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'Be in learning mode': How employees — and employers — can navigate coming out as LGBTQ at work


As LGBTQ Pride month runs through June, efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion have once again entered the spotlight.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order expanding access to gender affirming care and inclusive education, in an effort to combat a number anti-LGBTQ state bills introduced across the country this year.

But still, in many places, anti-LGBTQ discrimination remains rampant — not least, in some instances, in the workplace.

In the U.S., more than two in five (45.5%) of LGBTQ workers said they have experienced unfair treatment at work including being fired, not hired, or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives, according to a 2021 survey by the Williams Institute. One third (31.1%) reported experiencing it within the past five years.

In the U.K., one in five (18%) of LGBTQ employees said they had been the target of negative comments or conduct from work colleagues, according to charity Stonewall.

That, in turn, is increasing attrition among employees who feel they can't be themselves at work.

In a June survey by LinkedIn and YouGov, three-quarters (75%) of LGBTQ respondents said it's important that they work at a company where they feel comfortable expressing their identity, and two-thirds (65%) said they would leave their current job if they felt they could not do so.

Meanwhile, how a company responds to LGBTQ issues also matters: More than one-third (36%) said they would quit their current job if their employer did not speak out against discrimination.

Randstad CEO on coming out in the workplace
Randstad CEO on coming out in the workplace

Speaking to CNBC, the CEO of global HR consulting firm Randstad, Sander van 't Noordende, said employers need to do more to create an inclusive and open workplace for LGBTQ employees.

Van 't Noordende, who is himself out, noted that he was not always a great advocate for LGBTQ rights early in his career, preferring not to make it a central tenet of his leadership. But, increasingly, he said, it is vital for leaders to speak up on social issues.

"Frankly, I wasn't a great role model, to be honest, initially," he said last month. "I was out and I did my thing, but I never really talked much about LGBTQ matters."

"But at some point in time, later in my career, I said 'no, I should not only be out, but I should also be more out there'," he continued. "Younger people in every organization are looking at their leaders and they're looking for role models."

How LGBTQ employees can come out at work

Of course, any decision to come out in the workplace should, and ultimately does, lie with the individual, van 't Noordende noted: "Organizations can do a lot, but ultimately you have to jump, you have to take that risk."

For those thinking about coming out to their colleagues, there are a few considerations that could help you in the process, according to Anna Clark-Miller, founder and coach at Empathy Paradigm, a U.S.-based LGBTQ mental-health consultancy.

First, identify your support system. Who do you have in your personal life who you are out to and who can support you through this process? If you want to come out at work but you haven't come out in your personal life, it may be too much of an initial step, said Clark-Miller, who suggested coming out to a loved one first.

Typically, a lot of clients will come out to one person first — someone inclusive or perhaps LGBTQ themselves.
Anna Clark-Miller
founder and coach, Empathy Paradigm

Next, think about your motivations for coming out at work. If you want to address some discriminatory comments within your team, it may be best to first report the issue to your HR manager before moving forward. But if, instead, you simply want your sexuality to be known to your colleagues, think about your work environment and whether there may be a colleague there who can support you through the process.

"Typically, a lot of clients will come out to one person first — someone inclusive or perhaps LGBTQ themselves," said Clark-Miller.

Randstad's van 't Noordende echoed those comments: "You go at your own pace with one person, then a few [people]."

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To figure out whether a particular colleague could be an ally before coming out to them, try starting a conversation about social issues to gauge their response.

"If they are educated about LGBT issues, then that's a great open door. If they're not, but they're open-minded, that could be a good opportunity to educate them. If they're not open, it's maybe worth finding a different person," Clark-Miller said.

Once you have someone in your corner, cheering you on, it will hopefully become easier to plan your next steps; whether that's telling your boss, HR manager, or wider team, Clark-Miller added.

There's no hard and fast rule for that, said Clark-Miller. However, she noted that many of her clients typically prefer to come out to a few people at a time, giving them the opportunity to deal with each of their responses gradually, rather than all at once.

"Make it as low pressure as possible," she suggested. "Typically, making a staff-wide announcement is perhaps more stressful and possibly not necessary. Many instead opt for side conversations or sharing their pronouns if they're transsexual or non-binary," she added.

How employers can support LGBTQ staff

While the decision to come out at work should sit with LGBTQ individuals, employers also have a role to play in cultivating a safe and inclusive environment where staff feel comfortable to express themselves and their sexuality.

That includes helping staff feel secure not just in their job but also psychologically, said Clark-Miller.

"Leaders can create that psychological safety by ensuring they have the environment where people can come to them and be open. Saying that upfront in staff meetings is so useful for creating a sense of safety," she said.

By the same measure, bosses should be understanding of what healthy boundaries look like, so that employees can be as open — or not — about their sexuality as they wish.

Be in learning mode. That will set the stage for a much more productive conversation.
Anna Clark-Miller
founder and coach, Empathy Paradigm

"If I don't want to share my pronouns or my sexuality, that is a boundary I'm allowed to have. Pushing someone to cross that boundary is, in fact, the opposite of psychological safety," Clark-Miller said.

Employers should also encourage staff to report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable at work. That may not be something that crosses an official boundary, but something that they find personally offensive. After all, "comments that are hurtful to the LGBTQ community are not necessarily outright prejudice but, rather, lack education," said Clark-Miller.

"If people aren't being encouraged to report those small lapses in judgement, the people making the comments might never know what they're saying is offensive. By creating that environment of feedback, they can better understand," she added.

Lastly, when receiving feedback, employers should avoid being defensive, which can come across as denial. Rather, they should listen patiently and openly, and be ready to find solutions.

"Be in learning mode. That will set the stage for a much more productive conversation," Clark-Miller said.

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