Federal Employee Perceptions About Sexual Orientation Discrimination

The author says that MSPB’s Merit Principles Survey provides insight into the perceptions of sexual orientation discrimination against LGBT federal employees.

The Merit Systems Protection Board’s (MSPB) 2014 report, Sexual Orientation and the Federal Workplace—Policy and Perception, presented data from the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which was its first to ask employees to identify their sexual orientation.

Even with the wealth of data that the FEVS has provided regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Federal employees, the FEVS does not specifically ask employees about their experiences with discrimination.

As the MSPB report noted, this has left an important gap in our understanding of the work experiences of LGBT Federal employees, including their perceptions of whether they have been discriminated against and, if so, on what basis they believe that discrimination occurred.

MSPB’s 2016 Merit Principles Survey (MPS) gives us insight for the first time into the perceptions of sexual orientation discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) Federal employees. (OPM only publishes FEVS data for LGBT responses as a single population. MSPB’s research has been focused on sexual orientation, i.e. the experiences of LGB individuals in the workplace.) Ten percent of the LGB respondents to the MPS 2016 said that, in the past 2 years, they had been denied a job, promotion, pay increase, or other job benefit because of unlawful discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

The MPS 2016 also asked respondents if they had been denied a job, promotion, pay increase, or other job benefit because of unlawful discrimination on a number of other bases in addition to sexual orientation. Fifteen percent of LGB respondents said they had been denied such benefits based on at least one of the bases specified by the MPS 2016. This was a comparable percentage to other MPS 2016 respondent demographic groups, as shown in Table 1 below.

Comparison to the Private Sector

With the 2016 MPS data, we can compare the perceptions of LGB Federal employees with various reports of the perceptions of their private sector counterparts.

For example, a 2013 Pew Research Center national survey found that 26 percent of gay men, 23 percent of lesbians, and 15 percent of bisexuals believed they had been treated unfairly by an employer because they were or were perceived to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

According to an analysis of the 2008 General Social Survey, conducted by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, 16 percent of individuals who were open about being LGB in the workplace reported ever losing a job due to sexual orientation discrimination, while 7 percent reported losing a job during the 5 years preceding the survey.

In addition, 10 percent of LGB respondents to a 2005 national survey, as reported by Gregory Herek of the University of California, Davis, indicated at least one instance of being fired from their job or being denied a promotion due to sexual orientation discrimination.

Progress in the Federal Community

An indication of the progress being made by the Federal LGBT community is the similar percentages of LGBT FEVS respondents who say they are supervisors, managers, or executives compared to other respondents. FEVS results for 2012–2015 show that 21–22 percent of LGBT employees reported that they were supervisors, managers, or executives, while 19–21 percent of other employees reported that they held such positions.

In addition, the attitudes among LGB and heterosexual MPS 2016 respondents regarding knowledge of discrimination complaint channels and comfort with being themselves at work are similar. Only 4 percent of MPS 2016 LGB respondents disagreed that they were familiar with the formal complaint channels that are available to people who have experienced discrimination—7 percent of heterosexual respondents similarly disagreed. Fifteen percent of MPS 2016 LGB respondents disagreed that they feel comfortable being themselves at work, compared to 13 percent of heterosexual survey respondents.

Sexual Orientation and the Federal Workplace— Policy and Perception provides recommendations to further the inclusion of LGB employees in the Federal workplace.

Table 1. In the past 2 years, have you been denied a job, promotion, pay increase, or other job benefit because of unlawful discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, age, disability, religion, marital status, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or status as a parent or caregiver?

Selected Group % Yes
African American Females 18
Hispanics/Latinos 18
LGB Individuals 15
Females 13
White Females 12
African American Males 11
Heterosexual/Straight Individuals 11
Asians 9
White Males 9

Doug Nierle is a Senior Research Analyst with MSPB’s Office of Policy and Evaluation and was the author of the MSPB report, Sexual Orientation and the Federal Workplace–Policy and Perception

This column was originally published in the U.S. Merit System Protection Board’s newsletter, Issues of Merit, and has been re-posted here with permission from the author. Visit www.mspb.gov/studies to read more of MSPB’s newsletters and studies on topics related to Federal human capital management, particularly findings and recommendations from their independent research.