As soon as Gabriela Ross landed a new job in another state, she could tell things were going to be different. Originally from New York City, Ross, who identifies as queer, found herself grappling with “a lot of culture shock” in the Deep South, where she moved to work at a mid-size startup. Ross (whose name has been changed here for privacy) loved the work, but a conversation with one of her more conservative colleagues during a routine client visit left her shaken. On the car ride over, Ross says her coworker “got on this tangent, saying that she doesn’t want to hear about anyone’s ‘bedroom preference’.” Ross, who wasn’t out to her coworker, says, “I tried to not cry right there,” she says.
Ross was aware when she took the job that her new state’s cultural and political climate might prove challenging for her, so she chose to conceal her sexuality to everyone in her office. “There’s no anti-discrimination law against sexual orientation,” Ross notes, pointing out that the state is one of 28 where employers can legally fire people for being gay or transgender. While the other barrier to coming out was the way her coworkers talked about traditional, heterosexual marriage, Ross says that the incident in the car was “a breaking point” for her. “They don’t want to know who I am,” she concluded, “and if I did come out they wouldn’t be comfortable.”
According to a survey that Blind conducted for Fast Company of nearly 2,500 staffers at top-tier tech companies, the overwhelming majority (92%) of employees feel their companies do a good job of supporting LGBTQ workers. But queer employees tend to have more complicated workplace experiences than even many of their straight coworkers might suspect. When job platform Dice asked nearly 4,000 workers in the U.S. and U.K., 62% of those who identify as LGBTQ said they’re comfortable discussing their sexual orientation, versus 90% of their straight colleagues; 40% of the LGBTQ cohort reported feeling discriminated against, compared with only 15% of heterosexuals. And when Fast Company partnered with WNYC’s Nancy podcast last fall on a survey of some 3,000 queer employees, frustrations, anxieties, and compromises like Ross’s were commonplace.
Some of Ross’s friends had questioned her decision to move, and when they heard about her workplace experiences a few urged her to quit and come back. The only other openly gay colleague Ross knew of recommended Bravely, a platform that connects workers with professional coaches outside their organizations, and she decided to give it a shot. Talking through her predicament, Ross felt like “a weight had been lifted.” It was reassuring to hear an objective point of view, and Ross says she was able to go back to work and interact constructively with the coworker who’d offended her.
That’s part of Bravely’s purpose, according to cofounders Toby Hervey and Sarah Sheehan, who launched the platform last year to help employees (particularly but not exclusively LGBTQ workers) cope with discrimination and harassment on the job. Hervey says he’d noticed how when something goes wrong at work, the common instinct is to go to someone outside the company (like a friend or spouse) to vent. But beyond that, the options are limited: put up with the problem or quit. Hervey says that Sheehan was often that go-to person for dispensing advice among her own friends, who seemed to need a “Sarah as a Service” platform.
Instead, the two built a tech platform based around an algorithm to match workers with the best-suited professional coach to help them through issues like the one Ross dealt with. Bravely’s coaches are typically former or current HR executives or people who’ve managed large teams. Hervey believes “the healthiest workplaces are those where people can have productive conversations around things that are hard to talk about.” That includes microaggressions as well as performance issues, conflicts, and career paths–all conversations Hervey notes can be “really uncomfortable” yet crucial. Indeed, building a diverse workforce is only half the challenge for employers committed to doing that; the other is building inclusive workplaces that make people want to stick around. And as some researchers have found, the more diverse a workforce becomes, the harder it can be to create a sense of cohesion.
Bravely doesn’t yet have data on retention rates from the employers that have offered the platform to their own employees, a pool that includes Evernote, Fandom, Hireology, Prosperworks, and Homepolish. But Hervey says early feedback suggests that 70% of employees who did coaching sessions through Bravely felt it improved their situations, while only 5% said they’d have gone to HR without it. And since nearly a third of the coaches say that the Bravely users they’ve spoken to initially sounded likely to quit, Hervey maintains that the platform could help solve many retention problems that HR departments struggle to tackle on their own.
Bravely enters a crowded space of hybrid AI and human services aimed at solving problems that conventional human resources departments seem to keep fumbling. For example, Spot, a chatbot, fields highly charged reports ranging from sexual misconduct to pregnancy and religious discrimination by generating anonymous documentation and delivering it to an employee’s HR department on their behalf. The STOPit app similarly lets employees anonymously report harassment, intimidation, bullying, biases, and workers’ comp fraud. Intel has built its own “WarmLine” for confidentially reporting problems, and in the year and a half of its existence, the company says the tool has fielded 10,000 cases and contributes to Intel’s 90% retention rate.
Of course, tools like these place some of the onus for solving workplace issues largely on those suffering from them. One of the more common complaints LGBTQ employees voiced in the Fast Company/Nancy survey was having to take their own initiative to educate others about queer issues and culture, and the potential risks that entails. Still, companies like Bravely operate on the premise that employers can’t address problems they aren’t aware of (even if it’s technically their job to be) and that everyone benefits when those problems get solved.
As for Ross, she’s not only decided to stick around but insists she can’t imagine working anywhere else, and has learned a lot about people whose ideas and values differ from her own. “The counselor and I spoke about ways I could improve the company culture,” says Ross, including building awareness of queer culture.
Ultimately, though, Ross chose not to take that on because she wasn’t comfortable outing hersef to her colleagues. “My professional self supersedes my being out at work,” she says. “It is not a huge part of who I am at work.”