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How to Support an LGBTQ Employee Coming Out in the Workplace

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
Staff writer
Business News Daily Staff
Updated Feb 09, 2022

Learn how to support LGBTQ employees and create an inclusive work environment.

  • Half of the LGBTQ workers in the U.S. have not revealed their sexual orientation or gender identity at work, largely due to the fear of social exclusion.
  • Avoid using non-inclusive language and surprised reactions when an employee comes out as LGBTQ.
  • Create an inclusive environment by publicizing your LGBTQ policies, hosting anti-discrimination workshops, celebrating events such as LGBTQ Pride Month, and creating a workplace LGBTQ network or support group.
  • This article is for business owners, managers and HR professionals who want to create a more inclusive workplace for LGBTQ employees.

A recent study by the Williams Institute revealed that 50% of LGBTQ workers in the U.S. have not come out to their supervisor and 26% are not out to any co-workers. This is largely attributable to the fact that employees who came out to at least some people at work were five times more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace. Many LGBTQ employees resort to changing their physical appearance, using a different bathroom, or not talking about their personal lives to avoid discrimination.

According to Alasdair James Scott, senior consultant at worldwide diversity and inclusion training consultancy PDT Global, coming out is a constant cost-benefit analysis for LGBTQ employees.

“Many LGBTQ people think a lack of support from colleagues and supervisors, and past experience of discrimination, are often preventing them revealing their authentic selves and identity at work,” Scott told Business News Daily. “The importance of a supportive social environment plays a huge role in a person’s coming-out decisions in an organization.”

While many workplace climates are now more accepting of LGBTQ employees, there is still progress to be made, and not every workplace is welcoming. It is your responsibility as an employer to create an inclusive and diverse workplace that openly supports each of your employees. Part of this process is learning how to support employees when they come out as LGBTQ.

Protocols and policies to protect LGBTQ employees

There are anti-discrimination laws at the federal and state level to protect LGBTQ workers. It is important that you understand these laws to remain compliant; however, you might also want to enforce inclusive policies of your own to create a safe and supportive workplace.

Federal policies

Official legal protections against discrimination for LGBTQ employees at the federal level finally came about on June 15, 2020, when the U.S. Supreme Court evaluated the case Bostock v. Clayton County. The Supreme Court affirmed that sex-based discrimination, as declared in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, includes employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status.

Did you know?Did you know? While it’s meant to enforce equality, Title VII doesn’t apply to private-sector or state or local government employers with fewer than 15 employees. It also does not apply to tribal nations.

State policies

Legal protections for LGBTQ employees are limited at state levels, especially for transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming employees. The limited protections remain a problem for many Americans, as 29 states don’t have explicit statewide laws to protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result, the federal anti-discrimination regulations are especially important.

Company policies

Just because federal and some state laws prohibit workplace discrimination against a person based on sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t mean all organizations abide by those laws. The sheer number of LGBTQ employees who don’t want to come out at work shows that every business needs to openly express its dedication to acceptance and inclusion.

“Unless their workplace has a comprehensive LGBTQ policy in place, many of these individuals may live in fear of being outed and fired,” said Samuel Johns, senior career counselor at Resume Genius.

Johns said that creating a comprehensive LGBTQ policy can enable your organization to hire the most capable employees, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. When you create a nondiscrimination policy, Johns recommends including sexual orientation and gender identity as protected statuses. [Read related article: Is Subconscious Bias Affecting Your Hiring Decisions?]

Review the following aspects of your business to make sure they are inclusive and nondiscriminatory.

  • Formal training: Mandy Price, co-founder and CEO of Kanarys Inc., a platform that helps organizations build more inclusive work cultures, said that employers should have formal LGBTQ awareness training programs in place as well as inclusive management training. This helps every employee understand that workplace harassment based on a colleague’s LGBTQ identity (or perceived identity) is unacceptable.
  • Expanded benefits policies: Employee benefits should be expanded to apply to LGBTQ employees. “We also recommend employers expand the definition of paid family leave to include the LGBTQ community, tax equalization, and offer same-sex benefits,” Price said. “Employers should also make LGBTQ inclusion visible across the organization.”
  • Forms and documents: Scott said employers should review workplace forms and ensure they are inclusive by creating self-identifying gender options for people who do not identify in binary terms.
  • Workplace policies: A great way to expand workplace inclusion and improve your company culture is to implement gender-neutral bathrooms and dress codes that allow employees to represent themselves in the ways that come naturally to them.

How to support employees who come out as LGBTQ

Business owners and HR managers must tread a fine line when an employee may identify as LGBTQ, Johns said. Although it would be unprofessional (and potentially illegal) to ask outright about someone’s sexuality or gender identity at work, you can support them by creating an LGBTQ-friendly work environment through more than just protection policies.

1. Celebrate LGBTQ events.

Johns recommends publicizing your LGBTQ policies, hosting anti-discrimination workshops, and celebrating events such as LGBTQ Pride Month. This is a great way to involve your entire organization in learning about and supporting each other.

2. Create LGBTQ networks.

Another great way to engage your employees in supporting each other and celebrating diversity is to create a network or support group. Although this may not be applicable to very small businesses, it can be beneficial for larger companies that want to support their employees. You could appoint a diversity officer or LGBTQ volunteers to help run the group.

3. Avoid non-inclusive or presumptuous language.

Leaders (and employees) should use diverse and inclusive communication. Scott said people also need to check their own assumptions that might unconsciously exclude the LGBTQ community. These include the assumption that everyone is straight, that everyone prefers binary pronouns, that coming out is a purely personal issue and not a workplace issue, and that a person must be LGBTQ because of how they look, sound, dress or behave. 

4. Foster one-on-one connections.

“Leaders should develop a working partnership with people of different sexual orientations and gender identities from their own to help them understand what it means to be in that identity,” Scott said. “Making those one-to-one connections is really important to challenge their own assumptions.”

You could also set up mentorships or employee lunches where team members can talk one-on-one. This is a great way to build colleague relationships and increase understanding.

TipTip: If you are interested in mentorship, check out our articles on how to find a mentor and how to be a good mentor.

5. Treat LGBTQ employees with dignity and respect.

According to Deborah Cohan, professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and author of Welcome to Wherever We Are, if an employee comes out to you as LGBTQ, they are trusting you not to judge or mistreat them. They are counting on you to respond respectfully. 

“Saying things like, ‘Wow, man, I never would have known’ or ‘I just figured you were married’ or ‘No way, are you kidding?’ are not supportive and respectful, and they reveal more about the person who says this,” Cohan said. 

She added that the best way to respond is by simply listening, remaining present, validating that employee, and remembering the courage it might have taken them to speak their truth.

6. Never ‘out’ a colleague or employee.

“It is not OK to out a colleague [or employee] in the workplace without their permission,” Price said. “If a colleague confides in you about their sexuality and gender identity, feel free to ask them how you can support them, whether it is in private or in public.”

Coming out is a process, and it is the individual’s decision whom to inform and when. Everyone deserves to have their privacy respected. It’s also worth remembering that no two employees are the same.

“One person may be very confident about their sexual or gender identity after coming out, whereas another may be less confident due to their prior experience and might benefit from support the company can provide, such as counseling or time off for them to adjust to life after coming out,” Johns said.

7. Create an inclusive and supportive workplace.

Ultimately, Price said, employers and colleagues should continually work toward being inclusive of anyone coming out in the workplace.

“The decision to come out is oftentimes a complex one, and in order for workplaces to be safe, diverse, and equitable, we must foster an environment of acceptance and understanding,” she said.

Benefits of creating a supportive environment

Some people believe that coming out is irrelevant in the workplace, but creating an inclusive environment that enables employees to be open about who they are can benefit your organization in several ways.

  • Recruitment: A supportive environment can help you attract top talent. People want to work in an inclusive environment where they feel safe. Gallup found that nearly 6% of U.S. adults identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or something other than straight or heterosexual – that’s a significant portion of the workforce. By creating an inclusive environment, you open your business up to attracting and hiring the best employees, instead of limiting yourself to a small pool of candidates.  
  • Employee retention: A supportive environment can increase employee satisfaction and retain top talent. A Human Rights Campaign Foundation study revealed that 1 in 4 LGBTQ workers have stayed in a job primarily because the environment was very accepting of LGBTQ people, while 1 in 10 have left a job because the environment was not very accepting. [If you have a high turnover rate, check out this related article: How to Manage and Improve Employee Retention]

  • Employee engagement and productivity: Giving your employees a space where they feel safe to express themselves openly can have a major impact on employee engagement and productivity. They’ll be able to connect freely with other employees and focus on their work instead of on hiding who they are.
  • Innovation: A supportive environment helps attract a diverse workforce, which is great for creativity and innovation. It is beneficial to have a diverse group of employees who solve problems in different ways. Their particular backgrounds can lend themselves to unique perspectives and ideas.

A supportive and diverse environment is beneficial for everyone involved. When employees are free to be their authentic selves, it reaches your bottom line.

Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
Business News Daily Staff
Skye Schooley is a staff writer at business.com and Business News Daily, where she has written more than 200 articles on B2B-focused topics including human resources operations, management leadership, and business technology. In addition to researching and analyzing products that help business owners launch and grow their business, Skye writes on topics aimed at building better professional culture, like protecting employee privacy, managing human capital, improving communication, and fostering workplace diversity and culture.