Coming Out At Work

Getting hitched may be getting a little easier for some Canadian gay and lesbian couples, thanks to new legislation in Ontario and B.C. allowing for same-sex marriages.

Yet despite this gain in their personal lives, when it comes to work, things may not be quite as evolved for gay people. Although fairer hiring policies do exist, the workplace still represents a major source of anxiety for gays and lesbians. Subtle discrimination still exists, making disclosure of a non- heterosexual orientation difficult.

But experts say openness about that orientation at work may be healthier for gay and lesbians in the long run.

A groundbreaking study, that appeared last December, in the Journal of Applied Psychology by researchers Kristin Griffith and Michelle Hebl at Rice University in Houston, looked at gay workers experiences of disclosing their sexual orientation. The study confirmed existing research on the positive health effects of disclosing at work. It also found that gay workers’ personal attitudes, their companies’ policies and their colleague’s trustworthiness over the issue, play an important role in whether they would come out at work.

The researchers surveyed 220 gay men and 159 lesbians. Participants answered questions about their willingness to disclose their sexual orientation in the workplace, their job satisfaction and the degree to which they felt their company had gay-friendly policies. The survey also measured respondents’ self-acceptance and their perceived acceptance by co-workers.

Respondents were 39 years old on average and made an average of $49,430 US. Their jobs required a college or advanced degree.

Griffith and Hebl found that policies that supported sexual diversity such as same sex benefits, written nondiscrimination policy, diversity training targeting gay and lesbian issues signaled to gay and lesbian workers that the business could be a safe place to disclose their orientation.

While research suggests disclosing one’s sexual orientation at work has been linked to higher levels of psychological adjustment and life satisfaction, those who hide their orientation by lying, or switching a partner’s gender can experience high levels of anxiety.

Fearing rejection, gay staff may refrain from divulging personal details or avoid co-workers completely, causing exhaustion and feelings of shame and alienation, say the researchers.

These self-protective approaches can reduce productivity and collaboration with colleagues. However, being open about one’s sexual orientation can help an individual develop more honest and accepting relationships with co-workers, increase job satisfaction, aid work performance and decrease fears of not belonging, being rejected or embarrassed.

Yet, the researchers found gays and lesbians face a double- edged sword in the workplace: while it might be psychologically healthy and beneficial to the company bottom-line to “come out” at work, prejudice still exists.

Overt prejudice (e.g., discriminatory hiring practices) have given way to more subtle forms of nonverbal discrimination such as avoiding behaviours, and lack of eye contact. Gay or lesbian colleagues may feel that they don’t belong and are being excluded at work: research indicates that non- heterosexual staff are spoken to less often or have more truncated interactions with colleagues.

Yet companies can create an accepting climate for gays and lesbians through their policies while individual gay and lesbian workers can also affect company attitudes.

Those whose sexual orientation is central to their self- concept tend to disclose their sexual identity at work and reap the rewards of increased wellbeing. Coming out to family and friends before talking to co-workers helps, according to Griffith and Hebl. Getting practice fielding people’s reactions outside work makes gay staff better able to cope with potential on-the -job prejudice from co-workers, clients or suppliers.

The study showed that gay and lesbian workers are more likely to disclose sexual orientation to co-workers if they perceive the information will result in more acceptance. Employee education programs focussed on gay and lesbian issues can help staff understand and create a forum for more open discussion.

Programs that encourage empathy, non-judgmental attitudes and supportive responses to gay co-workers give employees the tools to work collaboratively without discomfort and prejudice getting in the way.

Given that much of the discrimination against gays and lesbians can be quite subtle, it is critical that managers be sensitized to the issue and have an arena to discuss and understand the needs of gay and lesbian staff. Leaders need to be prepared to intervene if gay or lesbian workers are being treated unfairly.

Companies with a written nondiscrimination policy, diversity training focussed on gay and lesbian issues and those supportive of gay/lesbian activities foster more disclosures, positive co-worker reactions, less perceived job discrimination and less unfair treatment by managers.

Griffith and Hebl observed that gays and lesbians are often skilled, highly-educated employees who bring much to the workplace. According to their research, supportive organizations gain a competitive advantage when attracting and retaining gay and lesbian workers.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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