It may have been something of an open secret in Silicon Valley, but the decision of Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, to come out recently has been widely praised. Before Cook's recent self-outing, there had never been an openly gay CEO at a Fortune 500 company.
That Cook could come out and be commended for it seems to suggest that we are living in more tolerant times. However, it is one thing for the head of a much-loved global brand, with a stock market valuation of $118.9 billion, to reveal his sexual orientation publicly, but another thing altogether for a factory worker in a small Irish town to do the same.
Ireland has generally become a more open society, but are Irish workplaces supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees?
"There has been huge progress in Ireland for LGBT people, and this progress is reflected in many workplaces," said Davin Roche of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen). "Many companies understand the importance of LGBT employees being able to be themselves at work.
“Good employers also realise that there is a negative impact on business if staff members have to conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity at work.”
Roche should know. As Glen’s inaugural director of workplace diversity, he helped establish and leads its Diversity Champions programme, which shows Irish employers how to introduce guidelines to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and help them thrive. Programme members include IBM, Dublin Bus, CRH, ESB, Ulster Bank and Microsoft.
Kelly Allison, international director for gTech partner solutions at Google, echoes Roche's views. He was recently one of the guest speakers at the launch event of Intertech Ireland, a professional network which encourages LGBT diversity and inclusion in the Irish technology sector. He says acceptance of LGBT people has increased in recent years, with an increasing number of businesses keen to encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work.
“Attitudes here towards LGBT employees are some of the most liberal in Europe. Companies in Ireland are among the best in the world at showing they are progressive and inclusive in order to attract the most talented employees.”
According to Allison, many larger companies in Ireland, particularly those operating in the tech, legal and banking sectors, have established employee resource groups for LGBT staff that are increasingly bandying together to create industry diversity forums that expand support beyond the walls of any one company.
Not surprisingly, those seeking to promote the rights of LGBT employees in Ireland have welcomed Mr Cook’s recent disclosure, believing it can only help to encourage other individuals to come out.
One is Margot Slattery, Sodexco managing director for the Republic and Northern Ireland, who was recently included in OUTStanding's global top 100 list of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) business leaders. She heads a catering company that employs some 2,000 people here.
Commenting on Cook's coming out, she told The Irish Times: "It helps people to understand that being LGBT is a positive thing and does not stop those in business from getting on with their lives. He is a positive role model and his openness can only encourage a more inclusive culture."
Allison is also optimistic about the impact that Cook’s self-outing will have on those who have yet to come out.
“How can it not be inspirational to know that the CEO of one of the most profitable companies is gay? By coming out, Tim Cook highlights how much more accepting the world has become both inside and outside of business,” he said.
A recent survey from Glen found that approximately half of LGBT employees in Ireland it surveyed are out as gay at work, which is similar to rates in other OECD countries.
Before we get too excited, though, and start patting ourselves on the back, it’s worth noting that not everyone’s experience of coming out is positive.
“Most LGBT employees regularly assess if and how disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity at work will impact on their careers. Surveys show that the vast majority of employees who are out in their current jobs report very little negative impact on their professional relationships.
“However, recent research found that 30 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual staff had experienced bullying and harassment at work in Ireland and 10 per cent had quit their job because of this at some point in their career,” said Roche.
To ensure that LGBT employees are protected and given the space to come out if they choose to, organisations need to create an environment in which staff feel comfortable.
“Policies and procedures need to be really clear to everybody, and leadership has to take ownership on such issues,” said Slattery.
According to research from Glen, LGBT employees who are out at work are usually more committed to their companies than those who are not. The more open employees can be, the happier and productive they’ll be.
“The truth is that if you keep your sexuality separate, it alienates you because you’re not being authentic in the workplace,” said Slattery.
She said that coming out proved to be a very positive experience for her and that she received great support from colleagues and her employer.
Given her position, Slattery relishes the opportunity to serve as a role model to others.
“There weren’t many role models back in the day when I was coming out and I think that stymied me. If I could roll back time, I’d have come out sooner because you miss out on things when you can’t be as open as you’d like to be.”
Something many employers and other staff may not realise is that people often have to come out countless times. Peter O’Reilly, global intellectual property asset senior manager at Accenture, has been with the company for 14 years. It’s a company that ranks top of Stonewall’s list of gay-friendly employers, something O’Reilly believes is inspiring for those working for the firm.
“You never really just come out once. You come out every time you work with a new team or with individuals who you don’t know,” he said.
“People often think of it as something that is binary but it’s not. I’d see it as happening in three phases – actively concealing, the gender-neutral phase in which you might refer to “your partner” and so on, and then being actively out,” he said.
“My experience was interesting joining Accenture because I’d have been very nervous. But as with every workplace, you end up in teams and you form great relationships with those you are in close contact with and I’ve always found that someone’s sexual orientation is never really an issue,” he added.
Allison has experienced something similar in the workplace. “To be honest I don’t recall any particular moment when I actually ‘came out’ at Google.
The culture is so supportive and diverse – I knew it was never going to be an issue so I didn’t waste any energy hiding who I really was.
“It’s great that I can devote this saved energy to doing the job that I’m passionate about and love instead.”