Coming out in the workplace


A new study reveals the factors that influence whether or not LGB workers disclose their sexual orientation at work, writes BRIAN McINTYRE

COFFEE-BREAK chats are welcome diversions to a working day. Mug in hand, most workers feel little need to tread carefully as they banter, or verbally edit themselves, while recounting a weekend story involving a boyfriend or girlfriend.

However, for those among the 38 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) workers who, according to my recent research, are not fully “out” at work, coffee breaks can be a little less diverting.

“It can be tough, constantly avoiding using pronouns and watching what I say,” writes one partnered lesbian teacher who is not out for professional reasons. Her story is one of many in my recent research, which helps sketch the dynamics of a highly personal decision – whether or not to come out at work.

During last winter, 590 LGB workers participated in an online, anonymous survey exploring the psychological dynamics of disclosure. To my knowledge, it is the first completed research in Ireland directly in the area.

Although the work has limitations because participants are more urban and more educated than the general population, its findings are nonetheless instructive. Importantly, they are relevant to all people in the workplace, irrespective of sexual orientation.

Most studies from the US point to the psychological benefits of coming out at work. They find evidence that coping strategies for those who are not out (for example, pretending to be straight; allowing others to assume heterosexuality) are energy-draining and can lead to lower levels of personal happiness and commitment to work.

This has led to a broad assumption among experts, and perhaps by popular culture as well, that the decision to come out is always desirable. In contrast, not coming out may sometimes be judged negatively, as hinted by the term “closeted”. This is unfortunate, as every disclosure decision should be equally respected.

This Irish research finds that the majority of LGB workers are out at work – 62 per cent of participants were out to most/all; 38 per cent, an important minority, were out to some/none. Several reasons for not coming out in the Irish workplace are offered by participants: many describe a fear that disclosure will have negative consequences for either their careers or reputations; others see their orientation as something they wish to keep private, as opposed to secret; some assert that coming out is an out-of-date concept that they have transcended.

Gay men and lesbians come out at work to the same extent; there is no significant difference between the two groups. Bisexual workers, however, are 50 per cent less likely to be out than their gay or lesbian counterparts.

The reasons for this disparity require more study, but such a stark finding suggests that bisexuality is a new frontier of sexual diversity in the Irish workplace. Several bisexual participants commented that they feel judged or misunderstood by some colleagues who erroneously perceive them as opportunists “wanting it both ways”. One female bisexual reported that she has opted for a quiet life and, unlike in previous jobs, had chosen not to disclose her orientation in her current workplace.

Identifying and quantifying the factors that will predict coming out at work was a major theme of the research. The extent to which participants are “happy being gay” (or lesbian or bi) emerged as the most important driver of disclosure. This seems intuitive, if difficult to address or change in the short-term.

The next most important predictors of coming out are more actionable. They include:

An organisation’s policies and procedures

When explicit work policies and procedures exist (for example, non- discrimination policies, diversity training, recognised LGB employee organisations in the workplace), LGB employees are more likely to disclose their orientation. Importantly, this is not an invitation for employers to become cheerleaders, actively encouraging employees to “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Rather, the challenge is simply to enable coming out. This seems an important and measurable task, worthy of consideration by all employers, no matter what their organisation size.

The level of support from co-workers

The more people perceive a company culture welcoming of diversity, the more likely they are to come out. I received many heart-warming and amusing accounts of positive disclosure experiences. Others bemoan a negative work atmosphere by the way people talk, which can be either annoying (for example, “That’s really gay!”) or, more seriously, reek of hostile homophobia. In short, words create worlds.

Because money talks, I was interested to see what benefits, if any, accrue to employers when their employees come out. It transpires that loyalty to the company is significantly higher among LGB employees who are out, that is to say, the more out employees are, the more emotionally committed they are to their organisations.

The ability to retain talent is valued in most businesses, even in an economic downturn. By changing policies and procedures to facilitate disclosure at work, employers stand to enjoy improved business results through the increased loyalty of their LGB employees.

It would be cynical to suggest that employers require a profit motive in order to welcome diversity, but it is a happy coincidence that doing the right thing makes money too.

Our former president Mary McAleese recently called for the deconstruction of “the noxious apparatus of homophobia” that persists in parts of Irish life. Ultimately, understanding how and why people disclose their sexual identity in work contributes to a richer appreciation of who we are as a society.

The findings of this study are both positive and hopeful, even though direct comparison with the past is not possible. At the most basic level, the majority of LGB workers (62 per cent) are already out at work. Further, the findings assert that disclosure of sexual orientation at work can be positively influenced by the actions of co-workers and employers.

And yet, there is evidence that a significant number of the 38 per cent of LGB workers not out perceive that disclosure at work would have negative consequences. Reversing this perception is a challenge for all who work in Ireland, irrespective of orientation. Positive change is welcome, even if it arrives slowly, employer by employer, coffee break by coffee break.

Brian McIntyre’s post-graduate research was supervised by Dr Elizabeth Nixon at the School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin. The core research findings were presented at the annual conference of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) in Galway at the weekend