FAQ Coming Out in the workplace

The psychologist Dominic Frohn from Cologne, Germany, aroused a lot of attention in his 2007 study, “Out in the Office?!” He is regarded as an expert on this topic in Germany. Below, he answers some questions from many perspectives about coming out. These answers will help lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers in their decision-making, and also provide trans* workers with preliminary advice.

  1. Should I come out in the workplace, no matter what?

Research has revealed that being out in the workplace is associated with a higher level of work satisfaction and higher organisational self-esteem – that is, you feel more confident about making a valuable contribution to your workplace. In addition, employers appreciate the higher level of commitment to the company shown by people who are open about themselves. As well, people who are out in the workplace have more energy available for their job, because they don’t need to worry about what they can and can’t talk about at the workplace.

Nevertheless, discrimination still exists, so it is recommended that you consider the individual details of your own context before coming out. If you are working in an environment that is hostile, remember that you have to right to decide for yourself how you communicate your sexual identity. Weigh up the pros and cons and choose what is right for you.

  1. What is the best strategy for coming out in the workplace?

There is no simple answer to this question. Every workplace is different, and there are many diverse factors that influence the decision for or against coming out. You need to decide on your own strategy after weighing up your choices.

Firstly, it’s important to look at the context of your workplace: the industry and the company. Does your employer have anti-discrimination policies in place, for example, and/or do they use diversity management that encompasses sexual identity? How open is the company’s culture? Secondly, are there any role models in your company – that is, a member of the LGBTI community who is out in the workplace and in a senior position, who you can talk to and potentially win as an ally and source of support? Thirdly, what is your impression of the attitudes of your direct supervisor and the other members of your team? Last but not least: you need to honestly ask yourself about your own feelings regarding coming out in the workplace.

This last point is an important one. If I believe, deep inside myself, that sexual identity should not actually be discussed at the workplace, and that it doesn’t belong in the workplace, or if I haven’t really come to terms with my own sexuality, then it is likely that I’ll communicate these feelings when I talk about my sexual identity.

For example, if my voice becomes quieter and I speak less clearly when, at the end of the interview, I tell my potential new supervisor – almost like a confession – “Ah, um, there’s something else I have to tell you. It’s just that…um… I’m a lesbian.” My own uncertainty is communicated to the person I’m speaking to, leaving them wondering how they should react.

In contrast, the effect is much more positive when I link the information about my sexual identity with something that is relevant for the employer. For example, during the job interview an applicant might say, “I was pleased to note that you offer a corporate pension savings scheme to your employees. Are same-sex partners able to access the same benefits as other spouses? That would be an important criteria in my decision to accept a position in this company.”

Or when talking to her boss about planning holiday leave, a woman might say, “My partner is a teacher and she’s limited to school holidays. So it’s important for me to be able to take time off during school holidays too.”

In each case, the person is communicating information about their own sexual identity, but with a clear link to the employer and in a way that is relevant to the workplace. The recipient of the message immediately realises that the topic is pertinent to the workplace – and that it’s about more than what someone does in bed.

  1. Are there any sectors where coming out is never a good idea?

The results of my study showed that in the areas of heavy industry, mining, agriculture, and others, workplaces tend to be less open about sexual identity than some other sectors, such as marketing, sales, in the creative and culture industries, or in secular organisations. For organisations connected to religions and the enterprises they run, it is more difficult to be open because churches have been given exceptions from the laws that protect people from discrimination. The climate is also not particularly open in the German armed forces.

An open approach to sexual identity in the workplace, however, can bring the advantages mentioned above to all parties, irrespective of the industry, and, as I said, it is necessary to examine each situation within its own context.

  1. Should I tell my boss?

Again, there is no universal answer to this question. There are, of course, no obligations to make your sexual identity known to your managers. It remains an individual decision, which must take into account how you, as an employee, assess your boss in this regard and how open the relationship is.

It is important to remember this simple fact: for your heterosexual colleagues, it is perfectly normal to reveal information about sexual identity, by talking about wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends etc. Also, many people assume that other people are heterosexual.

Consider this story of a woman who had not come out in the workplace, but instead had only talked about her partner in gender-neutral terms. One day her manager offers her a promotion that would entail moving to a different town. Her manager asks, “What does your husband think about it? Would he be happy to move house?” What should the woman answer? If she doesn’t correct her manager’s assumption, she may feel guilty about not being honest. I’ve had clients who were terribly worried that their manager would later discover that their partner was in fact same-sex, and that the manager would then mistrust them because they’d remember the earlier conversation and feel deceived. Situations like this can become so tangled that the employee just can’t cope and quits.

  1. When my company says I am supposed to hide my homosexuality because of the customers …

… then I would ask them to give it to me in writing. In addition, I would ask myself seriously whether this is the right company for me, and whether I really want to provide this employer with my labour.

  1. A colleague is putting pressure on me to come out about my sexual identity, or she will tell my colleagues herself …

If a colleague threatens to expose you, I would recommend an open discussion with the colleague. The right to make the decision to come out rests exclusively with that individual and not with any other person. However, one must also say that such information is ultimately not controllable: even if you’re very careful and don’t talk with anyone about your sexual identity, you cannot prevent your colleagues from considering you introverted, or forming other opinions of you. And they might simply figure out for themselves that you are lesbian/gay.

  1. I do not know of any other lesbian in my company; doesn’t that make it much more difficult to come out?

Of course, it is easier if there are role models at your workplace who you can relate to and turn to for support. Or simply colleagues with whom you can talk to. If you don’t know anyone at first, it is worth finding out whether there is perhaps a LGBTIQ employee network. In smaller organisations, there might be an informal social group who get together regularly. Groups like these give you the opportunity to meet with LGBTIQ colleagues – whether they’re out in the workplace or not – who you can talk to about the working situation. One thing is clear: Even if you don’t personally know of any other gay or lesbian people in your workplace, there’s a very good chance that there are in fact gays and lesbians at the same business or nearby.

  1. I am in upper management and I haven’t come out. Am I risking my career when I bring my life partner to a company event?

This question can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Research has shown that, in general, people in upper management are less open about their sexual identity.

Whether it is more risky for top management executives to come out than for other employees, however, depends more on the culture of the company and your immediate colleagues than the management level of the employee.

Therefore, as a first step, it’s important to analyse the general culture of the company, and to explore how the topic is viewed at the executive level in particular.

  1. Are there any contact points in the company that can help me out?

First and foremost, contact your company’s LGBTIQ employee network. In addition, get in touch with representatives of diversity organisations that are active as professionally trained experts in larger companies. You may also wish to explore the appropriate avenue for making complaints regarding discrimination and violations of the applicable legal protections for LGBTIQ people in your country (such as Germany’s General Equal Treatment Act or Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz (AGG). At the same time, it might be a sensible idea to contact your company’s Human Resources department or your labour union representative. If you have a positive and trusting relationship, your direct supervisor or team-mates may be good sources of support. In addition, you can turn to a support organisation outside the company (such as PROUT AT WORK), one of the LGBTIQ professional associations, a local or regional LGBTIQ consulting centre, or a coach specialising in these topics.

  1. Isn’t all this different for trans* people?

For transgender workers who are transitioning, the question of visibility becomes unavoidable. In this regard, the situations for trans* people are very different to those of lesbian or gay workers. By coming out as a trans* person, the employee is put into a much more public position, and often this is unwanted. In the past, therefore, many trans* people have quit their jobs before transitioning, then looked for a new job afterwards. Today, there is more understanding and support in many companies. PROUT AT WORK and many of the trans* community’s advisory services can be helpful in finding out more about the culture and attitudes at respective employers.

You can download publications by Dr Dominic Frohn from his website (some are available in English).

Dominic Frohn regularly runs seminars about sexual identity in the workplace. For more information, visit: www.dominicfrohn.de