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How to Support a LGBTQ Employee Coming Out in the Workplace

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Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock
  • Nearly half of 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.
  • The majority of U.S. states lack comprehensive legal protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, so it is important to create internal comprehensive protection policies to hire and retain top talent, regardless of sexual and gender identity.
  • Avoid using non-inclusive language and surprised or shocked 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 LGBT Pride Month, and creating a workplace LGBTQ network or support group.

While the workplace climate is now more accepting of LGBTQ employees than in years prior, there is still progress to be made. It is your responsibility as an employer to create an inclusive and diverse workplace that openly supports each of your employees. An important step in this process is learning how to properly support employees when they come out as LGBTQ.

A recent HRC Foundation study revealed that 46% of LGBTQ workers in the U.S. have not come out at work, largely due to the fear of social exclusion. Of those who are not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, 38% said it was because they feared being stereotyped, and 36% worried it would make co-workers uncomfortable.

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 increase employee satisfaction, as well as help to retain top talent. The HRC Foundation study revealed that 1 in 4 LGBTQ workers have stayed in a job primarily because the environment was very accepting of LGBTQ people. Conversely, 1 in 10 have left a job because the environment was not very accepting.

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

"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."

The legal protections for transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming employees are very limited at federal and state levels, with LGB protections not far ahead. The limited protections remain problematic for many Americans, as 28 states don't have explicit statewide laws to protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

"This means, in a majority of U.S. states, LGBTQ individuals can still be fired for their sexual orientation," said Samuel Johns, HR specialist and hiring manager at Resume Genius. "So, unless their workplace has a comprehensive LGBTQ policy in place, these individuals may live in fear of being outed and fired."

Johns said that creating a comprehensive LGBTQ policy can enable your organization to hire the most capable employees, regardless of sexual and gender identity. When you're creating a nondiscrimination policy, he recommends including sexual orientation and gender identity as protected statuses.

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 in place as well as inclusive management training. This will help ensure that every employee understands that workplace harassment based on a colleague's LGBTQ identity (or perceived identity) is unacceptable.

"We also recommend employers expand the definition of paid family leave to include the LGBTQ community, tax equalization, and offer same-sex benefits," said Price. "Employers should also make LGBTQ inclusion visible across the organization."

Scott said employers should review workplace forms and ensure they are inclusive by creating other self-identifying gender options for people who do not identify in binary terms. They can also have gender-neutral bathrooms and dress codes to allow employees to represent themselves in a way that comes naturally to them.

Johns said that employers and HR managers must tread a fine line when they suspect an employee is LGBTQ. Although it would be unprofessional, and potentially illegal, to outright ask about someone's sexuality or gender identity at work, you can support them by focusing on creating an LGBTQ-friendly work environment. You can foster an inclusive work environment through more than just protection policies.  

"[Creating an inclusive environment] would include publicizing your LGBTQ policies, hosting anti-discrimination workshops and celebrating events such as LGBT Pride Month," said Johns. "Larger companies could consider creating a workplace LGBTQ network or support group and appointing a diversity officer."

It is important for leaders to avoid non-inclusive and presumptuous language, like "That's so gay!" Scott said leaders also need to check their own assumptions to see if they hinder 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 different sexual orientations and people with different gender identities from their own to help them understand what it means to be in that identity," said Scott. "Making those one-to-one connections is really important to challenge their own assumptions."

According to Deborah Cohan, Ph.D., a 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 that you will not judge or mistreat them. They are counting on you to respond with dignity and respect. 

"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," said Cohan. 

Cohan 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," said Price. "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."

Keep in mind that coming out is a process, and it is the individual's decision whom they want to inform. Everyone deserves to have their privacy respected. Johns said it's always 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," said Johns.

In the end, Price said, employers and colleagues should continue to 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.

Skye Schooley

Skye Schooley is an Arizona native, based in New York City. After receiving a business communication degree from Arizona State University, she spent nearly three years living in four states and backpacking through 16 countries. During her travels, Skye began her blog, which you can find at www.skyeschooley.com. She finally settled down in the northeast, writing for Business.com and Business News Daily. She primarily contributes articles about business technology and the workplace, and reviews remote PC access software and collection agencies.