5 ways to create a safe workplace culture for LGBTQ employees

For National Coming Out Day, an HR leader shares his personal story and advice for colleagues.
By: | October 11, 2021

I was 21 when I came out of the closet for the first time. I was 24 when I went back in.

The day before my 25th birthday is one I’ll never forget. It was the first day of my new job, a great gig in corporate HR. During lunch with my new team, we were getting to know each other, finding out what movies we liked and where we grew up. Through the course of the conversation, one of my new co-workers asked if I had a girlfriend. It seems like a simple question, but the question ignited an array of questions for me as a gay man, which I needed to consider before answering:

“Will it be safe to come out? ”

“Will they accept me if I do?”

“Will it affect my job or career?”

I chose the safest action, answered “no” and redirected the conversation.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to stay (back) in the closet.

Author Brian McComak (Photo: Andreea B. Ballen Photography)

The following week, I met with my manager at the new job, who happened to be male and who casually mentioned his husband in our conversation. This simple statement immediately made me feel safer about being open about my sexual orientation. I shared with him that I was gay too but wasn’t sure if I could be out, be myself and be safe in this workplace. He reassured me that he had been out at the company for many years and also had a thriving career there, which continued to provide new opportunities. He told me about other leaders at the company who were out, including one member of the senior leadership team. This conversation allowed me to focus on the excitement about my new job and not worry that I, and potentially my work, would be rejected or judged just because of my sexual orientation.

As my career, and life, continued, I’ve learned that coming out isn’t a one-time event. It happens every day when I encounter someone new, and each time I have to decide if it’s safe to come out. Each situation requires revisiting those questions whether I’ll be safe and accepted. Talk about exhausting!

Why people don’t come out at work

My initial concerns for my safety and career aren’t unique, however. LGBTQ employees continue to fear the impact that sharing their story will have on their career, their job, their livelihood.

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In 2018, Human Rights Campaign issued its A Workplace Divided report, which included these sobering realities:

  • 46% of LGBTQ workers say they are closeted at work;
  • one in five LGBTQ workers report having been told or had co-workers imply that they should dress in a more feminine or masculine manner;
  • 53% of LGBTQ workers report hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people at least once in a while; and
  • 31% of LGBTQ workers say they have felt unhappy or depressed at work.

Without clear policies and an atmosphere that makes all employees feel safe, welcome and appreciated for who they are, the fear of coming out is ever-present. The energy LGBTQ people spend hiding, covering who they are, is wasted. Imagine where that energy could go if the fear were removed and they could bring their best self to work?

A recent study from the HRC Foundation found that a quarter of LGBTQ employees reported feeling distracted from their tasks when working in an unwelcome environment and 20% would stay home from work altogether to avoid the negativity. Additionally, 13% of the surveyed group would not report a discrimination complaint for fear of being fired.

See also: Why every part of HR needs to step up for LGBTQ employees

What happens when people feel free to identify as LGBTQ? A U.S. Chamber of Commerce report stated that 76% of companies that instituted inclusive practices saw increased employee engagement and a 53% improvement in employee retention. Out Now Consulting’s report, LGBT Diversity: Show Me The Business Case, makes a case for $9 billion in savings for the U.S. economy with more effective organizational diversity initiatives. Interestingly, a significant portion comes from healthcare savings: If people have less stress from their work, they stay healthier and more productive.

Creating an environment where LGBTQ employees can be themselves

So, how can your organization create an environment where LGBTQ employees feel safe to come out? It requires intentional, thoughtful action to architect an environment that celebrates all your employees for all that they are. Here are a few tangible steps you can take today:

1. Analyze your internal biases and how they affect your actions. What are your assumptions about the people around you? Do you assume that straight is the default? Or that LGBTQ people behave and dress in specific ways? These internalized biases are often expressed in how you say things and make choices that affect your team. By acknowledging that they exist, you can better make the decisions that build the environment you want to create. One way to combat these biases is by developing friendships and working relationships with people who have different sexual orientations and gender identities than you. Making those personal connections will help you better understand the joys and struggles that come with a particular identity and continue to challenge your internal bias.

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2. Be comprehensive when setting up a nondiscrimination policy, making sure to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected statuses. Be specific in how you expect your employees and management to treat each other and have a system in place that gives the option to file an anonymous complaint. When there are complaints, ensure that they are investigated and that appropriate actions are taken. Be transparent when incidents happen and communicate to the workforce what is going on. A safe environment is a transparent one.

Related: Rainbow logos aren’t enough to support LGBTQ workers

3. Review corporate communications to ensure inclusivity. What message are you communicating through your choice of words? Corporate communications can display as much bias as a personal conversation. Review public and internal communications and materials for terms that may be exclusive. Are there options for people who don’t identify in gender binary terms? Your public spaces are also an opportunity for inclusion. Going to the bathroom can seem like a fairly standard activity, and is for many, but it can be nerve-wracking for someone who is gender non-conforming. Having a gender-neutral restroom can make a real difference.

4. Train your leaders and employees in diversity and inclusion. Most people want to welcome everyone they meet and have a desire to treat others with respect, but they may not understand the best way to do it. Learning experiences that expose them to new ideas and expanded ways of thinking are essential to creating a safe space for all of your employees. Leaders must always set the example for their teams by their words and actions, even more so when it comes to inclusion. Ensure they have the tools they need to help their employees work together as a team, including specific awareness education on the LGBTQ community.

5. Make sure that people with protected statuses are celebrated in equal measure with other employees. As I recounted in my coming out story, having other LGBTQ employees visible made it easier to focus on my work. It’s much easier for people to visualize themselves succeeding at their jobs if they see people who look like them in leadership roles. Ensure that you have diverse representation at your company—at all levels, in your company materials, on your website and social media, in your marketing campaigns as well as in your products or services.

How should you react if a co-worker or employee decides to come out to you at work? First, they trust that you will treat them with dignity and respect. Honor that by listening and validating the courage it took to tell you. The decision to come out can be complex, but you can make that choice easier by creating a culture of acceptance and understanding. Thank them for trusting you and commit to supporting them. That moment of shared humanity, of two humans seeing each other, is meaningful and powerful.

Brian McComak is a diversity & inclusion consultant, speaker, author and facilitator with over 20 years of experience in D&I, HR, company culture, change management, internal communications and employee experience. He is the founder and CEO of Hummingbird Humanity, a consulting firm that cultivates and champions inclusive workplace cultures and human-centered leadership.

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