Should You Come Out at Work?

A recent Harris poll conducted with Out & Equal and Witeck-Combs Communications indicated that only 35 percent of bisexuals said that they are out to their co-workers compared to 60 percent of gay men and 62 percent of lesbians. The same pattern plays out for those who are open with their bosses and managers with 56 percent of gay men, 44 percent of lesbians, and 21 percent of bisexuals reporting being out.

There are many people who believe that all homosexual individuals should come out at work.  I’m not sure I agree. While I’m not going to tell people how to live their lives, I would like to encourage you to use caution when your career or well-being could be at stake.

Bob’s Story

Last year, I came across Bob Johnson’s story online.  A few years ago, Bob interviewed for a marketing and communications position with the Lebanese American University, a university chartered in New York with campuses in Lebanon.  He had some reservations about working for LAU as it didn’t have an equal opportunity employer notice on its website or job ad.  But he interviewed for the position anyway, not volunteering information about his sexuality.

Through the course of Bob’s tenure at LAU, which included listening to a speech from the Iranian president that panned homosexuality and traveling to the deeply closeted city of Beirut, Bob learned that openness about his sexuality would not be tolerated.  Despite using discretion, though, Bob received a 45-day performance improvement plan from his manager outlining deficiencies in his work performance. Forty-five days later, LAU fired him.

It didn’t make sense, as Bob’s job performance was stellar.  When he discussed his confusion with a colleague, he was told that he was not actually fired for job performance, but because he was gay.

Discrimination Laws Are Not All-Encompassing

The LGBT community has come a long way.  Many states now have laws that protect LGBT individuals from job discrimination.  However, there is currently no federal law that safeguards people from being fired because they are gay as Bob was, so think before you open that door.

Safeguarding Your Well-Being

I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but your first concern is making sure that coming out is safe.  If there is already anti-gay sentiment at your workplace, you don’t want to be the target of physical violence or emotional abuse.  If you need help assessing how your organization feels about LGBT employees, check out the Human Rights Campaign website.

Share with One Person at a Time

If you determine that your workplace will be receptive, start gradually.  Choose a person or two at work and think through how you want to tell them.  Observe how your heterosexual colleagues talk about their personal lives, and model your own behavior after theirs.  This might involve mentioning it casually in conversation in the kitchen, or inviting your partner to Happy Hour with the team.

Have Reasonable Expectations

Be prepared for negative reactions, including people who seem disappointed or offended at first, or people who say something stupid in a moment of awkwardness (link to awkward conversation post).  Hopefully, though, your confidants will get used to the idea and the information will be absorbed easily, without affecting how you’re viewed as a co-worker and friend.

Alexandra Levit

Alexandra Levit’s goal is to help people find meaningful jobs - quickly and simply - and to succeed beyond measure once they get there. Follow her @alevit.

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