LGBTIQ+ employees who can be themselves at work are happier, finds research. To get to that point, employers need to prove the workplace is a safe place to be out.
When I was a teenager, I was asked by a colleague if I had a boyfriend. My response was ‘no’ and, after a pause, he asked, “Do you have a girlfriend? It’s ok if you do.”
I wasn’t out at work then, but for a brief moment I was given an opportunity to be authentically me and feel safe doing so.
Years later, at a different organisation, a senior employee casually used a gay slur in front of me. I wasn’t out at that organisation and, in that moment, I knew I likely never would be.
Members and allies of the LGBTIQ+ community know that coming out is not a one-off experience. It can happen over and over again as you meet new colleagues, work with new clients or start a new job.
According to Diversity Council Australia’s (DCA) 2018 Out at Work report, 74 per cent of LGBTIQ+ Australians believe it’s important to be out at work. However, only 32 per cent actually are out.
This gap is particularly stark for trans and gender-diverse employees. According to the report, 28 per cent of trans and gender-diverse employees aren’t out to anyone in their workplace, compared to four per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual employees.
The lead researcher on DCA’s report, Raymond Trau, says creating inclusive workplaces for LGBTIQ+ people isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes business sense.
“Our research found LGBTIQ+ employees who are out in the workplace are more innovative, work more effectively and provide better customer service than employees who are not out,” says Trau.
To come out at work, employees need to feel that their workplace is a safe place to be out. So how does HR create an environment where employees can be their authentic selves?
Coming from the top
Sam Turner CPHR, program director for Champions of Change and chair of The Aurora Group, says she has two coming out at work stories that stick in her mind.
“I was working in a very homogenous male dominated sector. And I was already an ‘other’ in my role by being the only woman in the room most of the time, so I didn’t really want ‘other’ myself any more.”
At the time, Turner was dating a colleague which added it’s own complexities to the situation.
“I came out to my boss and I told her who I was seeing. And there were a few others that knew but, was I out and proud? Definitely not.”
When Turner moved into a leadership position at a new organisation, she began to see coming out at work not just as a personal choice, but potentially as an obligation to set the tone for those in her team. What helped solidify her decision to come out was her own boss revealing her allyship.
“My boss was telling me about an engagement party she went to and she said, ‘Oh, Steve and Damian had this lovely party’. And that made me realise I can be honest here. My boss wasn’t going to judge me because she had friends in the community.”
According to Trau, leadership support is one of the biggest factors influencing an LGBTIQ+ employee’s decision to come out at work. Trau’s research found that employees with leaders who publicly support LGBTIQ+ issues were 50 per cent more likely to be out to everyone at work.
“Leadership support gives people a sense of assurance,” says Trau.
“When we say leader support, what we mean is when employees see a leader in the organisation – whether that’s their supervisor or an executive – publicly supporting LGBTIQ+ people or workers.”
Getting leaders on side to support LGBTIQ+ initiatives can be a tricky tightrope to walk. Trau says some leaders will jump at the chance to show they’re inclusive. But for those who have potentially conflicting values, or don’t understand the need for visible support, he suggests presenting a business case to executives.
“You can show them the DCA data which demonstrates that employees who feel supported to be out are happier and better workers. And you can extrapolate that, too. We know happier workers are more likely to stay in the organisation, so there will [likely] be less turnover,” says Trau.
Turner says making a case on the grounds of organisational benefits works best in organisations that don’t already have a mature D&I strategy. Another tactic could be using story telling.
“All it takes is a couple of really courageous people to tell their story about the difference that coming out has made to their lives or to their work. Being able to say, this is what it was like, but this is how I feel now, is incredibly powerful,” she says.
Use your networks
The aim of either of these approaches is to encourage LGBTIQ+ visibility. While coming from the top is ideal, there could be ways to elevate visibility from within employee groups.
Turner says all workplaces should create an employee pride network.
“Never underestimate the importance of employee networks. They create safe spaces and in our very disparate way of working at the moment that sense of community is so important to employees in general,” she says.
Employee pride networks can also help your organisation shape its D&I strategies. Turner suggests using expert resources, such as the Australian Workplace Equality Index, as a guide when developing employee pride networks.
“If you’ve got a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion in your organisation, then that should also be a genuine commitment to consulting and listening to your people. And these groups are such a great resource for that.”
However, Turner says these groups are most effective when working in tandem with HR.
“You should definitely have some kind of governance around employee networks that is fluid enough to provide freedom and empowerment, but tight enough that they fit with the organisational structure and strategy.”
HR’s influence can be extremely helpful to these groups, says Turner, as HR will have access to executives and the organisation’s decision-makers.
It’s ok not to come out
While it is important for employees to feel comfortable to come out at work both Turner and Trau say it shouldn’t be a requirement.
“Some people are really open and will tell you everything, but others are not like that. You need to be respectful of different levels of self disclosure,” says Turner.
“The key for HR professionals is asking do we have an accepting culture? Do employees have psychological safety? If someone wants to come out, will they feel like they can? If someone is holding back it should be because they want to, not because they can’t be out at work.”
It’s worth noting that not all LGBTIQ+ employees have the choice to not be out. In his research, Trau found some employees get outed by workplaces policies. One transgender respondent to the DCA survey said, “Give me a choice to NOT disclose – the reason HR knows I am a trans man is because it was policy for HR to process police checks when I started at my current workplace.”
It’s so important workplaces to have inclusive environments for LGBTIQ+ employees because, by their very existence, they’re carrying a heavier emotional load then many hetrosexual employees.
“LGBTIQ+ community does have a larger emotional tax. And we’ve come a long way, but there are still challenges. I think that’s why it’s so important for LGBTIQ+ employees to have that network at work that is going to support them,” says Turner.
Think your workplace nails LGBTIQ+ inclusion already? Consider nominating your organisation for AHRI’s 2021 Michael Kirby LGBTIQ+ Inclusion Award.