'What keeps people still in the closet at work is mostly fear'
Although more people identify as LGBTQ+ than ever before, many are struggling to come out at work.
A recent report from Pride at Work Canada revealed that more than 50 per cent of LGBTQ+ Canadians aren’t comfortable being out in their workplaces. That phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Canada: surveys have shown that 46 per cent of LGBTQ+ Americans, 35 per cent of LGBTQ+ Britons, and 68 per cent of LGBTQ+ Australians are partially or fully closeted on the job. In China, a stunning 95 per cent of LGBTQ+ people aren’t out at work.
“What keeps people still in the closet at work is mostly fear,” says Scott Dobroski, vice-president of global corporate communications for Indeed. “When we look at what’s really under the hood of this fear, we know that it’s fear of losing one’s job, not receiving equal pay for equal work, not receiving the same career growth opportunities, or not being supported in the same way as others.”
LGBTQ+ workers may have reason to be concerned. A 2015 survey from GLAAD found that 40 per cent of queer people and 90 per cent of trans people have experienced some form of mistreatment at work due to their identities. Although that survey was conducted before a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that anti-LGBTQ+ employment discrimination is illegal, those forms of bias persist.
A 2019 survey from the European Union — where nearly all member countries have inclusive non-discrimination laws in place — revealed that 21 per cent of LGBTQ+ people had been discriminated against at work, of which 36 per cent identify as trans.
Here are six ways business leaders can help create workplaces where all employees can feel encouraged to be their truest selves without fear:
Encourage LGBTQ+ employees to come out at their own pace
Coming out may not be for everyone. A global survey from the Yale School of Public Health in 2019 found that 83 per cent of LGBTQ+ respondents around the world weren’t open about their identities with some of the most important people in their lives, including their parents, close friends and coworkers.
The reasons LGBTQ+ people choose to remain in the closet are complex. But key factors may have to do with the political climate of their surrounding community and the religious beliefs of their family members. Even in 2022, coming out remains dangerous for many: homosexuality is still criminalized in nearly 70 countries.
With those realities in mind, LGBTQ+ employees shouldn’t feel pressured or obligated to come out in the workplace. Just as their coworkers aren’t required to share information about their personal lives, LGBTQ+ employees have the right to withhold information about their identity.
The decision may not merely be a matter of comfort, but also necessity: More than one-quarter of workers (30 per cent) have been fired or denied employment for being LGBTQ+, according to a 2019 Williams Institute report.
Educate yourself and other employees at your company
LGBTQ+ people are often expected to educate others about how to treat them with basic respect and dignity, and this includes during the coming-out process. Coming out can mean sharing pronouns and new names or correcting people when they get it wrong, and that work can be exhausting. It should be considered incumbent upon all employees to make themselves and others knowledgeable about LGBTQ+ issues.
An easy way to further that necessary education is through inclusion seminars and workshops, which can be held concurrently with annual sexual harassment training. LGBTQ+ organizations like Pride at Work Canada, Out and Equal in the U.S and Stonewall in the U.K. are available to partner with employers to ensure their presentations are accurate, informed and up to date.
Many workplaces help educate their employees by providing guides that instruct them on correct terminology and prevent assumptions about others’ identities. To ensure they are walking the walk, business leaders should consider reviewing their own internal policies and documents to ensure they aren’t using language that marginalizes LGBTQ+ workers. For example, a parental leave policy referring solely to “mothers” and “fathers” neglects to recognize that non-binary people may also need time off to be caregivers.
Create and publicize comprehensive policies protecting LGBTQ+ workers
LGBTQ+ workers generally feel safest to be out when they work at companies they know will protect them from being targeted for who they are, and employers should make sure that their non-discrimination policies clearly spell that out. A template created by the Anti-Violence Project offers non-discrimination language that workplaces can build upon and that also forbids acts of bias on the basis of characteristics like race, sex, disability, age and national origin.
Non-discrimination bylaws should spell out best practices and general expectations of behaviour, and be made easily accessible so employees and members of the general public can review them. Companies should also lay out direct consequences for violating these policies in the form of disciplinary action, mediation or cultural competency training.
Research shows that LGBTQ+ workers often stay in the closet because they’re worried that their workplaces won’t follow through on their commitments to inclusion: In a 2018 Human Rights Campaign (HRC) survey, 13 per cent of LGBTQ+ respondents said they wouldn’t report discrimination for fear of facing retaliation from employers. To ensure a healthy, productive working environment, it’s up to management to ensure all employees feel comfortable coming forward about mistreatment they might experience.
Make it easier for trans and non-binary workers to transition on the job
It’s easier for LGBTQ+ people to come out on the job when they can see a path forward in the workplace. But for trans and non-binary people, the ability to transition on the job often hinges upon having procedures to ensure their identities will be respected. Allowing employees to share their pronouns in their e-mail signatures or prior to all-staff meetings is a start, but good internal guidelines go much further.
Per the Transgender Law Center’s own model policy, obligations include creating a simple process for trans employees to update their names and gender markers in company databases, allowing workers to dress in accordance with their lived gender, and ensuring that trans people are able to use the restroom that most closely matches their identity at work. Employees should be referred to by the names they use in their daily lives, regardless of what is listed on their legal documentation.
Company insurance plans and health care packages should also recognize that trans workers may need time off related to medically transitioning. Employees seeking hormone replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgery should be permitted a flexible work schedule to attend appointments with professionals, as receiving transition health care can be a years-long process that often occurs piecemeal.
Just 25 per cent of respondents to a 2015 survey from the National Center for Trans Equality said they had begun the process of surgically transitioning, often due to lacking inclusive health coverage or being unable to take medical leave. According to the same survey, almost all wished to do so at some point.
Ensure that LGBTQ+ employees are able to see people like them in the workplace
As an LGBTQ+ person, you can’t be what you can’t see. That goes for the workplace, too: LGBTQ+ employees may be more likely to fear coming out if they can’t see someone with their identity in a leadership position at their company or even in the cubicles around them. Unfortunately, that’s the case in many workplaces. In HRC’s 2018 survey, half of cisgender, heterosexual respondents said they didn’t work with a single openly LGBTQ+ person.
LGBTQ+ visibility in the workplace begins with ensuring that sexual and gender minorities have the resources to thrive. Business leaders should consider creating LGBTQ+ employee resource groups to facilitate networking and mentorship opportunities and conduct an internal audit of leadership positions to ensure marginalized workers aren’t facing barriers to advancement.
Eliminating invisible bias also begins with recruitment: While some companies may institute a blind hiring process by removing application information that speaks to demographic data, others may choose instead to put LGBTQ+ employees on the hiring committee to ensure others with their life experiences are able to get their feet in the door.
Show up for LGBTQ+ employees
LGBTQ+ workers often feel most supported in coming out in workplaces that they already know share their values. While celebrating National Coming Out Day or even Pride Month in June is a good start toward making employees feel accepted, the work of inclusion should not stop there.
There are several observances throughout the year that employers can highlight to show their support for various segments of an extraordinarily diverse community, including the International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31, Lesbian Visibility Day on April 26, Bisexual Awareness Week in mid-September, LGBTQ+ History Month in October, Intersex Awareness Day on October 26 and World AIDS Day on December 1.
Showing up is more than adding holidays to the company calendar, though. Workplaces can illustrate their support for LGBTQ+ colleagues by partnering with Canadian advocacy groups like Rainbow Railroad and Egale Canada or global organizations like the Human Dignity Trust. Large companies that engage in corporate giving might also consider reexamining their donations to ensure they aren’t supporting politicians or nonprofits that oppose the basic rights and dignity of the LGBTQ+ community.
Above all, remember that LGBTQ+ workers are listening to what you say and do. If they feel the people they work for don’t have their backs in a meaningful way, they’re likely to depart for another workplace where they can be their full selves.