especially for an executive, to try and “out” or “force out” a closeted employee. So aside from a policy, how does a chief or sheriff directly communicate to closeted LGBT employees that it’s safe to come out? It’s simple really, but it must start with how the agency executive communicates daily and what language they use.

Anytime an opportunity occurs to talk about valuing diversity and inclusivity, use specific language that includes “lesbian,” “gay,” “bi-sexual,” and “transgender.” Modeling the language and behavior desirable to promote an inclusive environment is a powerful tool for creating change. An executive should never forget how carefully subordinates watch and listen to everything that comes out of the mouth of the agency leader. Don’t be afraid to use terms and phrases like, “LGBT,” “GLBT,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “bi-sexual,” or “transgender.” Avoid words and phrases such as “lifestyle,” alternative lifestyle,” and “anything to do with “choice.” Sexual orientation and gender identity is not a matter of choice. The bottom line is that you should talk about it rather than simply avoiding use of the terms or assuming that everyone knows what you mean when you say you “value diversity.”

The agency command staff must follow the executive’s lead. Talk to your captains and lieutenants about the change in culture you want to make around creating an inclusive and comfortable place for LGBT employees. Encourage your leadership team to use the same specific language in their daily exchanges. If your command staff isn’t already on board with how to be a good ally for LGBT employees, then maybe some specific training on the topic would be in order.

The next step is to look for opportunities for your agency to be involved with the local LGBT community. If your city has an LGBT pride parade or festival, be there. Put together a contingent to participate in the parade and take the leadership position of marching. Others will follow and you will, without saying a word, communicate a message of value and acceptance to your LGBT employees. If your department participates in other cultural events by having a recruitment booth, look for events within your LGBT community to do the same. Seek out LGBT organizations in your community and meet periodically with the leaders of these groups just like you would with religious leaders and the leaders of other identity groups and civil rights organizations. Again, your actions will speak as loud or louder than words.

How do you know if you have an organizational culture that is homophobic? Listen to the language people use. If words like, “fag” and “faggot” and phrases like, “that’s so gay” get used without repercussions or immediate action by supervisors, you have a homophobic work place culture. Managers, supervisors, and ideally line-level employees should be equally appalled hearing “niger” in the work place as they do “fag.” Both should draw equal reaction from management. Language is the lowest, but most common and damaging form of work place harassment. Ridding an organization of homophobia must include aggressively correcting work place language.

Of course, enforcing agency policies around equality, discrimination, and harassment are at the cornerstone of changing culture. As the executive, if you are complacent, slow to react, or totally non-reactive to this type of conduct, you might as well say to your rank and file that you support it. Hold people accountable just as you would for a use of excessive force or any other form of unprofessional or illegal conduct.

Over time, your actions and those of your command staff will speak for themselves and your LGBT employees will begin to feel more comfortable. Coming out at work is a complex issue and there may be many reasons way beyond your control as an executive that prevent an employee from coming out, but you will strike the best chance of having employees come out if you make sure the work place environment is safe. And isn’t that what we want for everyone and ourselves? We want to come to work feeling valued, safe, and secure.

If you have a situation that you would like free advice on how to handle, I invite you to contact us using one links at the top of the page. Our contributing authors have a commitment to helping agency executives and other straight allies make law enforcement a better place for LGBT employees.

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