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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.