Alex Blaze

Employees Don't Want to Be Asked about Sexual Orientation

Filed By Alex Blaze | January 13, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: bath, ENDA, England, legislation, LGBT, sexual orientation, transgender, uk, united kingdom

As part of the Equality Act passed in the UK last year, government agencies are required to monitor their workforce to see if discrimination is occurring. countryside-of-bath-england.jpgThis means that agencies with over 150 people have been required to ask their workforce about their sexuality, since it's hard to know if subtle discrimination is occurring without asking.

Some workers in Bath, though, aren't having it and most didn't answer the question:

The 1,652 people providing community health and social services in the Bath area were all requested to complete a questionnaire asking them about their age, ethnicity and disabilities as part of a drive to meet the requirements of recent legislation.

But nearly 900 of them - 52 per cent - refused to answer a question asking them for their sexual orientation.

The largest proportion of refuseniks were the 740 staff employed by Bath and North East Somerset Council - with 81 per cent of them leaving that section blank.

It's impossible to know why they didn't answer the question. Some queer people might have thought, even though the questionnaire was anonymous, that their employer could find the answer. Some straight people might not have liked the idea of acknowledging that they have a sexual orientation. Others might not have thought that question was appropriate for the workplace.

But it's a reason that disparate impact claims aren't allowed by the ENDA - it's impossible to know if LGBT people are adversely affected by seemingly neutral policy because we're hard to track.

The Telegraph has more information about the questionnaire:

Guidance published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the watchdog, tells public bodies they must do all they can to obtain accurate data on the make-up of their staff despite fears over intrusion, preferably through "routine monitoring".

It states: "The Commission would normally expect to see the following, for bodies with 150 staff or more: the race, disability, gender and age distribution of your workforce; an indication of likely representation on sexual orientation and religion and belief, provided that no-one can be identified as a result; an indication of any issues for transsexual staff, based on your engagement with transsexual staff or voluntary groups; gender pay gap information; grievance and dismissal."

The guidance admits: "Monitoring in relation to sexual orientation is often a new and sensitive issue for staff and for service users, so you should not say, or imply, that the sexual orientation questions are compulsory."

It concedes that asking people whether or not they are homosexual leads to low response levels or inaccurate data, which is partly why the Office for National Statistics is not posing the question in this year's Census.

But the EHRC guidance goes on: "Without gathering some form of evidence, however, it may be difficult to monitor the impact of policies and procedures on transsexual people or employment patterns such as recruitment, training, promotion or leaving rates."

Each article I've read on this has quoted a conservative who says the questions are a waste of resources during the recession (the US Census of 2010 stimulated the economy, because creating more work for people doesn't hurt the economy) and that it's a "Orwellian" survey. As long as they're not asking for people's names or performing the surveys in small offices where it'd be easy to figure out who someone is, there isn't a problem.

Other than the fact that they're not going to get useable data on sexual orientation because, with 52% of people refusing to respond in at least one city, that means that their sample was self-selecting.


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There are so many problems with questions like this, but the big one as I see it is that nobody agrees on what exactly sexual orientation is, let alone what the words mean that we commonly use to describe various orientations. Asking people what their sexual orientation is assumes that sexual orientation is a fixed thing that everyone agrees on the characteristics of. Which we know isn't the case.

right, it's so nuanced and personal.

I think that becomes an issue depending on what you want to use the data for. If you're fine with defining sexual orientation discrimination as discrimination against LGB people for being LGB, then it works if people answer the question.

But when you put in "perceived," as in "perceived sexual orientation," that throws a monkey wrench into the system. And if you think there's something more to sexual orientation than how someone identifies, that if someone likes members of the same-sex sometimes but still identifies as straight or something like that but that a boss who's anti-gay will somehow notice (or if you want to measure that), then, yeah, different definitions of the terms become important.