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Many queer employees still don’t feel safe coming out at work
It’s easy to imagine that LGBTQ+ people have found broad acceptance in our world with more mainstream representation and the legalization of gay marriage. However, one in four LGBTQ+ employees are not out in the workplace.
I understand the fear that keeps people from coming out. I’ve been out as queer to some degree since I was a teenager while also gender non-conforming in the deep South, raised in a religious environment where I was not accepted for many years.
I’ve had 20 plus years to come to terms with people’s reactions to me and yet, there’s still always a moment of anxiety in my chest when I meet people, when I check out at the grocery store, when I walk into a new place, and when I’m introduced to a new coworker.
Because I’ve had slurs yelled at me while walking down the street. I’ve been threatened with physical violence, including at a friend’s wedding because I danced with the woman I was dating at the time.
I’ve heard coworkers say ignorant and hateful things about queer and trans people. I’ve been glared at, stared at, and felt uncomfortable in more spaces than I can count.
Social dynamics are not separate from workplace dynamics
On a larger scale, there are anti-gay and trans laws being pushed through state legislatures, bans on discussing LGBTQ+ issues in schools, the spectre of gay marriage being repealed by the Supreme Court, and a general backlash toward queer and trans people, as society simultanously moves toward wider acceptance.
This is a common dynamic during times of social change.
There are also many states without workplace protections for queer and trans people, including the state I live in. Which is all to point out that for employees, coming out at work can be terrifying, and those who choose to come out face the very real prospect of repercussions.
Of course, each workplace is a unique ecosystem of relational networks between employees. There are some workplaces where people feel safe coming out and are completely accepted. But that is not the reality for many employees.
It’s also extremely important to note that people who inhabit multiple marginalized identities will likely be thinking through a more complex calculus when deciding whether or not they feel safe coming out at work.
A woman of color already contending with sexism and racism in the workplace may understandably decide that coming out is not something they feel safe doing.
Barriers to coming out in the workplace
There are many polls and surveys illustrating the hardships queer and trans employees face in the workplace:
- 7 out of 10 LGBTQ+ people experience sexual harrassment at work
- Nearly half of LGBTQ+ employees have dealt with employment bias
- 50% of trans employees hide their identity at work due to fear of discrimination
These numbers are likely why only one in four LGBTQ+ employees are out at work, and what underpins the statistics are individual stories. It’s difficult to look at the numbers and fully understand what people experience when they don’t feel safe coming out to their coworkers.
The closet is a barrier to connection and belonging
One of my good friends, who works in social services, is not out at work.
They’ve often texted me to vent after overhearing coworkers saying horrible things about gay and trans people, commenting on news around LGBTQ+ issues in a negative way, and generally feeling free to be openly homophobic in the workplace—knowing there are no repercussions.
They were even directly told about someone not being hired for a high ranking position in their organization because that person was openly gay and non-gender conforming. The phrasing used was something like, “this person cannot represent our organization looking like that and being married to a woman.”
My friend told me, “Living in silence at work is awful. My partner sent me balloons and flowers for our anniversary and I had to lie about who they were from. I immediately went into panic mode and started trying to figure out how to handle it so no one would know they were from my partner. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells all the time.”
Of course they don’t feel safe coming out. Of course they don’t feel as if they fully belong in their organization. How can they feel a sense of belonging when they must hide that they have a partner? When they have to hide something fundamental to their sense of self?
It’s not surprising, in light of such stories, that LGBTQ+ employees are more likely to deal with mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and burnout. Queer and trans workers are also more likely to say their workplace environment has a negative impact on their mental health.
Coming out at work is essential to belonging
Millions of Americans identify as being on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. The number has doubled since the last major survey in 2012, with younger generations making up a large percentage of that increase. This means more and more employees will face the decision to come out at work.
It also means that companies and organizations have work to do to ensure their employees feel safe coming out.
I can’t emphasize this enough: employees must feel safe at work to come out and will never fully belong when that safety isn’t present.
Cultivating a culture of belonging in the workplace is fundamental to strengthening workplace relationships, catalyzing innovation, bettering engagement, and generally creating a more interesting and diverse organization.
Regarding attracting top talent, unsurprisingly, 58% of LGBTQ+ employees have passed up jobs for companies they felt were not inclusive, and 40% of all employees passed up jobs for the same reason.
Employees who are out in the workplace report higher levels of happiness with their careers. Additionally, LGBTQ+ women who are out at work are half as likely to leave their workplace in the next year than people who aren’t out.
How to support employees who choose to come out in the workplace
First of all, if an employee discusses coming out with a supervisor or People leader, it’s essential to hold space for them to discuss what they need, and acknowledge and validate how they’re feeling.
Secondly, ask the employee how they feel comfortable coming out. Every individual has their own preferences and style of handling the way their identity is presented to the world.
Here are a few potential coming out scenarios:
- The employee is planning on coming out individually to coworkers, and simply wants to know that a manager or HR leader has their back
- They want to email everyone on their team and give their manager a heads up first
- They don’t feel safe at all, and would like a leader to meet individually with team members to explain that the person is coming out
For the third option, the leader can provide specific ways for teammates to be supportive to the person coming out and express how important this is, along with any relevant information, such as how to talk about pronouns at work.
Let employees take the lead and follow up with support
For People leaders and managers who are unsure of how to handle an employee coming out, let the employee lead, and ask what kind of support they need. You can’t go wrong taking that route.
If needed, a gentle reminder can be given to team members about cultivating an inclusive company culture where everyone feels a sense of belonging.
Hopefully it won’t come to this, but some people may need a reminder about the company’s policies around discrimination and DEI. This is also a good time to allow the employees to ask any questions or talk through any concerns.
An excellent way to equip People leaders to navigate these conversations and coming out situations is to provide one-on-one leadership training. Spring Health’s Care Navigators are licensed clinicians who can guide leaders through scenarios, and provide tools to help them become allies in making queer and trans people feel safe enough to come out at work.
Again, how this is handled should be figured out in partnership with the person coming out.
Changing workplace culture so LGBTQ+ employees feel safe
Creating a workplace culture where queer employees feel safe to come out isn’t about a singular policy prescription or day of awareness. Each company's culture is unique. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
It’s a process that requires adaptation, feedback from employees, and letting LGBTQ+ employees lead. Here are some ways to get started:
- Include workplace protections for LGBTQ+ employees through non-discrimination policies. 28 states don’t have those, and in many places, it is legal to discriminate against queer and trans folks
- DEI training. Education and awareness are a huge part of any social change.
- Create an LGBTQ+ ERG, if you don’t have one already.
- Use gender neutral language for policies and healthcare benefits.
- Encourage a pronoun friendly culture. People leaders and supervisors/managers can be role models.
- Have policies and systems in place to address discrimination and follow up with employees who report discrimination. A sense of justice and fairness will make employees feel safer coming out.
- Provide fast access to mental health support through innovative EAPs
- Offer People leader and supervisor training
Sometimes, it’s the small things
Living as a gender non-conforming person means that I never know how I’ll be treated when I walk into a business or public place. Seeing a small rainbow flag that says “all are welcome here” is really powerful.
Joining a Zoom meeting and hearing everyone introduce themselves with their pronouns lets me know there’s the possibility of connection and safety. Seeing pronouns in email signatures tells me that person is more likely to accept me.
Commit to creating a culture of belonging
Change doesn’t happen all at once. It may take some time, feedback, and the deployment of various strategies.
But one thing I do know is that your employees will notice. Change is a process of accumulation—the more energy that’s poured into reshaping workplace culture, the more employees will feel safe coming out.
Read this blog next to go deeper into how to create an inclusive workplace, and discover the steps you need to begin.