Coming Out at Work: The Barriers and the Benefits

There is sometimes a perception that, in 2022, coming out is no longer a “big deal.” Pride is now a global celebration each June, and the LGBTQIA+ community has seen increasing representation in mainstream culture. 

While we have made huge strides in LGBTQIA+ visibility over the last few decades, some areas are still tricky for LGBTQIA+ people to navigate — and the workplace is often one of them. 

Although many countries prohibit employment discrimination based on gender and sexuality, some LGBTQIA+ employees still struggle with the decision to come out at work. At the same time, research shows that people who are out in the workplace are happier and more satisfied with their jobs. 

So what is preventing some LGBTQIA+ employees from enjoying the benefits of being out in their jobs? And how can employers support and uplift LGBTQIA+ staff not just during Pride Month, but all year round?

The barriers to being out in the workplace 

Employment discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people can begin with the job application itself. In the US, employers are more likely to look unfavorably on resumés from visibly out candidates. Over 40% of LGBTQIA+ workers say they have been treated unfairly at work, including being fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Many successful job candidates go on to encounter prejudice and ignorance in the office. In 2019, 21% of LGBTQIA+ Europeans reported experiencing workplace discrimination. These figures jump considerably among transgender people — 90% reported experiencing harassment at work or hiding their identities to avoid it.

According to a 2018 Human Rights Campaign report, 46% of LGBTQIA+ employees in the United States say they’re closeted in their professional lives. The main reasons for this included the possibility of being stereotyped, making other employees uncomfortable, and losing their connections with coworkers.

All of this contributes to LGBTQIA+ people feeling isolated, uncomfortable, and unable to fully contribute at work.

The benefits of being out at work

There is no doubt that feeling unable to be yourself impacts how you view your workplace and the job you do. According to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, LGBTQIA+ employees “who are out flourish at work, while those who are in the closet languish or leave.” 52% of closeted employees feel stalled in their careers, compared to 36% of those who are out.

Workers who are out are significantly more satisfied with their jobs, enthusiastic about their roles, and proud of their work. In general, LGBTQIA+ people who are out experience increased emotional and physical well-being — and for transgender people, gender-affirming care can be life-saving.

That’s not to mention the sense of community that comes from being open with your colleagues. LGBTQIA+ allies play a huge role in forming this open community — around 24% of LGBTQIA+ workers attribute their decision to come out professionally to the support of workplace allies

Creating a workplace that is welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people benefits all staff members in turn. Companies with inclusive policies see an increase in employee engagement, retention, and morale.

What employers can do to support LGBTQIA+ staff

It’s a myth that LGBTQIA+ employees come out just once at work — it happens over and over again with each new colleague, manager, or client. Here’s how organizations can make the process easier for their LGBTQIA+ employees:

  • Create policies for inclusion: Include LGBTQIA+ employees in inclusion and anti-discrimination policies, and ensure they are represented in other policies like parental leave, adoption, and pension benefits.
  • Actively communicate these policies: Make it very clear that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated. Model respect for employees’ identities and use inclusive language.
  • Build support networks for employees: Network groups can transform LGBTQIA+ people’s experience at work. Take Wrike as an example — Wrike With Pride is an employee resource community for LGBTQIA+ Wrikers and allies to meet, chat, and support each other. As four Wrike employees explain in this article, Wrike With Pride helped them feel immediately connected to the LGBTQIA+ community at the company.
  • Lead from a place of compassion: No one will get it right 100% of the time. Consider “calling in” instead of “calling out” — the latter assumes all harmful comments are malicious, while the former encourages conversation and changes in behavior.
  • Encourage allyship: It shouldn’t be up to LGBTQIA+ employees alone to champion inclusion. Encourage all employees to show their support, whether that’s by displaying their pronouns in their Slack profiles or attending Pride events as allies. This shows that inclusion is something everyone can act on — and makes it easier for employees who aren’t ready to come out at work.

Coming out at work can be nerve-racking, but the rewards range from increased job satisfaction to an all-important sense of community. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, and not everyone will feel safe or comfortable coming out at work. But in continuing to build inclusive workplaces where every employee can thrive, we create spaces where more and more LGBTQIA+ employees feel free to be themselves.

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