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50% of Your LGBTQ Employees Aren’t Out at Work, and It’s Hurting Your Business

Here’s what to do about that.

A photo of two LGBTQ Brides Framed On A Workplace Desk

Last fall, I was invited to a reception honoring Chicago’s Notable LGBTQ Executives. As I joined the room of 85 VP- and C-level leaders in Chicago’s business community, I noted that the attendees’ most-common cocktail introduction was “I wasn’t sure if I was going to accept this award — it’s definitely going to shine a spotlight on me at work.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The most recent data say that nearly half of LGBT Americans are closeted at work — a rate that has remained stubbornly unchanged for over a decade. And yet, these folks were all Chief Executives of their companies, or report very closely to one — and they still had hesitations about sharing their complete selves in the workplace.

A few months later, the Supreme Court used a trio of cases to overwhelmingly rule that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bans employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin or sex also provides protections for LGBTQ employees as well.

Writing for the six-person majority (which included newly-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch), Chief Justice John Roberts wrote

“Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex … [this is] exactly what Title VII forbids.”

The ruling still leaves some questions unanswered, and some exploitable loopholes for businesses who want to discriminate. But the fact that even conservative members of the Court voted to grant LGBTQ employees rights and protections indicates a shift in our collective views of what a modern workplace should look like.

And yet, the daily experiences of LGBTQ workers are not always welcoming.

LGBTQ Workers Face Micro-Aggressions

CJ Dillon is an Arts, Operations, and Community Engagement Creator who develops programming and experiences that change people’s lives and minds. He notes that he “works in the entertainment field — certainly a more liberal environment.” Yet he tells the following story:

“ I used to work with a wonderful older lady, who just couldn’t accept that I was gay. She told me almost every day that she was praying for me. As a gay atheist, I can’t tell you how much I hated every time she spoke to me.

She was so polite, so cute and sweet and the mother of the entire office. BUT she told me every day that I was less. That she pitied my life choices.

I know she mean no harm, but it did harm me — the emotional toll everyday of letting her say what she needed to — evangelizing her own hate to me — while others in the office smiled or ignored the uncomfortable situation. Many people (gay or straight) want to go to work and work.”

A senior VP of Sales I know tells a story of being pulled aside by his supervisor before a company holiday party to be warned that “even though everyone is allowed to bring a guest, you shouldn’t bring your [same-sex partner]. You have a great future ahead of you, but that would limit your career trajectory. Our executives don’t want to see that.”

Employees Don’t Belong In The Closet

These stories disappoint me. Clearly, there’s a human dignity problem in these workplaces. But there’s also a business problem — as study after study shows that diverse work groups outperform homogenous ones.

October 11th is National Coming Out Day. As a senior software executive, I’ve been fortunate to work for a string of organizations that support and affirm every part of who I am, in and out of work.

And because I have seen what happens when we care about the intersection of business and humanity, I want to be sure that other organizations can follow in those great footsteps, and transform themselves into workplaces where more LGBTQ employees are comfortable being completely out of the closet.

How To Make Your Workplace Inclusive

Here’s a great place to start. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation publishes a “Corporate Equality Index” each year, and the measures it uses to assess organizations are great places to begin asking some important questions:

  • Does your Employment Non-Discrimination Policy explicitly provide protections for both Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity?
  • Does your benefits package treat same-sex spouses and partners the same way they treat their opposite-sex equivalents?
  • Does your healthcare policy include coverage for the unique medical care needs of transgendered and LGBTQ individuals?
  • Do you have a diversity and inclusion council — and does it span issues relevant to LGBTQ folks?
  • Does your supplier diversity program specifically include LGBTQ-owned enterprises?
  • Do you regularly (at least three times a year) demonstrate a public commitment to the LGBTQ community — through marketing, advertising and recruitment efforts, philanthropic contributions, social media commentary, or public policy weigh-in?
  • Internally, do your supervisors undergo training that includes gender identiy and sexual orientation as discrete topics? Do you have gender transition guidelines with supportive restroom, dress code, and documentation guidelines? Is cultural competency on these and other diversity issues integrated into professional development and leadership training?

Adam Gilbert — who oversees a portfolio of over $500 million in advertising, media, and audience investment strategies in Chicago and New York — reminds us that “some employees may feel compelled to keep their identity hidden as a result of office culture, or due to particular stigmas indoctrinated in them by senior leadership within firms.”

And he’s right. Corporate policies alone won’t create change overnight — it needs to happen in the hearts and minds of every individual employee.

But with organizations losing out on the full contributions that the 50% of their closeted LGBTQ employees can make — I think they’re a great place to start.

How about you?




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JD Miller, PhD

JD Miller, PhD

Leading at the Intersection of Business, Technology and Humanity | Conference Speaker | Board Member | Sales Transformations | C-Level Exec |

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