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Before Coming Out At Work, Here’s What To Know About Your Rights & Resources
There are currently over 8.1 million LGBTQ folks employed in the U.S., according to the UCLA Williams Institute, but a 2015 Human Rights Campaign survey reports that 47% have experienced some form of discrimination in the workplace. On Tuesday, Oct. 8, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing preliminary arguments on several cases about whether or not workers are protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, LGBTQ workers don’t have those protections under federal law, so if you’re thinking of coming out at work, it’s important to fully understand your rights and the resources that can help to guide your decision.
The three cases — , and , — all involve the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against their workers based on sex, race, color, national origin or religion. At question is whether sexual orientation and gender identity are included in the definition of “sex” under Title VII, thus protecting LGBTQ workers from unfair treatment. One case involves Gerald Bostock, a child-welfare coordinator who was fired after joining a gay recreational softball league, and as a result, lost his medical insurance while fighting prostate cancer. Another belongs to Aimee Stephens, a transgender Michigan funeral home director who was laid off after she wrote a letter to her boss and coworkers coming out as a woman. The third involves Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor who was fired after he revealed to his office that he is gay. All three allege that they were fired for their sexual orientation or gender.
Currently, LGBTQ individuals are not considered a federally protected class when it comes to discrimination, which means in many areas, employers can legally fire or otherwise discriminate against LGBTQ workers. That said, employers legally fire or discriminate against employees based on race, color, or national origin. Employment discrimination can affect hiring, firing, salary, and work environment, which means it goes without saying that employees may be hesitant, if not downright afraid, to come out at work.
Coming out in any context can be challenging, but doing so at work presents a unique set of considerations and concerns that complicate the process even further. That’s why it’s crucial to know your rights and be informed about all the resources at your disposal that can not only help you determine whether coming out at work is the right move for you, but also potentially guide you in how to have that discussion most effectively. Your identity should never take a toll on your ability to feel safe, respected, productive, and engaged at work.
Fortunately, more and more businesses are realizing the importance of establishing and fostering an inclusive work environment. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates the policies and practices in place to protect LGBTQ workers at Fortune 500 companies and law firms, reported that a record-breaking 609 businesses earned a top score of 100 in 2018 (only 517 earned a perfect score last year).
And yet, according to a 2018 survey by the Human Rights Campaign, nearly half of all LGBTQ employees (46%) haven’t come out at work. That’s not really a surprise, considering that a staggering 53% of LGBTQ workers say they overhear offensive jokes about gay or lesbian people at least once in a while, and admitted that they don’t report them because they don’t think anything would be done about it and they don’t want to hurt their relationships with coworkers.
Still, just because many LGBTQ workers aren’t coming out to their employers and colleagues doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to. According to a survey conducted by the in 2018, almost three-quarters of LGBTQ workers indicated that coming out is important to them. And it makes sense, too, as doing so can come with benefits, like potentially fostering closer relationships with coworkers, and reducing stress and anxiety associated with concealing your authentic self. In addition to all of these potential rewards to coming out, however, there can be risks as well, like possibly experiencing disapproval or discrimination from coworkers.
Let’s be very clear on one thing: Coming out at work is 100% a personal decision. Your identity is valid whether or not you decide to come out to your coworkers. In no way are you obligated to share this personal information with anyone at your job, and depending on your particular circumstances, you may decide that withholding it is the best course of action to preserve your well-being and comfort in the workplace. But if you do conclude that coming out to your employer or colleagues is the right move for you, then there are rights and resources you should be aware of that may lend some added reassurance during the process.
Even though sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination is not expressly prohibited in Title VII, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — which enforces Title VII — takes the position that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination is a subset of discrimination on the basis of sex (and this stance is posted on the EEOC’s website). But in addition to Title VII, there may also be state and local laws in place to protect you from discrimination and harassment in the workplace as well.
Currently, there are laws in 22 states and the District of Columbia that protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. In Wisconsin, state laws prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation, but not on the basis of gender identity. That means that 28 states have no explicit statewide laws in place to protect workers from this kind of discrimination. But remember: Even if your state or locality has not passed laws preventing this kind of discrimination, Title VII states that you still have the right to not be refused a job or promotion, fired, or harassed because of your gender identity or sexual orientation. Sex or gender-based harassment can include jokes or derogatory comments about the LGBTQ community, disrespectful or invasive personal questions about your sexual orientation or gender identity, or intentionally and repeatedly using the wrong pronouns or names, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
The revealed that people who are completely out at work are nearly twice as satisfied with their jobs compared to people who aren’t (29% versus 16%). Not only that, but workers are more enthusiastic about their work (40% versus 26%) and proud of their work (51% versus 38%). And as more workplaces begin to realize that workers are more engaged and productive when they feel safe being their authentic selves at the office, more of them are making an effort to protect their LGBTQ workers so as to make feel comfortable coming out.
For example, many businesses have their own inclusion and non-discrimination policies in place that include sexual orientation as well as gender expression and identity. Some have transition support and policies in place for transgender employees and may offer health insurance that covers some of the costs of transitioning. Knowing your company’s policies is crucial, especially if your state does not prohibit employers from discriminating against workers due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
It’s worth noting that there are other ways to assess your company’s inclusivity before coming out as well. Does your office have gender-neutral bathrooms or gender-neutral dress codes? Does management ever schedule seminars, workshops, or meetings on diversity and inclusivity? Are there gender options on employee documentation aside from “male” and female”? If the answer to any or all of these questions is “yes,” then hopefully, you can feel a bit more confident about your company’s attitude regarding inclusivity while coming out at work. If your company does not have measures like these in place, you might have a confidential conversation with someone in HR, and ask them some strategic questions about whether there’s room for some inclusivity training.
The Human Rights Campaign recommends taking a temperature read on the climate in your workplace, as well. For example, it might be worth acknowledging whether other coworkers have come out, or whether they discuss their personal lives and ask about yours. You can also find your company on the HRC Corporate Equality Index and the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list to see what kind of ranking it has earned in regards to quality and inclusion efforts. Additionally, the HRC recommends finding out if your company happens to have an LGBTQ Employee Resource Group (AKA an affinity group), and if there is one, joining it.
There is a multitude of other tools available to you that may prove helpful in coming out at work. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union offers a range of resources that can help LGBTQ individuals navigate their rights under both federal and state laws. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders provides a complimentary referral service, which can connect you to an attorney who’s sensitive to your specific issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. The Center for Gender Sanity offers a number of educational guides on transition in the workplace, including on writing coming out letters, and finding support groups, among other topics. Other potentially useful resources include The Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center’s Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, and the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT Project.
The decision to come out at work is obviously a nuanced and deeply personal one. Some may choose not to maintain privacy around their sexual orientation or gender identity at work, and that’s totally OK. Learning about your state’s laws and company’s policies on discrimination in the workplace will hopefully empower you to make the right decision for you. It also may be beneficial to talk to a trusted, compassionate representative in your HR department, as they may be able to help you come up with a personalized plan for coming out. You can also talk to a therapist or counselor for some professional advice and support that may help you determine whether or not you’re ready to come out at work.
If coming out at work doesn’t go as you had hoped, you may need to consider your professional options. This can be challenging if you are financially dependent on your job because of course, it’s crucial that you feel safe and accepted there. In these situations, it can be extremely helpful to talk to an unbiased mental health professional to get their guidance on how to proceed. Try searching the Find a Psychologist database by your ZIP code to find a local therapist or counselor who specializes in the challenges that LGBTQ individuals face (make sure to look under “area of expertise” to find professionals who list “LGBTQ Issues”). If you don’t have health insurance coverage for mental health services, you can try dialing your local 211 service to find out about counseling resources available in your community and beyond. It’s also worth mentioning that Talkspace offers online therapy specifically geared toward people in the LGBTQ community.
It’s worth noting that while unfortunately, not all companies are equally inclusive and accepting of LGBTQ workers, many companies are actively recruiting LGBTQ individuals. So, if you do ultimately decide to leave your current company after coming out, you may want to check out the HRC’s list of LGBTQ-specific job sites. Remember: You are an asset to any organization, so it may be well worth it to find one that appreciates and supports you.
Most importantly, keep in mind that there is more than one way to come out at work, too, and it’s worth taking the time to figure out the approach that makes you feel most comfortable. You may decide to ease into the process of coming out. For instance, The ‘s survey revealed that 47% of respondents display photographs, magazines, or other symbols to showcase their identity at work. Ultimately, coming out at work should happen on your terms and your terms only, by taking control of precisely if, when, where, how, and to who you come out.
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