Wisconsin LGBT Chamber’s new program aims to ease the job search

A screenshot from the Wisconsin IRIS courses.
A screenshot from the Wisconsin IRIS courses.

Last updated on August 5th, 2022 at 10:42 am

Even in a tight job market, finding the right job at the right company can be difficult. For members of the LGBTQ community, the job search is only made more difficult by trying to find a company with a welcoming and inclusive culture where they can bring their authentic self to work. 

Jason Rae, president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, pointed to research from the Human Rights Campaign in 2018 that found 46% of LGBTQ workers in the U.S. are closeted at work.

He said it is a reality that also shows up in the chamber’s mentorship program for college students when mentees seem to inevitably turn to their mentor and say: “I assume when I enter the work world I have to go back in the closet.”

It may not solve all the problems that lead to someone feeling like they cannot be themselves, but the chamber’s new Wisconsin IRIS program seeks to address some of the barriers. Short for inclusive refinement of individual skills, the IRIS program is an entirely online course with five learning modules. It addresses topics like resume creation, interview preparation, soft skills, digital professionalism and searching for a job. 

“What it does different than other programs is it keeps the target audience in mind,” said Momo Dahlke, AmeriCorps VISTA and IRIS program manager at the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber. “So, we have stuff in the resume section, like, ‘Do you want to include identity experiences like volunteering with an LGBT center or working at your campus’ LGBT center?’ We have a little blurb on researching the company you’re going to be interviewing to see if it’s going to be LGBT friendly and affirming towards the youth, and then we have things like the job search, how to look for jobs that are going to be LGBT affirming, how to look at job postings on Indeed and LinkedIn and kind of translate technical wording into wording that the youth understand.”

Supported by funding from Meijer and Enterprise Holdings Foundation, Rae said the ultimate goal of the program is to help get more LGBTQ workers employed at chamber members who are actively trying to recruit and retain diverse talent. 

To do that, Dahlke looked into where LGBTQ youth were underserved by similar workforce development programs and then developed materials and best practices for the course, including by reaching out to chamber members and recording videos with LGBTQ professionals.

“We really wanted to showcase that there are out professionals in the world and here are some role models,” they said. “Here are some people like you that are able to be out and able to be their authentic self at the workplace.”

The IRIS program launched in June. Rae said the chamber wanted to do a soft launch of sorts during Pride Month and plans to ramp up use of it by partnering with LGBTQ centers at universities and colleges in the state as students return to campus in the fall. 

While the initial course focuses on applying for a job, Dahlke wants to see future courses addressing how to deal with workplace conflict or how to move on from a job professionally. They had already developed a video on dealing with insensitive workplaces that was cut from the course.

“As we were working through this, I think the hardest part we discovered was trying to not have too much in there where everyone would be spending days upon days in the program, so we kind of cut it down saying, ‘Let’s start with the basics of applying for jobs and get through that part,’ and then handle a part two that is much more (focused on) that inclusive workplace,” Rae said.

He also noted there are a number of simple steps companies can take to help make their business more welcoming, starting with incorporating more gender-neutral language in job descriptions, employee handbooks and policies. 

As an example, Rae said a company could use “the employee” or “the role” instead of writing “he or she.” Another example he pointed to was describing bereavement leave as for the death of a parent or child instead of mother, father, son or daughter. 

“We hear from … members of the community across the board who are paying a very close eye to what companies are doing and how they’re engaging,” he said. “It isn’t just about changing the logo during Pride Month to a rainbow color; it’s can they see themselves reflected, can they see the values that they’re living reflected by a company.” 

“While many of them may seem like quite subtle changes folks can make, when members of the LGBTQ community see those, they recognize those and can quickly see that this is a company that’s living the values that we’re looking for,” said Rae. 

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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