Can we talk about the fact that business travel still feels unsafe for 95% of LGBTQ people?

Around the world, safety is a different type of travel concern for many.
Around the world, safety is a different type of travel concern for many.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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“When will the prime minister speak?” the business partner asked my coworker who was sitting to my right.

I was on a work trip, planning an important event. My colleague and I had traveled to the new destination—a Caribbean island—to strategize in person with the airport director and other stakeholders. The event was the inauguration of a new destination for the airline, and I was leading the communications team.

Important people, like the prime minister of the country, would be in attendance, so the business partner’s question was a significant one.

Only, the partner was addressing my colleague. Who was junior to me.

I was running the event and I was the one making decisions about the run of show, including when the prime minister would speak. The partner (a man, for context) knew that, because we had been on calls prior to meeting in person, during which roles were clearly defined.

Throughout the meeting, the partner would go on to address only my male colleague for business matters. When the three of us convened for dinner later that evening, the pattern continued. He slapped my colleague on the back and laughed heartily, made jokes about “us men,” and didn’t make eye contact with me. That trend lasted for the two days we were on the island. To make matters worse, there were no less than three instances where other men we encountered—the hotel concierge, the tourism board marketing manager, even the waiter—treated me like I was my junior male colleague’s assistant, addressing him rather than me, offering him the bill at the restaurant when I was the one with the corporate card, etc.

The icing on the misogynistic cake was a cab driver who sexually harassed me with inappropriate innuendos about how he could “show me a good time” on the island.

Suffice to say that I didn’t share with my business colleagues on that work trip that not only am I a woman, I am a lesbian.

I had a strong feeling that the news would only further marginalize me, and I had to work with—lead, in fact—this project for the next few months.

This is one of those unfortunate stories that, to a lot of us, sounds extreme at the same time that it feels completely mundane. Because if you’re a woman, you’ve likely experienced something similar on more than one occasion in the corporate world. There are the microaggressions, the exclusion, the outright harassment. Maybe, like me, you live in New York City where equality and diversity are a bit more normalized, but you travel for work to places where it feels more like 1989 or 1954 for women and LGBTQ people.

The numbers support my experience. A study from corporate travel management firm SAP Concur shows that more than three in four of the female business travelers surveyed in global markets have experienced harassment while traveling, and half of women have at some point changed their travel plans because of safety concerns.

The picture looks even bleaker for LGBTQ business travelers. Nearly all LGBTQ people who were surveyed for the report—95%—have hidden their sexual identity, most saying it was out of concerns for their safety. And 85% have changed their travel plans out of safety concerns, compared with just 53% of non-LGBTQ business travelers.

While the survey didn’t cover it, there are a whole host of other concerns, safety and other, to navigate if you’re a person of color, differently-abled, or inhabit any minority category in the place you’re traveling to.

So how can companies do a better job of protecting their employees when they travel to destinations that may be less inclusive or accepting?

“Our survey shows employees want more support and training from employers that show they care about their safety and individual needs while traveling on the job. Companies can and should take more proactive steps to ensure the safety of their travelers,” Kim Albrecht, SAP Concur’s CMO, told Quartz. 

According to Albrecht, who is a frequent traveler and advises hundreds of employees around the globe who also travel for work, she recommends companies can and should take note of the following recommendations:

  • Make an effort to prepare your employees in advance: Do they understand the legal, cultural, or even religious restrictions they may face at their destination?
  • Provide local destination guidance: What are the lodging, meeting, and transportation safety precautions in place, and how can they get help if they need it?
  • Offer emergency service resources: The U.S. Department of State and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (for example), and technology assistance in the form of apps and alerts are incredibly helpful while on a trip, like Uber’s emergency button, TripIt’s neighborhood safety scores and the U.S. Department of State’s automatic advisories for travelers.
  • Conduct routine behavioral safety trainings to give employees guidance around how to be situationally alert to surroundings and others at all times, and tips for protecting their person and information in a compromising situation.
  • Create a safe space for employees to report personal safety incidents to their organizations during or after their trip.

Your safety checklist

In addition to your company taking steps to ensure your safety, how can you as an employee protect yourself on a work trip?

Some takeaways from a paper Albrecht published last year along with former Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Kathy Leodler, titled “A safety checklist guide for female business travelers,” may help.

  • Be one step ahead:

When choosing accommodations, staying in a well-known and reputable hotel is generally safer than using unknown hotels. For female travelers, some hotels offer women-only floors, so don’t hesitate to ask before you book if that applies to you and if that’s a personal preference.

There are also travel agencies that cater specifically to minority travelers. The service Maiden Voyage, for example, offers a list of certified female-friendly hotels worldwide.

Consider booking your flight arrivals for daylight hours so you avoid arriving after dark, especially for international arrivals.

If you’re a US passport holder, the US Department of State is a great resource for travelers; you’ll find information for every country in the world including visa requirements, safety and security conditions, health and medical considerations, local laws and areas to avoid. It’s also wise to know the location of the closest US embassy or consulate at your destination. Check the option to enroll your trip so you can receive safety alerts and your embassy can contact you in the event of an emergency. Non-US passport holders should take time ahead of traveling to see if there are similar resources at your embassy website.

Whether traveling domestically or internationally, always make copies of your passport ID page to make it easier to file a report and get a replacement if your passport is lost or stolen. Leave one copy with a trusted contact at home and carry one with you. Do the same with your trip itinerary in case your smartphone or device is lost or stolen.

  • Arrive at the hotel with an action plan:

When checking in to your hotel, ask the clerk to write your room number on a piece of paper or on the key sleeve, rather than saying it out loud. Also request a room near the stairs or elevator so you don’t have to walk through empty corridors at night, and don’t stay in a room on the first floor or near exit stairways since they are more accessible and prone to theft.

When you arrive to your room, check to make sure it has a peephole, deadbolt and working locks on the windows, adjoining door and balcony door. If there are any issues, request a new room that’s secure.

If there’s ever a knock on your room door, call reception to confirm the identity of anyone there, and if the door to your room is ever open or unlocked when you return, don’t enter. Go back to the front desk and inform them of the security issue.

  • Practice street smarts while out and about:

If you need to use your mobile phone in public, try to stand still with your back to a wall or window, since walking and talking will limit your awareness and make you an easier target. Keep your head up while walking, stand/walk confidently, never look lost, and don’t walk alone or visit an ATM at night. As always, follow your intuition: if you feel a bad vibe from somewhere or someone, listen to your gut instinct and remove yourself from the situation.

  • Don’t forget about cyber and social safety:

Avoid posting information about upcoming travel dates, and don’t publish your whereabouts in real-time online. You can share details after you are safely back home.

Notably, a lot of these guidelines are fairly basic when it comes to international travel—no matter who you are, where you’re coming from, or where you’re traveling to. But given the alarming rate of safety concerns among LGBTQ and women travelers, there’s not denying that we have persistent problem. Like any tool, a guideline is only useful if we use it.

International travel isn’t slowing down, especially as the global economy continues to develop, expand and change course. The only way to fix the problem is for companies to invest more and to more effectively consider the safety and protection of their employees, no matter where they come from, what they look like, or how they identify.