Tolerance may be the wrong way to go—how the workplace becomes more inclusive

Working with equality between men and women and tolerance in the workplace may, in fact, risk excluding people. To instead explicitly work with inclusion and a norm-critical perspective does more for more people. “If we work norm-critically, we tackle a host of different power structures,” says Frida Ohlsson Sandahl, who addresses the subject in a chapter of Human Resource Management: A Nordic Perspective.

Frida Olsson Sandahl

Frida Ohlsson Sandahl, author of the chapter “Heteronorms, LGBTQ, and Queer at the Workplace,” problematises the word tolerance. To tolerate comes from the Latin tolerare, that is, to have forbearance with, to allow, to endure.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be ‘tolerated.’ Because then there is also a group that has the power to tolerate others.”

Contrary to its intention, the work of tolerance can reinforce who is “us” and who is “them.” Who are the ones we tolerate? She believes that many in the workplace already think that everyone who works together is included in “us;” it can feel so obvious that people don’t think it needs to be expressed.

“You can be a wise person with good values, but it is not visible on the outside,” Sandahl says.

Here managers and those in HR play an important role in making inclusion visible in the workplace, both in speech and writing.

“There are ways to formulate it that show that one is open without singling anyone out. Everyone must work at it.”

Must? Yes, maybe everyone won’t become experts on HBTQ issues, for example, but you really do need to be a little up-to-date, she argues.

“There are a lot of things happening in different areas, and we are now in a phase when a great deal is happening on the issue of gender identity.”

Fear of saying the wrong thing leads to silence

Some people think that the subject is difficult and are afraid of saying the wrong thing or of making someone upset.

“I understand that fear. But keep in mind that the fear comes from a good place,” she says, explaining that there are those who are never afraid of how they express themselves or if they risk hurting or excluding someone by how they speak.

She recommends actually asking. Which pronoun do you want me to use? Is it ok if I ask you about this, or would you rather we left it alone?

“I think it’s important to first ask if it’s ok to ask. Transgender people, in particular, often find themselves in the position of having to act as educators, whether they want to or not.”

Many who do not fit the cis-hetero norm—that is, they are not heterosexual, and/or their biological gender does not conform to their legal, social or perceived gender—hide this at the workplace. This takes a lot of power and energy, and they run the risk of, among other things, getting sick and suffering. In other words, it is something that very much concerns the employer.

“A workplace wants employees to have personal lives that enable them to be good workers.”

However, Sandahl does not mean that everyone should “come out”—that everyone should be open with their sexuality or their gender identity.

“No employee should have to tell everything about his or her life at the workplace. That is not the goal. The goal is for no one to have to feel bad because of offensive speech and put a lot of energy into hiding something.”

Norm-critical work increases productivity

The culture at the workplace must be such that it feels ok to be open for anyone who wants to be. Through her work, Sandahl meets people who firmly claim that there are no HBTQ people at their workplace. Then one must ask, she argues, why HBTQ people have not wanted to keep working there, or why they don’t feel comfortable being open with their sexual orientation or gender identity at that particular workplace.

Active work on the gender equality of men and women obscures those who are neither man nor woman. However, this is not to say that we should not strive for gender equality.

“I absolutely think we should work for gender equality, but I think it should be as inclusive as possible.”

Something such as working for equality between genders, instead of between men and women, makes a big difference in whether everyone feels included or not. And through norm-critical and inclusive work, the patchwork that can arise in policy documents and guidelines as new excluded groups come into focus is eliminated. If “us” automatically applies to everyone, no one in the workplace needs to feel tolerated.


Frida Ohlsson Sandahl:

Frida Ohlsson Sandahl is a sociologist who works as a lecturer and author focusing on issues related to norm-criticism, HBTQ and gender equality. She has collaborated on several books and will soon come out with a new manual on discrimination law for managers. She works with municipalities, study associations, private companies and the Church of Sweden, among others.

In 2013, Frida was one of the founders of Jönköping Qom Ut, the first pride festival in Jönköping County.

Content updated 2018-12-18