In 1995, at a time when there were very little to no legal protections whatsoever for LGBT employees, studies were being conducted clearly demonstrating the benefits of coming out in the workplace far outweighed the benefits of staying the closet. For example, people who come out in the workplace tend to rank higher in social well-being and psychological adjustment.
More recently, the Harvard Business Review reported that 85% of Fortune 500 companies have protective policies that address sexual orientation—up from 51% in 2000. In addition, most states have enacted legislation to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their employment discrimination laws. However, there is currently no federal law that protects LGBT employees from workplace discrimination. As a result, many companies have taken measures into their own hands by enacting workplace non-discrimination policies aimed at protecting the rights of their LGBT workers. Yet despite such measures, about half of the college-educated gay and lesbian workforce remains “closeted” at work, according to the recent findings of the Center for Work-Life Policy. With an abundance of anti-discrimination workplace policies in place, why does the current LGBT workforce remain reluctant to “come out” at work?
Fear is one possible explanation. “Coming out” is never easy, but the workplace can provide added stress, especially when it is impossible to determine how co-workers or managers will react to such news. The isolation of closeted LGBT employees has the potential to hinder workplace performance by disallowing LGBT workers to fully immerse themselves into their jobs. As a result, LGBT employees often report being dissatisfied with their place of employment. The aforementioned study by the Center for Work-Life Policy revealed that 73% of closeted employees are likely to change jobs in the next three years. Although isolation and job dissatisfaction are the potential downsides of remaining closeted at work, the decision of LGBT workers to come out is not as straightforward as it may seem.
Another possible explanation for the reluctance of LGBT employees to come out at work is the lack of enforcement of workplace policies. Although many companies have non-discrimination policies on the books, many critics believe some corporations are simply interested in the appearance of equality, but do nothing to actually integrate these policies into the workplace. What more can companies do? Brian McNaught, author of a CNN article titled “Why gays should come out at work”, suggests corporations have to get their “music” in sync with their “words.” Until the actions and attitudes of managers and co-workers line up with the company’s stated policies, LGBT employees will continue stay in the closet at work.
With all that said, for decades studies have shown that “coming out” at work may be a positive career move for LGBT employees. Not only does being open at work have the ability to improve job performance, it also has the ability to increase overall job satisfaction. How? LGBT employees who choose to completely separate their home life from their work life are more likely to feel isolated at work. The Harvard Business Review reported some 42% of closeted employees said they felt isolated, versus only 24% of openly LGBT employees. The difference – open LGBT workers engage in collegial banter with colleagues, oftentimes discussing personal relationships and weekend plans, an act which helps to develop and foster workplace relationships.
Coming out at work is a heavy decision and the choice may not be for everyone. LGBT workers, however, should be aware of the benefit associated with being open at work. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) website provides information for deciding whether or not to come out at work, which includes researching the company’s non-discrimination policy and assessing the workplace atmosphere, and provides practical tips for moving forward such as identifying and talking to a fellow LGBT or LGBT-supportive colleague or simply placing a picture of your partner on your desk. Furthermore, Lambda Legal provides a helpful tool kit for workplace equality which acts to inform LGBT employees about their workplace rights so that they may feel more comfortable and secure in their jobs.
**Angela D. Giampolo, Principal of Giampolo Law Group maintains offices in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey and specializes in LGBT Law, Business Law, Real Estate Law and Civil Rights. Her website is HYPERLINK “http://www.giampololaw.com” www.giampololaw.com and she maintains two blogs: HYPERLINK “http://www.phillygaylawer.com” www.phillygaylawer.com and HYPERLINK “http://www.lifeinhouse.com” www.lifeinhouse.com. Please feel free to send Angela your legal questions at HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org” email@example.com.