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Coming out at work, in context

Eliza Mills Nov 21, 2014

Coming out at work, in context

Eliza Mills Nov 21, 2014

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT rights organization, released its annual Corporate Equality Index which measures how Fortune 500 companies treat lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees in the workplace.

Things have changed a lot over the 10-plus years the group has released its annual report. Same sex marriage is now legal in more than thirty states, there are more rights for LGBT people in the workplace, and many big businesses have increased their protections for employees, introducing non-discrimination clauses, and partner benefits. This year, 366 Fortune 500 companies got a perfect score on the index, up from only 13 in 2002. 

Deena Fidas, director of Workplace Equality for the HRC, says the change is based in societal shifts and finances. “So many businesses have come to the realization that being an LGBT inclusive employer isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s actually smart business,” she says.

But despite new workplace protections and benefits, “still, a little over half of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in this country remain closeted on the job,” Fidas says, “and so quite literally people are getting married on the weekends and not talking about it come Monday morning.” 

In 29 states, there are still no legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Legal issues definitely come into play in the decision to be out at work, Fidas says “but it’s also the everyday environment.” HRC survey responses indicated that LGBT people who aren’t out at work feared that they’d make people uncomfortable. 

But staying closeted on the job may have some drawbacks, for LGBT and the companies they work for. Fidas says that people who aren’t out at work may be less engaged with their jobs and their colleagues, and less likely to stay with one employer. Not being out at work could also mean fewer opportunities to make friends, or find valuable mentorship. 

Even millennials, typically known for their openness about sexuality, aren’t always out at work. “We find that actually, many of the youngest workers are out to their friends and family, they’re out in their school environments, and yet they’re going back in the closet when they get their first jobs,” Fidas says.

For younger workers, the question to come out is a conundrum: they may feel they lack an established professional background, or be searching for a mentor, and want to keep their orientation private.

“Your mentor is somebody who you can confide in, you can talk about personal struggles,” Fidas says, “and this is where we get into a bit of a Catch-22.” The people who might most need guidance are often afraid to seek it out. One solution to this issue is something that many businesses are introducing: LGBT and allied affinity groups. “[They] provide a tremendously effective platform for young people to find a mentor,” Fidas says. 

Some LGBT people are not just out at work, but out on their resumes. Fidas says that some people choose to come out in a resume because they want to highlight leadership experience that involves an LGBT affiliated group. Others choose to come out on a resume, subtly or explicitly, as a way to communicate their expectations to a potential employer that they are completely accepted at work. 

A recent study from Princeton University shows that things are changing for people who do choose to come out in their resume. While past research indicated that mentioning an LGBT group resulted in hiring and salary discrimination, the latest from Princeton shows that for white men, there’s little to no impact, and for black men, coming out on a resume may actually result in more interviews and a higher starting salary. 

Still, there’s no single, simple solution. “Bias happens,” Fidas says, “whether it’s conscious or unconscious.”

A lot goes into the decision to come out and be out at work. Fidas says it isn’t the right choice for everyone, particularly if their workplace doesn’t have a nondiscrimination clause. “It’s a conversation,” she says.

Thanks to Sam Ritchie, online communications manager at The Innocence Project, Anne Marie Walen, oncology nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and Josie Simonis, post doctoral fellow in biology at the Lincoln Park Zoo, for their help with this piece.  

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