Posted by The Editors on May 9, 2011
Rondell Milton’s job wasn’t easy. As a consultant for a leading consulting firm, he spent 15 years jetting off to distant coasts and continents to deliver complex technology solutions for his clients. But the hardest part wasn’t the travel, the workload or the demanding hours. The hardest part was interacting with his coworkers—not because they were rude, difficult or incompetent, but because they always wanted to make small talk, and small talk was a big deal for Milton. He had to choose his words when he talked about his personal life, what he did during the weekend and with whom. “I’d always say something like ‘Oh I went out with this friend of mine,’ or ‘Me and a friend of mine hung out,’ so they wouldn’t know it was the same person,” says Milton, pausing to laugh. He felt if he told his coworkers the truth—that he was gay and that “friend of his” was actually his boyfriend—it could have a negative impact on his colleagues’ perception of him and his ability to do his job effectively. He didn’t want to be out of the closet if it would lead to being out of a job.
Eventually, Milton came out to a coworker, which led to him coming out to another and another until his closeted status was no more—and with little consequence on his career. “I thought it was going to be a bigger deal than it was.” But his story is one that plays out on a daily basis in American workplaces as gays, lesbians, and bisexuals try to negotiate the boundaries between their personal and professional lives.
There is a general trend toward increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in America. For example, a majority of Americans favor the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, which prevents openly gay personnel from serving. Attitudes toward gay marriage, or at the very least, legally similar civil unions, have also gotten more progressive.
Yet, coming out at work remains an anxiety inducing thought for many because of the unhurried adoption of inclusive policies by some companies, the conflicting state laws governing discrimination against gays and lesbians, and the varying levels of acceptance of homosexuality from region to region and company to company.
In fact, it’s still legal in 29 states to fire employees solely because they are gay or are perceived to be gay and there is no federal law that overrides a state’s decision whether to consider sexual orientation a protected status for the purpose of employment in the way race, gender, age and disability are protected.
Also, coming out in the workplace has the risk of making the employee a target of increased scrutiny of a supervisor who might not approve of gays and lesbians. It’s vitally important to consider the unique workplace culture to determine whether coming out is likely to create an uncomfortable working environment.
Even organizations that are inclusive to gays and lesbians on paper are composed of a host of individuals with differing values and perspectives. A nursing mom, for example, could breastfeed openly in one workplace, when at another she might be shunned for it. Coming out in the workplace can be such a tricky calculation for gays and lesbians because there are so many considerations that have little to do with the human resources department’s official stance on the issue. It’s an agonizing decision that can lead to negative consequences such as tense relationships with socially conservative coworkers or a “lavender ceiling” (the equivalent of the glass ceiling women often face in their careers).
The Upside of Coming Out
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) specializes in issues of being openly gay in the workplace. According to its website, coming out at work offers the opportunity for deeper, closer, and more trusting relationships with coworkers, as well as increased productivity and happiness at work. Howard Warner, a business analyst at Sprint, came out less than a year ago because of his happiness in his relationship. “I wanted my co-workers to know why I was so happy, why I was smiling all the time, why my attitude had changed so much. It was because I’m in a terrific relationship and I got tired of having to hide something I was so proud of.”
The reaction from his coworkers has been completely positive, and he feels like he’s being himself, what the HRC calls bringing “the whole self” to the workplace. He recalls a recent incident in which he spoke to a member of upper management about a person he thought would be a great fit for a job opening. “ ‘Is this your partner? I’ve heard about him,’ ” the manager said. “I felt like he was seeing the real me,” Warner says. “I’ve never felt more like I was part of the team than I did in that moment.”
In addition, being openly gay in the workplace gives employees the opportunity to take advantage of same-sex domestic partner benefits, which allow gays and lesbians to extend their insurance coverage to a same-sex partner the same way married couples can. More than half of the Fortune 500 companies offer such benefits to their employees.
What’s Your Workplace Climate?
Gauging the individual culture of the company is the most important part of determining whether the benefits of coming out are worth the risks. Doing homework before accepting a job offer is a good pre-emptive action. One source for finding gay-friendly employers is the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which outlines employers’ anti-discrimination policies and domestic partner benefits. In addition, employees should read the company manual and look for anti-discrimination policies: If they’re not outlined in the manual and the city doesn’t have anti-discrimination laws, gay employees will have limited protection from discrimination.
Though Howard Warner has been nothing but pleased with his decision to come out in his current job, he says he wouldn’t have made the same choice at his previous job. Although Warner’s former employer, a Fortune 500 technology company, offers domestic partner benefits and has multiple diversity initiatives in place in order to be inclusive of gays, Warner didn’t feel welcome there. “I felt almost like what was going on at the top wasn’t filtering down to the bottom. It seems like a very progressive company, but the people working there seemed like they were stuck in the past, and I definitely wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming out to them."
An efficient way of finding out the culture of the company is to see if it has a group for LGBT workers. Xerox, for example, has GALAXe, an organization that addresses LGBT issues. Joining such a group is a great way to interact with colleagues who can shed light on the best way to come out in the workplace.
And don’t forget to employ some common sense. Do your coworkers make homophobic comments without remorse or irony? How accepting of homosexuals is the regional culture? If you’re a gay worker in an all-male factory in the Bible Belt, you might want to be more cautious. On-the-fence gay employees should also observe how other minority groups are treated at their work. Do managers seem understanding of “non-traditional” lifestyles? Do they often gripe about Orthodox Jewish employees having to leave at sundown on Fridays?
How Should I Come Out at Work?
Riley Folds, the founder and director of Out For Work, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering LGBT college students entering the workforce, likens the decision to come out to coworkers to one’s decision to come out to friends and family. If a student is comfortably out of the closet in other aspects of life, it’s a natural next step to tell coworkers. If a student is still somewhat in the closet, there’s no rush to inform the office of his sexual preference.
Students who have determined to come out professionally should be direct from the start. Experience in LGBT clubs or organizations should be noted on a resume or brought up in an interview if it’s pertinent to the job (for instance, a former LGBT club secretary who is applying for an administrative position). However, it’s not unusual if sexual orientation doesn’t come up on a resume or during an interview because interviewers should be judging professional skills, not a candidate’s personal life.
Subtlety is key for an employee who wants to make it known to her coworkers that she’s a lesbian. Brian McNaught, an LGBT diversity consultant for Fortune 500 companies, says it’s best not to walk in with a bullhorn and announce, “Hi, I’m John and I’m gay.” He advises following the lead of heterosexual officemates. “Heterosexual people don’t come in and announce they are straight—they bring it up when it’s relevant.” This can be as basic as using pronouns that indicate a person’s sex when talking about a date, bringing a partner to the company holiday party, or sharing the gay market’s perspective on a product the company has just launched.
Although an individual’s sexual orientation can be worked into conversation with coworkers, the employee may want to be a little more direct when telling a manager. Michael Lamb, editor in chief of Echelon Magazine, a magazine for LGBT professionals, says an individual should inform his boss because he will by default be informing a manager he is gay when he signs up for domestic partner insurance benefits or needs a day off to tend to a sick loved one. “I think it’s personal to come out to coworkers, but it’s professional and financial to come out to your boss,” Lamb says.
In most cases, if an employee frankly states he’s gay without creating a spectacle, managers and employees will react in kind. On the first day of a previous job, Folds says, his boss joked around that some of Folds’ female coworkers were asking if he was single. “I knew I needed to say something after he made that comment, so the next morning I went into his office and just said, ‘You know, in reference to your comment yesterday, I just wanted to share that I’m gay.’ My boss seemed surprised and apologized. I think it was a learning experience for him as well as me.”