Out and Open at Work with Joe Forzano
Joe Forzano is a Technical Lead and Engineering Manager at CBRE Build, where he creates products that help plan and visualize commercial real estate spaces. Joe also has a passion for all things queer in the workplace, leading CBRE's tri-state region of the LGBTQ&A employee resource group and co-creating CBRE Build's Diversity and Inclusion Committee. In his free time, Joe is a proud member of Gotham Volleyball, New York City's largest gay sports organization, and the co-director of LaGuardian Angels, an all-queer all-male dance ensemble.
Being an LGBTQ person in the workplace is complicated and it can be hard to know if the office is a space where you can be fully yourself. Joe Forzano has worked in environments all across the spectrum. He took the time to talk to BUILT BY GIRLS about being out in the workplace and how everyone—straight, gay, somewhere in between can make work feel like an inclusive space for any person.
BUILT BY GIRLS: Can you tell us about how you ended up starting an Employee Resource Group (ERG) at your company?
Joe Forzano: Sure. I work at CBRE, which is a very large commercial real estate firm. But more specifically, I work in CBRE Build, which is a smaller office responsible for building technology for different parts of commercial real estate.
So in terms of the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) stuff that I do, it's kind of has two sides to it. They did having existing national ERG and I took up the helm as the lead of the tri-state region.
Then within my own office, I was part of the group that a D&I committee to focus on retention, recruiting, and on-boarding, and diversity inclusion efforts for our small office for CBRE Build.
BBG: What would you say constitutes, an inclusive workspace? What does that look like for you?
JF: That's a very large challenging question... But I think the biggest thing is that there's always work to be done. And so establishing constant work and trying to improve in that area for me signifies an inclusive workplace. No workplace is going to necessarily always be completely inclusive of everyone, because there's so much work. But the fact that now we have a Diversity and Inclusion committee that has a charter about the things that we're going to focus on, and how we're going to continually try to build an inclusive space so that we retain our talent, and that we can attract new talent. And make sure everyone feels included is I think, the best thing that we can have as a constant, you know? So someone that's committed to actually doing the work as opposed to you know, having a pride something or other.
BBG: What advice do you have for someone who's newly hired or a junior team member who wants to make the workplace more inclusive?
JF: Before I was in more of a managerial spot, I put on a company wide discussion/lecture about what it means to be active ally. It was a lot of smaller steps of building a case to explain to leadership why I thought this was important, and why I think it would be beneficial to the company and to them. I think a lot of times leadership is in a place where they want to do stuff, but don't necessarily know what to do.
BBG: You said you put on like to talk about how to be an active ally. What's your advice for straight people who want to help?
JF: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the main points of that presentation I gave was the difference between being passive and being active. If you do care about these things, and you want to show that, we have to not just let all of the diverse population be fighting for these things themselves. Make sure that you take a step to be active, and finding what skills you have that you can bring to the table.
If you want to help, you can come to ERG things (meetings/events), know that you're a guest, and offer the things that you can do to actually take action. And just show that you support.
But look, I think making them understand that a visible show of support was so important. We did a little thing that's really, really small, but I got these little rainbow flag and trans flag enamel pins off Etsy, and just said “hey, everyone, this is a real subtle way you can acknowledge [this community].”
BBG: What would you say to someone, like a young person just starting out, who might not feel like they're in an inclusive space or that they can't come out at work.
JF: That's tough. My first job was at a very conservative private equity firm. And it's hard, I think, to give advice, because I just spent all of my energy trying to leave.
And I don't love that. I was young too, and I didn't feel competent to try to really make a lot of positive change at that place and it was too overwhelming. And because I'm in tech, I have the kind of blessing I was able to change jobs.
Now as I've gotten older, I've been more comfortable. Once I gained confidence in myself, and was really proud of myself — which I think takes a lot of time — I made a conscious effort to try to push myself to be as out at work as I could.
I made sure to talk about my boyfriend — people like to talk about dating at lunch. I got to the point where when we had an ugly sweater competition, and I made a dress out of a holiday blanket, and just went full out. Because at the end of the day, even though those situations are really uncomfortable sometimes for me, I kind of fake it till I make it. And one of the girls in our office said that because of my displays of my own confidence, she finally felt comfortable to come out at work.
So it's not exactly the best advice for someone that doesn't feel comfortable, but hope that if you can push through it and slowly show yourself at work, it actually helps other people show themselves, too. And you start building an inclusive environment slowly but surely.
BBG: Definitely, you don't have to come to work in like Lena Waithe in a pride cape. You can you can just like, maybe offhand mention your partner or whatever feels right. I'm curious if you agree with this. I think it's also important to know your boundaries. And if you don't feel safe in a space, like, that’s OK, too. You don't always have to be an out and proud advocate for the whole queer community if you're not in that space, or if you just don't have like the emotional or mental capacity or energy.
JF: Oh, for sure. I mean, you're catching me on a day where I'm like, running out of mental capacity to be the D&I champion. So I think it's really important to be aware of your capacity. If you can, invest in a therapist, because it's how you get through it, to be honest.
BBG: I think queer people, we just reach that point of burnout so much quicker, because sometimes it just takes so much more energy to be out in the working world. Do you have any advice for people to recharge their batteries?
JF: I think the most basic thing and it took me a long time to feel okay with this, but understanding that mental health day isn't fake. And that using a sick day to do other self care outside of work, is really, really valid.
As we built our new office, we made sure to build a wellness room. So there's a space to go that you can lock a door, and take some space.
But the main thing of understanding that taking care of your mental health is a valid excuse to take time off of work. Talk to your manager about needing to take time and it's a big red flag if a company doesn't understand that value or doesn't have resources for that. It might not be a good fit because, like you said, as queer people, we have got a lot more to deal with.
Understand you do have limits and it's okay to take a rest from the ongoing fight and allow yourself to breathe, and not be a champion for every single person in the office.