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Updated May 08, 2024

How to Support an LGBTQ+ Employee Coming Out in the Workplace

Building a supportive and inclusive environment is part of establishing a positive work environment for every employee.

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Skye Schooley, Business Operations Insider and Senior Lead Analyst
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About 50% of LGBTQ+ workers in the U.S. have not come out to their supervisor, and 26% are not out to any co-workers, according to a study by the Williams Institute. This is largely because employees who came out to at least some people at work were five times more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace. 

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

How to support employees who come out

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

According to Alasdair James Scott, a senior diversity, equity and inclusion consultant at GP Strategies Corp., 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 said. “The importance of a supportive social environment plays a huge role in a person’s coming-out decisions in an organization.”

Celebrate LGBTQ+ events.

Johns recommended publicizing your LGBTQ+ policies, hosting antidiscrimination workshops and celebrating Pride events. These are great ways to involve your entire organization in learning about and supporting each other.

Create LGBTQ+ networks.

Another great way to engage your employees in supporting one another and celebrating diversity is to create a network or support group. Although this may not apply 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.

Use inclusive 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.

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 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.

Treat LGBTQ+ employees with dignity and respect.

According to Deborah Cohan, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, if an employee comes out to you, 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.

Never “out” a colleague or employee.

“It is not OK to out a colleague [or employee] in the workplace without their permission,” said Mandy Price, co-founder and CEO of Kanarys, a platform that helps organizations build more inclusive work cultures. “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.

Create an inclusive and supportive workplace.

Ultimately, Price said, employers and colleagues should continuously 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,” Price said.

Benefits of creating a supportive environment for LGBTQ+ employees

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. 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 thus help you 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.

Protocols and policies to protect LGBTQ+ employees

There are both federal and state antidiscrimination laws to protect LGBTQ+ workers. It is important that you understand these laws to remain compliant. However, you also might 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 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.

FYIDid 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 the state level, especially for transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming employees. Many states don’t have laws that protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result, the federal antidiscrimination regulations are especially important.

Company policies

Just because federal and some state laws prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t mean all organizations abide by those laws. The 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,” Johns said. 

Creating a comprehensive LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination policy can enable your organization to hire the most capable employees, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, Johns said. When you create a nondiscrimination policy, include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected statuses, Johns recommended. [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: According to Price, 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 gender identity or sexual orientation (or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation) is unacceptable.
  • Expanded benefits policies: All employee benefits should 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 nonbinary employees.
  • 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.

Support your employees, and they’ll support you

Establishing an accepting and supportive workplace for LGBTQ+ employees shows you care about creating an inclusive environment for everyone on your team. It’s not just the right thing to do; it contributes to a happier, more productive workplace, and it can improve your recruitment and hiring efforts. When in doubt, discuss with your employees how you can support them at work and empower them to fulfill their roles to the best of their abilities.

Tejas Vemparala contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Skye Schooley, Business Operations Insider and Senior Lead Analyst
Skye Schooley is a business expert with a passion for all things human resources and digital marketing. She's spent 10 years working with clients on employee recruitment and customer acquisition, ensuring companies and small business owners are equipped with the information they need to find the right talent and market their services. In recent years, Schooley has largely focused on analyzing HR software products and other human resources solutions to lead businesses to the right tools for managing personnel responsibilities and maintaining strong company cultures. Schooley, who holds a degree in business communications, excels at breaking down complex topics into reader-friendly guides and enjoys interviewing business consultants for new insights. Her work has appeared in a variety of formats, including long-form videos, YouTube Shorts and newsletter segments.
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