It’s easy for people to make assumptions about the experience of coming out at work, but a new report might broaden organisational perspectives.
There are certain myths about coming out in the workplace, such as that it’s no big deal in this day and age, that all LGBTIQ+ people have control over the experience, or that it has “nothing to do with work”. But in a new Harvard Business Review report, researchers Raymond Trau, Jane O’Leary and Cathy Brown beg to differ.
The study, which features 1614 LGBTIQ+ participants from the Australian workforce, found that 68 per cent of respondents are not out to everyone at work – the “everyone” being the key part here. HRMonline spoke to RMIT lecturer and assistant professor Raymond Trau, who shed some light on the new research and how organisations can foster a more inclusive workforce for LGBTIQ+ employees.
The prevailing myths
The idea that people just come out once is a pervasive myth, says Trau. But it’s actually an ongoing process. “Whether individuals change their job, or they have a new manager, join a new team or gain a new client – they need to evaluate whether to come out to these new people or not,” he says. Because of that LGBTIQ+ employees need to come out multiple times throughout their career.
Another common myth is that coming out has nothing to do with work. But the reality is, says Trau, people discuss social aspects of their life in the workplace – such as what they did on the weekend or their family – whether that be at lunch gatherings or events like Melbourne Cup celebrations. “Employees are forced to evaluate their decision to come out when people ask about their private life. It’s therefore often inevitable that people need to come out at work.”
The research also indicates that coming out actually has a big impact on many work related factors, such as job satisfaction (29 per cent for out employees versus 16 percent non-out employees), turnover and retention. Other employee factors that are impacted are job enthusiasm (40 per cent versus 26 per cent), and pride in their work (51 per cent versus 38 per cent).
“We found that the respondents who are out at work feel that their organisations are more inclusive, and they tend to have a positive attitude towards their team – which they consider to be more innovative and effective. Coming out is therefore not just beneficial for employees, but for the organisation as well.”
Another typical misconception is that coming out has to follow the same narrative, and be an announcement of sorts. LGBTIQ+ employees use different strategies in different situations to come out, says Trau.
“In some contexts, when it’s difficult for the employee to come out, people may use subtle methods. This could mean displaying a photo on their desk of their partner, or an indirect reference to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The experience of coming out is also different for lesbian, gay and bisexual employees than it is for transgender people. “For many trans people, it’s not just about telling others about their orientation. It’s about wanting others to see their gender identity as they see it,” says Trau.
The coming out decision in not just based on career risk. LGBTIQ+ employees appear to be more concerned about their workplace relationships with their colleagues, managers and clients. Only 19 per cent of respondents feared a risk to their career prospects by coming out, whereas 70 per cent were more worried about social exclusion.
“[With] every new client, I’m scared that it might be my last time walking the earth as I enter their house,” said one respondent to the study.
While it should be up to the individual to decide if and when they come out, and how they would like to manage it, sometimes the choice is taken from them. This happens more frequently to transgender individuals, who can be forced to come out due to workplace policies.
One transgender respondent put it this way: “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.”
“There could be a mismatch in their legal and preferred names, and the organisation’s IT system may not recognise the inconsistency,” says Trau. Trans people are also exposed when they go through a gender transition, which leaves them little choice but to come out.
Being more inclusive
Non-LGBTIQ+ people often assume that people who present as straight, are in fact straight, says Trau. “It’s easy to do because we live in a society where being straight is the default, but it can have consequences for LGBTIQ+ employees, by making them feel uncomfortable or abnormal.”
One of the best ways to make LGBTIQ+ individuals feel a part of an organisation is to not assume everyone is heterosexual, Trau advises. Policies and practices should reflect this approach. It can be as simple as making sure inclusive language is used at all times.
The report has further recommendations for organisations:
- Ensure that diversity and inclusion policies encompass sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex status
- Introduce forms and policies that have options for non-binary employees
- Develop transition policies for transgender or non binary employees
- Ensure parental policies that are inclusive of LGBTIQ+ employees
- Have some bathrooms that are gender-neutral
- Introduce a gender-neutral dress code.
Finally, LGBTIQ+ employees should not feel any pressure from the organisation, their colleagues or even other LGBTIQ+ workers to come out. It’s a decision that should always be up to the individual.
Help your employees better understand their role and responsibility in ensuring the workplace is free from discrimination, harassment and bullying, with AHRI’s elearning modules on equal employment opportunities.