Nearly half of LGBTQ employees remain closeted at work: study

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Almost half of LGBTQ employees remain closeted at work, according to a new study released by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. | Adobe Stock Photo

Tuesday marks the third anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality, but despite signs of progress, almost half of LGBTQ employees remain closeted at work, according to a new study released by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation.

This figure has barely changed in a decade even as many employers have attempted to create more inclusive workplaces.

“We’ve learned that simply having the right policy in place isn’t enough,” said study author Deena Fidas, director of HRC’s Workplace Equality Program. “You’ve got evidence over a decade that despite really significant progress, including marriage equality, challenges remain in terms of the everyday workplace experience for LGBTQ Americans.”

The report, A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate for LGBTQ Workers Nationwide, found that 46 percent of LGBT employees are not open about their sexuality at work for fear of being stereotyped, making people feel uncomfortable or losing connections with coworkers.

When the survey was first conducted in 2008, 51 percent of LGBTQ employees reported that they hadn’t come out to their coworkers. Fidas said she’s not surprised the number has hardly budged in the past decade.

“On one hand there’s been significant progress, but on the other we still don’t have basic federal protections in this country for the LGBTQ community,” she said.

Although many companies have invested in creating non-discrimination policies and inclusive benefit packages, 31 states still don’t have fully-inclusive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Fidas said many LGBTQ folks are still grappling with an isolating double standard when it comes to socializing in the office.

While your spouse or your dating life might come up in casual workplace chit chat for straight employees, when an LGBTQ employee brings up their personal life it becomes taboo, Fidas explained. But if LGBTQ employees don’t share, they can face social isolation and miss out on networking opportunities.

“Every workplace actually demands some level of sharing,” said Fidas. “LGBTQ people really consistently get chilled out of social networks in the workplace. Their contributions, their level of sharing and simply bringing their full self to the workplace in the same way their straight and cisgender colleagues do is decidedly not welcome.”

The responses to the survey present a conflicting picture:

  • 80 percent of non-LGBTQ employees believe no one should have to hide who they are at work,
  • 59 percent of non-LGBTQ employees said they think it’s unprofessional to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace
  • 36 percent of non-LGBTQ employees said they would feel uncomfortable hearing an LGBTQ colleague talk about dating.
  • 20 percent of LGBTQ workers report having been told that they should dress in a more feminine or masculine manner (compared to 1 in 24 non-LGBTQ workers)
  • 53 percent of LGBTQ workers report hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people at least once in a while

These conditions have a negative effect not only on the employee, but on business as well. The study found 1 in 5 LGBTQ employees had considered leaving a job and engagement in the workplace can drop as much as 30 percent because of an unwelcoming environment.

Fidas said while instituting inclusive policies is fundamentally necessary, managers and leaders must also communicate consistently and clearly about LGBTQ inclusion.

Developing an appropriate vocabulary, in both formal and informal communication, and equipping teams with a protocol around unconscious bias are two good steps, Fidas said. Allies play a huge role in transforming workplace culture.

“We find this over and over again,” Fidas said. “It’s simply a matter of mastering the vocabulary, many LGBTQ workers do not hear specific messages aimed at them.”

These dynamics don’t operate in a vacuum either, Fidas pointed out. She said typically if a workplace tolerates jokes at the expense of LGBTQ folks, the same is true for people of other races or ability levels.

“A problem with the LGBTQ climate is a miner’s canary for other aspects of inclusion,” she said.

While Fidas said she hopes this study will jumpstart the conversation about the work we still have to do, she also plans to do more research the way race, region and other factors affect the LGBTQ experience.

“It is so critical to understand the diversity of experiences across the LGBTQ community,” she said.

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