Avoiding LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination: Should You Come Out at Work?
When I came out as bisexual to my family and friends, I hoped it would be the last time I had that awkward conversation. Then I graduated college and moved from my liberal hometown of Boston, Massachusetts to Cleveland, Ohio, where I started my first real job. I soon found myself googling the question: “Should I come out at work?”
So, do you take your chances? Or should you avoid that uncomfortable ‘coming out at work’ email altogether? In a perfect world, you should never be judged for who you are. Unfortunately, that’s often not the reality for LGBTQ employees, even in the 21st century.
Here’s our ultimate guide to coming out at work. It includes how to tell when it’s safe to come out at work, what LGBTQ workplace protections are currently in place, and how to deal with LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace.
LGBTQ Workplace Facts
Whether you’re a member of the LGBTQ community or an ally of your LGBTQ coworkers, here’s what you need to know about being LGBTQ in the workplace.
LGBTQ — sometimes written as LGBTQIA or LGBTQ+ — stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer.” You probably know what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. But what does it mean to be queer?
Once upon a time, “queer” used to be an insult directed at the LGBTQ community. These days, however, LGBTQ people have reclaimed the slur, and now use it to describe a variety of sexual identities and orientations outside the heterosexual norm.
For example, “queer” encompasses the “I” and “A” of LGBTQIA, which stand for “Intersex” (born with biological sex characteristics that aren’t traditionally associated with male or female bodies) and “Asexual” (someone who experiences little to no sexual attraction). The “plus” in LGBTQ+ encompasses all the other diverse gender identities that exist outside of heteronormativity, such as nonbinary and genderqueer. The New York Times periodically updates a helpful article with the growing list of the ‘ABCs of LGBTQIA+.’
No matter which letter of the acronym represents you, we can all agree that the LGBTQ community faces a unique group of challenges — particularly at work. While 63% of Americans believe LGBTQ people should be protected from workplace discrimination, more than 40% of LGBTQ people report experiencing employment discrimination or harassment. For transgender folk, that percentage sadly rises to more than 90%!
These statistics have a measurable impact on how many LGBTQ people come out at work. As much as 48% of college-educated LGBTQ people are still “in the closet” at work, citing reasons ranging from fear of being fired, to fear of being judged for their sexuality, rather than their job performance. The answer to the question “Should you come out at work?” is more complicated than it initially seems.
LGBTQ Workplace Protections
Before deciding whether or not to come out at work, you should understand the LGBTQ workplace protections available in the United States.
At the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces laws preventing discrimination against employees (or potential employees) based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Still, these laws are not applied consistently across state borders. Federal legislation like the Equality Act would change this, but Congress has yet to pass it. The current laws also have problematic loopholes: employers can fire someone for their sexual orientation and claim they did so for a completely different reason.
Workplace protections at the state level are mostly disappointing and short-sighted.
To familiarize yourself with LGBTQ workplace protections in your state, visit the Movement Advancement Project’s Non-Discrimination Laws database. You should also consider the LGBTQ workplace protections implemented by your employer. Search your employee handbook for your company’s non-discrimination statement, and note whether or not they specifically name “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” in their written policy. If you are in the market for a new job, you should also consider searching for openings from employers who are proven to be LGBTQ-friendly.
After considering the LGBTQ workplace protections available to you, you may still be wondering about the pros and cons of coming out at work.
The Pros: Why Come Out at Work
You may not think your sexual orientation matters at work. Still, don’t you deserve to be your most authentic self in every area of your life — especially when you’re spending as much as ⅓ of it at work?
Coming out allows you to be honest with your coworkers so you can make genuine connections in the workplace. These relationships could come in handy later in your career. You never know if bonding with another coworker could lead to a recommendation or job opportunity down the road!
There are also business benefits associated with openly-LGBTQ employees. Studies show that they are happier and more productive than those who hide their identities. It’s no surprise that people do their best work when they are comfortable, and these productivity gains positively impact the entire workforce.
On the flip side, research suggests that LGBTQ employees who spend a considerable amount of time and energy hiding their identities in the workplace experience higher levels of stress and have more health complaints. So, coming out could make you healthier, happier, and more productive — reducing costs to your employer and increasing your job satisfaction. That is a recipe for flourishing in your role and advancing your career!
If you decide to come out at work, you may be able to access LGBTQ employee groups and other opportunities that aren’t currently available. Ask your HR department if such resources are available to you and other LGBTQ employees. If they aren’t yet in place, you may even help establish them!
The Cons: Why Not Come Out at Work
Despite the benefits, some people choose not to come out at work for a myriad of reasons. You’ve already seen the high instances of employment discrimination or harassment facing LGBT workers. Research also shows there is a large income-gap between LGBT workers and their heterosexual counterparts.
If you work in a conservative or male-dominated field (think: law or medicine), you may fear your career will suffer as a result of your decision to come out at work. Before deciding to come out in such an environment, consider your office culture and whether you know any other LGBTQ employees at work. How did your workplace react to their decision to come out? How do your colleagues talk about LGBTQ issues in the breakroom? These casual barometers can help you determine whether or not you should come out at work.
If you’re still unsure, you can also chat confidentially with a therapist, trusted friend or family member, or consult with your HR department to weigh the pros and cons. The Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index can also help you determine whether your workplace is LGBTQ-friendly enough to consider coming out.
In the event you face LGBTQ workplace discrimination, you should always know who to contact. File a complaint with HR or the EEOC, and seek legal advice if you feel you have been mistreated based on your gender identity or sexual orientation.
How to Come Out at Work
So, you’ve decided to come out at work. Now what?
Don’t come out at work without first establishing a plan of action. Take cues from your coworkers: how do they react when you bring up LGBTQ issues? Remember that the more casual and open you are about your identity, the more likely your colleagues are to do the same.
You do not necessarily need to make a formal announcement or set up a meeting with your boss. Instead of springing to write that ‘out and proud’ email, try putting an LGBTQ sticker on your work laptop or inviting your partner to visit you at work. Once you see how your coworkers react to these small steps, it may be time to address your sexuality more directly. If you’re close to a particular coworker, try having an intimate conversation with them before telling the rest of your office about your identity.
Ultimately, your LGBTQ identity is just one part of who you are. And you are the one in control of how much you feel comfortable sharing with your coworkers.
Visit our workplace diversity hub for further reading relating to current challenges faced by women and people of color, wage gaps, successful inclusion strategies, diversity in corporate and government leadership, effective talent acquisition and diversity programs, and how artificial intelligence affects diversity outcomes.