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Coming out at work

Despite organisations stating that they are equal opportunities employers, it remains very difficult for the majority of the LGBT+ community to come out in the workplace.

Following Philip Schofield’s recent revelation that he is a gay man, via a statement made on his Instagram account and thereafter on live television, it is abundantly clear that it takes significant strength, courage and support for many LGBT+ people to either accept their own sexual orientation or gender identity, let alone come out to their colleagues at work. While a personal matter, for an LGBT+ person not to come out means that that person is essentially lying to themselves or pretending to others, which can prove stressful to the person(s) concerned. It has to be accepted, therefore, that the decision to come out is a very individual decision, that there is no one way of coming out, and that LGBT+ people, when making such a decision, can face very different challenges in their quest to do so and once they have. Some of course don’t have the luxury of coming out on their own terms but are outed against their will.

Research conducted by Stonewall back in 2018 found that 35% of LGBT+ people have ‘hidden’ their identity at work through fear of discrimination. Further still, that figure increased to 42% for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) LGBT+ staff and 51% for transgender staff. Unfortunately, LGBT+ people who are BAME, transgender and/or disabled are more likely to experience harassment and abuse in the workplace because of their sexuality or gender identity, and it is for this (and other personal reasons) that many LGBT+ people choose to go ‘back in the closet’ for the purposes of their chosen career or workplace. It has been suggested that 62% of graduates go back into the closet when they enter the job market. Two in five bisexual people are also not out to anyone at work.

If indeed someone from the LGBT+ community is comfortable to come out at work, it is also widely accepted that LGBT+ people have to come out time and time again, and often on a daily basis. They don’t just have to come out to their immediate work colleagues but have to repeat that experience to their wider colleagues in different departments, offices and countries, as well as to clients, customers and/or suppliers. This is also often in response to incorrect assumptions being made about them at the time, for example, when a straight colleague asks a gay man what his wife does for work. Again, these continuous disclosures require constant strength, courage and support.

While we do not have any updated figures, it would be hoped that the above figures would be lower today given developing social acceptance and wider acknowledgment and understanding of the LGBT+ community. There are clear benefits to all employers in creating a work environment in which a member of the LGBT+ community feels comfortable being out at work. Research undertaken by Stonewall suggests that where an LGBT+ person is comfortable coming out at work, that person is 71% more likely to be satisfied with the support that they receive from their manager compared to an LGBT+ person who is not comfortable being out to anyone. Similarly, that person is 65% more likely to be satisfied with their job security. Such satisfaction increases levels of engagement and productivity which, in turn, reduces levels of staff turnover and increases talent attraction. It is also worth noting that LGBT+ people are more likely than straight people to experience long term mental health problems, and therefore it is even more important that this group of people are supported at work, whether that is in relation to their coming out (should they wish to do so), or more generally in respect of all workplace opportunities. Being able to come out at work also increases emotional support from colleagues so therefore promoting available support to the LGBT+ community is well advised. Clear leadership and support from above in relation to all of this is therefore key.

Employers are therefore encouraged to make their workplaces further welcoming, open and inclusive to all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and of course any other protected characteristic. Having equal opportunities policies in place and developing zero-tolerance policies on homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic discrimination and harassment is clearly a step in the right direction, but this will only go someway towards making the LGBT+ community comfortable at work, and potentially comfortable for individuals to come out at work. Employers may also wish to consider the following:

  • Taking inclusivity in the workplace seriously. All employees, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity should be able to be themselves both in and out of the workplace, which in turn brings about significant business benefits;
  • Including sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status in equal opportunities, inclusion and parental leave policies. Having transition policies in place to support staff who are transgender is also important;
  • Creating a visible LGBT+ staff network, which includes allies of the LGBT+ community. Ideally, such a network should have a lead person as well as support from the employer’s leadership team (including a sponsor), and a clear purpose. Some employers choose to have LGBT+ Champions in place to support the purpose of the network throughout their business;
  • Demonstrating support for the LGBT+ community within your organisation, which may include the displaying of rainbow flags or other inclusive symbols;
  • Offering training programmes for the benefit of both the LGBT+ staff and all other employees to educate everyone on the issues that may affect the LGBT+ community while at work - to include a history of the LGBT+ movement and the evolving legal rights in this area, an understanding of the terminology common within the LGBT+ community, and what support is available, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Such training sessions could also be used to educate the wider workforce to challenge unconscious bias;
  • Recognising the various LGBT+ events throughout the calendar year, such as LGBT History Month, International Day Against Homophobia, Bi-Phobia and Transphobia, and the Pride celebrations. Organising and supporting internal and external events increases employee engagement.
  • Avoiding the use of non-inclusive, presumptuous, or discriminatory language, such as “that’s so gay”, or asking female staff about their husbands or male staff about their wives. Any such behaviour should be confronted or dealt with in an appropriate manner, and in line with existing equal opportunities and/or anti-discrimination and harassment policies.
  • Linking your LGBT+ staff network to any other internal staff networks that you may have. Learnings and opportunities can be shared for the wider benefit of your business.
  • Making it clear that there is support available to all individuals in their approach to their coming out, should they want it, and signposting LGBT+ staff to local charities or other support groups if required.

Above all, it must be remembered that all LGBT+ people, as with straight people, are different and that they do not all have the same experiences. Being aware of the common assumptions and challenges that LGBT+ people face in this respect is the first step to assist them, so as to allow them to have a choice about if, when and how they choose to come out at work.

Disclaimer

This document is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

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