October 04, 2021

Coming Out At Work

Coming Out At Work

“Companies should always make a conscious decision in their campaigns to include call-to-action for their employees and customers to fight inequality.” 

Jeffrey Boles, associate professor and chair of the Legal Studies Department in the Fox School of Business

According to a 2018 report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, 46% of LGBTQIA+ Americans remain closeted in the workplace. 

Workers surveyed cited a variety of reasons for not coming out to colleagues: 38% said they hid their sexuality because of the possibility of being stereotyped, 36% said they didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, and 31% said they worried about the possibility of losing connections or relationships with co-workers.

With more companies than ever celebrating months like Pride and touting diversity in their mission statements, what explains this staggering disconnect? In this episode, Jeffrey Boles, associate professor at the Fox School of Business, talks about authenticity at work, and how companies can create policies and platforms in order to be truly inclusive. 

Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business about the pivotal moments that shape business and the global economy. We interview experts and dig deep into today’s most pressing issues. Season three explores why American LGBTQIA+ professionals might not come out at work, how college athletes can profit from their name, image and likeness and what might come next for industries in flux, like bitcoin, supply chain and more.

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Episode Transcript

Jeff: The catalyst for being truly authentic at work is psychological safety.

Host: Welcome to Catalyst, the podcast of Temple University’s Fox Business. I’m your host Tiffany Sumner. There are many reasons LGBTQ+ plus Americans don’t l come out at work. Although society has made strides in queer acceptance and visibility, studies show that nearly half of LGBTQ+ Americans remain closeted in the workplace. Today I’m joined by Jeff Boles,  [00:01:00] associate professor at the Fox School of Business. Jeff shares why people might hide their sexuality at work—to avoid being stereotyped, make others feel uncomfortable, or they are worried about losing their relationships with coworkers. He discusses authenticity at work and how companies can be truly inclusive. Today’s conversation is especially important as we celebrate National Coming Out Day on October 11th. Hey Jeff, thanks for being here today.

Jeff: Thanks Tiffany, I’m so glad to be here.

Host: Well I’m very excited [00:02:00] to talk to you about authenticity in the workplace. So, tell me what it means to be authentic in the workplace.

Jeff: Well, to be authentic is to align our internal sense of self and our outward behavior where we feel we’re being true to our personal values and perspectives. When we feel authentic at work, we feel we belong based on our workplace contributions, not whether we’re looking the part or holding points of view we think are acceptable to our employer or the management. Being authentic at work makes a big difference for employees and organizations. Research studies suggest that when we’re able to be authentic at work we feel a greater sense of well-being. We are more likely to be highly engaged in our jobs, more likely to feel satisfied with life, and experience lower levels of depression. Now, the opposite of authenticity is creating a facade where we pretend to fit in and go along with the values and direction  [00:03:00]of our employer and wind up compromising or suppressing our own core values. Research shows that when we compromise our values, we compromise our well-being. Over time, we may experience symptoms of depression, we may be less engaged and committed to our work and our employees, and more likely to leave. Folks may decide they have had enough with the work facade and switch employers. For instance, members of the LGBTQ+ community may worry about being misunderstood and treated as an outcast at work if they disclosed direct experiences of unfair treatment and workplace microaggressions. So a potential catalyst for being truly authentic in the workplace is creating and maintaining psychological safety for employees, where they feel free to share their true concerns, where they feel comfortable, for example, identifying errors or mistakes and suggesting ways to fix them. if the workplace is not a safe space [00:04:00] employees likely won’t feel comfortable expressing themselves in ways that might conflict with employer values. In other words, in a threatening environment, people will conform in order to feel safe. To put it differently, a potential catalyst for authenticity invites employees to participate in decision-making. It requires courage from supervisors and leaders not to be afraid of difficult conversations and to do the work to address their own biases and combat any long-standing prejudices in the workplace.

Host: So how does this idea of authenticity dovetail with the idea of national coming out day?

Jeff: National Coming Out Day is an annual LGBTQ+ awareness day observed every October 11th. It takes place on this particular day to celebrate the anniversary of the National March on Washington for lesbian and gay rights which took place on October 11th, 1987. The first National Coming Out Day was celebrated on October 11th, 1988 the one-year anniversary of the march. [00:05:00] Recognizing National Coming Out Day is based on the idea that homophobia festers and spaces of silence and ignorance. When people know someone is LGBTQ+, they are much less likely to hold discriminatory views, thus one of the LGBTQ+ community‘s most effective tools is the power of coming out. it’s also a very sentimental day for lots of queer people, coming out is a way of sharing with the world that you’re not ashamed of your identity and that queer people look and act just like you. it’s also positive reminder to society about the queer community because the more people are aware of out and proud queer folks living among them, then the more likely harmful stereotypes and discriminatory laws will go away.

 Host: So I have this report from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation which was published in 2019. The report cites that 46% [00:06:00] of LGBTQ+ Americans remain closeted in the workplace. I’m sort of curious if there is more recent data, but I’m also curious: what are the barriers for coming out at work?

Jeff: Based on findings from a recent McKinsey study, one barrier is the feeling of isolation in the workplace which creates a more negative workplace experience and affects motivation to advance in the workplace. LGBTQ+ folks often feel isolated at work with so few others like them they’re more likely to represent their entire group when they are the only ones like themselves in meetings or events. The McKinsey research findings show that stress increases when a person experiences “onliness” at work or being the only one on a team or in a meeting with their gender identity, sexual orientation or race. Employees who face “onliness” across multiple dimensions from an intersectional perspective face even more pressure to perform. For LGBTQ+ women, for instance, [00:07:00] who are workplace minorities in both gender and sexual orientation, the “only” experience is common and particularly challenging in corporate environments. LGBTQ+ women, especially bisexual ones, also experience microaggressions like hearing demeaning remarks about them or people like them. LGBTQ+ folks are also more likely to feel as though they can’t talk about themselves or their life outside of work, and to report that they feel as though they need to provide more evidence of their competence. Another barrier to coming out of work is the experience of microaggressions, which are verbal or behavioral slights whether intentional or unintentional, that really show hostile, derogatory or negative attitudes towards stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups. Here are some common examples that LGBTQ+ women report facing: the pressure to play along with sexual discussion, [00:08:00] humor or other inappropriate workplace actions, being targets of sexist jokes. LGBTQ+ women are one and a half times more likely than straight women to hear sexist comments or jokes about their gender while at work and also being targets of sexual harassment. More than half of LGBTQ+ women report having experienced sexual harassment over the course of their careers. Overall, these findings demonstrate the need for companies to move beyond public gestures of support for  LGBTQ+ issues and create a more positive work experience, particularly in the world and in a workplace with the added health risks and isolation of remote working in the coronavirus era.

Host: That segues into my next question. In June we interviewed you and discussed the corporate sponsorship of Pride Month. [00:09:00] You referenced this idea of virtue signaling. So what is it and will we see it again around National Coming Out Day? And what can we do to hold companies accountable for real change, as you said, in creating positive workplaces?

Jeff: Virtue signaling is a type of moral grandstanding where either an individual, company or organization supports an idea or cause only to look good in the eyes of others. The term implies that those engaging in virtue signaling don’t truly believe in the cause they publicly support. They’re acting out of bad faith, in other words, because they have an ulterior motive. We might experience this in October around National Coming Out Day where a company or brand puts out a statement on their social media platforms that affirms and commits to upholding LGBTQ+ rights or includes a pride filter on their logos. It’s virtue signaling if the company is simply issuing an empty statement of support. Companies should always [00:10:00] make a conscious decision in their campaigns to include a call to action for their coworkers and customers to fight inequality.

Host:  That’s really good advice. What are those calls to action, and how can organizations create a more welcoming workplace culture for all employees?

Jeff: Start with a few basics for creating a welcoming workplace culture for all employees. For instance, they can stamp out inappropriate behavior by taking steps to prevent and address microaggressions and demeaning behavior. They can encourage company-wide conscious inclusion training so that employees can recognize and respond to inappropriate behavior. They can include support awareness and sensitivity training towards trans and gender-diverse colleagues in particular, and also include the proper use of pronouns and names. They can create safe reporting channels to investigate and correct inappropriate behavior [00:11:00]  and they can ensure that leadership sets the tone for acceptable behavior with decisive and visible action to promote it. Companies can make “only” experiences rare from the outset where they proactively highlight the company’s support for minority groups which can help ensure that prospective employees feel safe. They can reduce the “only” experience during recruitment by broadening their pool of diverse candidates and proactively providing them with feedback after their interviews. And they could also adopt blind resumes such as removing names, gender signifiers and group affiliations to reduce the role of unconscious bias in hiring decisions. They can strengthen employee resource groups known as ERG’s by offering dedicated resources for employees from minority groups. Moreover, companies can improve sponsorship experiences to support employees’ career progression and professional development, or companies train managers on how to be effective sponsors [00:12:00] for colleagues and proactively pair LGBTQ+ women and trans employees, for instance, with sponsors to support their career progression. Training could include awareness of broader support systems or resource groups. Lastly, companies can create structural support for trans employees in particular, including making health coverage inclusive of trans people—supporting leave for transitioning colleagues, allowing employees to use the bathroom facilities they find most comfortable, including all gender options and ensuring that HR systems are inclusive of all employees’ genders and pronouns including allowing changes to documents and records, for instance, for those who are transitioning or already have transitioned. 

Host: Those are some great tips. Let me ask you: what do you do when you’re on the other side of this issue? [00:13:00] Say you are an employee working in a hostile workplace, what can you do to protect yourself?

Jeff: Well I think there are a number of questions first to ask yourself and help clarify your thinking. Should I even consider staying? How did I get here? How long have I been feeling this way? What do my friends and family say? What could I gain by quitting? What would I be giving up by quitting? Have I explored every option with my employer? When should I quit over the stress? Can I afford to leave without another job lined up? Is now the right time? Now, with all that being said, employees should check both the company’s employee handbook to see what types of non-discrimination, anti-harassment policies the company has put into place, the employee should also check local state and national laws in connection with employment [00:14:00]  discrimination to see what legal protections are available and these types of protections may vary according to wherever the employee lives and works—so it’s oftentimes context-specific.

Host: So how can organizations make positive sustainable DEI changes regardless of their size?

Jeff: I’d like to point to a recent report by the IBM Institute Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and Workplace Pride that provides some tangible actions that employers can take to make positive DEI changes. I think they’re all solid and I should note that the report’s key findings and highlight that, despite important legal progress and efforts by employers to boost inclusion, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community remains a reality. That where race, gender and sexual orientation intersect the  [00:15:00]  discrimination becomes more pronounced, that non-binary in gender expanse of identities are common in workplaces and that COVID-19 plays an outsized burden on caregivers from the LGBTQ+ community, but here are some key actions for employers. They can fill the leadership pipeline, corporate sponsorship and mentorship programs can help elevate the voices of black, indigenous LGBTQ+ community members. Companies can connect with young talent at colleges and universities or through early career programs, they can also nurture global ERG’s, employee resource groups as these ERG’s are vital platforms for talent, development, internal education and leadership growth. They can maintain clear nondiscrimination policies across global offices and develop an optional self-identification program [00:16:00]  for the LGBTQ+ workplace to better understand their needs, track professional development and benchmark success. In addition, companies can set clear expectations for all employees where they communicate the need for respect and the business value of belonging to the workplace. Along these lines, companies can make education modules on minority groups, inclusion accessible and refresh them regularly to incorporate all perspectives. They can train mid-level managers on handling bias in the workplace and build accountability for DEI goals into performance reviews and they can offer guidance on how to use inclusive language such as gender-neutral pronouns. Finally, companies can institute non-discrimination policies and practices where corporate offerings such as gender-neutral restrooms and dress codes and LGBTQ+ family-friendly  [00:17:00] policies can create a more equal workplace. Companies can conduct regular equity reviews of employer-provided benefits including transgender-inclusive healthcare coverage, family benefits, retirement, travel and relocation for instance, and encourage the ERG’s to assess the real-life impact of these benefits.

Host: It sounds like when you’re talking about organizational change you’re really talking about top-down change regarding policies and procedures. Is there another way to make a more inclusive culture? For example, can the employees drive change upward? 

Jeff: What studies in corporate governance show is that it is critical that senior leadership, whether it’s the board of directors or whether it is a senior executive, set the tone at the top and there must be buy-in from senior management in order for others within [00:18:00]  the company or organization to follow suit. Now, whether that starts from the bottom up or the top-down, regardless at some point senior management has to buy in because, without that, study after study shows whether we’re talking about inclusion in the workplace or to move to another direction—whether we’re talking about stamping out corruption and unethical behavior in the workplace—setting the tone at the top is essential. That’s why if you pull a company’s code of conduct or code of ethics, it’s almost inevitable that maybe on the second page, in the introduction there will be a letter from either the chair of the board of directors or the chief executive officer sending that tone the top message [00:19:00]  saying we’re buying in, we expect everyone else in this company to buy in as well and follow suit.

Host: So what advice or tips would you give business students at the Fox School or an industry that are either a member of the LGBTQ+ community or an ally, how can they help make their environment or work environment a more inclusive and welcoming culture for everyone?

Jeff: I would suggest one, that they do their homework regarding the current workplace. The Human Rights Campaign has a wonderful corporate index for equality that measures and rates companies based on how welcoming and inclusive they are. So business students who might have multiple job offers should consult those HRC corporate rankings to see one, what important factors should I look for and two, how does my prospective employer compare, what kind of health benefits  [00:20:00] do they offer for instance, what kind of tone from the top is set, in other words. And two, I think beyond the educational component I think it’s very important for business students to network and meet other community members whether they are fellow students, whether they are out professionals, executives working in their industry of choice because of the power of mentorship. Where a mentor can provide guidance, something like, look, here’s with I wish I knew when I was starting out in my career can be invaluable advice and I have found that out executives, out members of the workplace are happy to help those who are coming up in the workplace and so business students should never be afraid to reach out and request  [00:21:00] for instance an informational interview or a talk over coffee.

Host: I want to thank Jeff Boles for joining me today. The policies and programs that Jeff shared are ones that we can all champion in our workplaces. In honor of National Coming Out Day, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on your company or workplace. How can your organization be more inclusive? As Jeff says, there are many opportunities for leaders, mid-level managers, and employees to foster a welcoming environment. From employee resource groups and leadership training, bias education and gender-inclusive HR policies, we can emphasize the business value of belonging in the workplace together.  [00:22:00]  Join us next time as we talk about NIL, name, image, and likeness. What does this mean for college athletes after the NCAA recently gave them the go-ahead to make money using their NIL? In our next episode, we’ll discuss how college athletes can win both on and off the field and what this might do to the industry. Stay tuned for more next time on Catalyst.

Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Visit us on the web at fox.temple.edu/catalyst. We are produced by Milk Street Marketing, Megan Alt, Anna Batt and Karen Naylor. I hope you’ll join us next time. Until then, I’m Tiffany Sumner and this is Catalyst.