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Norms are changing and HR needs to up its game

“One of my colleagues emailed his team to announce that he and his husband are expecting their first child. Nobody really knew how to respond as it was a surprise to us all and we didn’t want to say anything that appeared nosey. We want to organise a baby shower but not sure if that would be okay or would it be offensive? We don’t normally do anything for the dads.”

This is such a great question, and a welcome one. It’s not surprising that you’re wondering how to respond. These situations are relatively new to all of us.

As a gay man growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I could never conceive of a day that I might be married, or have children. Now, thankfully, these things are not just possible, they’re becoming more common.

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But common doesn’t necessarily mean ordinary. The standard HR response to this question could be 'how would you treat a heterosexual colleague who announced the same news?' because we usually know what to do in those situations.

Births, deaths, marriages… we have rituals and ways of doing things in our organisations to celebrate these kinds of life events that have become familiar to all of us.

As people feel more comfortable talking about their different kinds of relationships and family, we need to respond to those maybe in different ways to how we have before.

Take the baby situation for example. To reach the point of announcing it to the team, this couple has already been on quite a journey. While the result may be similar, the route to parenthood for LGBT+ folk is just, well, it’s different.

That’s not to say of course that every heterosexual parent follows the same path, we know that’s not the case, but if we assume that LGBT+ parents face just the same issues, we’d be demonstrating a wilful blindness that could be experienced as nonchalance or insensitivity.

I would be surprised if, as happened to friends of mine, many straight couples were stopped at the door of the hospital by the safeguarding officer as they were taking their newborn baby home for the first time.

For my friends this was deeply traumatic, on top of their existing nervousness that all parents share when going home with their first child.

They were made to undergo visits by social workers and had to make a legal challenge over the child being placed on the ‘at risk’ register, all because of a homophobic member of staff.

That’s different to most people’s experiences. Or the lesbian couple who sadly lost a child during pregnancy and were told in a chipper voice 'well you’ll just have to try again won’t you' by an insensitive obstetrician who shouldn’t have said that to anyone, but especially not a couple who can’t 'just try again'. These stories highlight challenges that LGBT+ people face above and beyond all the other stuff that parents go through.

In the workplace we’ve been conditioned to believe that everyone should be treated the same; fairness means the rules apply to all of us in the same way. I’ve often heard well-meaning people say things like 'I don’t make a fuss, I just treat people as I want to be treated'.

That’s fine in principle but for those who have faced little or no prejudice in their lives, it can be easy to forget that we should treat people the way they want to be treated, in ways that respect and acknowledge that our individual contexts are different.

I have compassion for colleagues who are wrestling with these issues, as they should be. It’s up to all of us to challenge ourselves and each other to not just do what we’ve always done.

Times are changing. Norms are changing. We need to respond and up our game. So in answer to the question, maybe it’s time to do something for the dads. All the dads.

And it could be nice to talk with your team member and ask how he would like the news to be celebrated. Curiosity is such an effective cure for possible clumsiness. And remember, Paul is a great name for a baby!


Paul Taylor-Pitt is founder of Metamorphosish.com