For many in the LGBTQ+ community, “coming out” is a big part of life.
The term “coming out” refers to the process that LGBTQ+ people go through to accept their identity and figure out how (and, in many cases, if) they will share their identity with the people around them. Although we used to think of “coming out” as a one-time event – for example, a teen might “come out” to their parents – we now understand that this isn’t the case.
Employers need to understand that coming out is something that LGBTQ+ people do on a regular basis. LGBTQ+ people decide every day how authentically they want to – or are safe to – present themselves to the world around them.
As employers, it’s our responsibility to provide employee support and ensure that each and every employee feels safe to be who they are. No one should have to hide their identity at work. Sadly, too many employees continue to feel unsafe coming out at work, despite federal legal protections.
On October 11th, we celebrate National Coming Out Day, when we honor everyone’s right to live authentically and openly. Here are some tips about what LGBTQ+ employees may want to consider when coming out at work, and how employers can help LGBTQ+ employees feel supported and safe to live authentically.
Things to consider when coming out at work
Coming out is a personal process that’s different for everyone. While coming out is something to celebrate for many, it can bring up traumatic memories for others. The risks associated with coming out also vary across individuals. Some people could feel like they’re risking their job by coming out at work, while for others, there’s no need to formally “come out” – it’s just about casually correcting people who make assumptions about your identity.
No matter what the coming out process looks like for you, it always requires bravery.
Coming out at work is a personal decision, and it’s 100% your choice to whom, and how much, you want to share about your sexual and/or gender identity. There is no right or wrong way to come out; some people might be completely open from the day they start a new job while others prefer to share only with their closest colleagues.
Depending on your workplace, it can feel like a challenge to come out at work. But coming out can also lessen the stress of having to hide who you are. Research shows that coming out at work increases job satisfaction, a sense of community, and the employee support you receive from colleagues.
There are some important questions and factors to consider when navigating this process.
- First of all, know that it is against federal law for your employer to discriminate against you based on your sexual orientation or gender. This was instated by the Federal Supreme Court in the year 2020.
- Regardless of the law, many people still feel unsafe about coming, especially if you know that your colleagues hold homophobic views. This is a valid emotional response. Despite legal protections, over 45% of LGBTQ+ employees have reported being discriminated against.
- While you’re making the decision to come out, research or reflect on the answers to important questions like:
- What is your employer’s written non-discrimination policy about sexual orientation and gender identity/expression?
- What is the overall climate at work? Do you hear people making inappropriate, homophobic jokes?
- Are there any open LGBTQ+ employees where you work?
- What is the general feel for how your colleagues relate to each other? Do people talk about their personal lives? Or are they more guarded?
- In addition to the federal law, does your state (or county) have local laws protecting you against discrimination? Do these laws include discrimination against sexual and/or gender identity?
- When you feel ready to come out at work, you have the right and freedom to do it your way.
- Many people find it helpful to talk to a “safe” colleague first, whether it’s another openly LGBTQ+ person or someone else you know will support you.
- The timing is also up to you. Some people choose to come out to each new person they meet, while others prefer to come out to everyone all at once. For example, a new hire orientation is often a good opportunity to let people know about your gender and pronouns if you choose to do so.
While it’s valid to be scared or nervous about coming out at work, especially in unsafe environments, try to remember that it is your human right to live authentically as who you really are.
How employers can offer employee support to those coming out
For employers, it’s all about creating a healthy workplace environment in which every employee feels safe enough to be authentically themselves. When employees come out, it can have benefits on an organizational level as well, including better employee retention and morale.
However, many employees continue to feel unsafe about coming out at work due to the very real discrimination that many face due to their identity. Employers play an important role in ensuring that every employee has psychological safety and feels they can be authentic.
Here’s how to create a safe work environment in which LGBTQ+ employees feel safe coming out.
It can go a long way simply to be loudly vocal about your support for the LGBTQ+ community. Don’t assume employees know where you stand. Be outspoken. Speak up against discrimination. Ensure that every employee and stakeholder knows that you will defend LGBTQ+ rights.
Even simple things, like hanging a pride flag in your office or including your pronouns in your email signature, can send the message that you are a safe person to talk to.
Let employees take the lead
Always allow the person themselves to take the lead on how and when they want to come out and what kind of employee support they would like from you. If you’re unsure, simply ask them: “How can I support you during this?” Don’t make assumptions about what they do or don’t need.
Look at your DEI initiatives
It’s one thing to say that you stand with LGBTQ+ people, but if your company’s policies don’t reflect that, then employees will continue to feel unsafe. Examine your company’s DEI initiatives. What is your organization doing to actively support your LGBTQ+ employees? For example, do you have an employee resource group available for LGBTQ+ employees?
Listen openly to feedback
Lastly, in order to build psychological safety in the workplace, leaders must listen to feedback. If an LGBTQ+ employee comes to you with feedback about how you can improve, simply listen without denying or becoming defensive.
For example, maybe you used a phrase in a meeting, and someone corrected you that it was insensitive toward LGBTQ+ people. Rather than getting defensive, just try saying: “I hear you, and I apologize for using that word. It’s important to me that the workplace feels safe for everyone. Thank you for teaching me. I’ll do better moving forward.”
Whether you are an LGBTQ+ employee navigating coming out at work or a manager wondering how to offer employee support, MINES & Associates can help. Our 24/7 free and confidential counseling service can give you a safe place to talk through your options and concerns. No one will know about anything you talk about, including your employer.
Get in touch with us to learn more!
To Your Wellbeing,
The MINES Team