For most, coming out at work is not an easy task. You can’t be sure how your company or peers will respond to your revelation. And despite recent reports that the workplace is growing increasingly accepting to LGBT employees, people often don’t know how to welcome a colleague who recently came out of the closet.
PricewaterhouseCoopers executive Stephanie Peel’s history is a corporate America coming-out success story. When she came out professionally more than a dozen years ago, she was welcomed by her colleagues. “I came out personally in 1997 and came out professionally in 1999. Fortunately, I never heard anything not positive,” says Peel.
PricewaterhouseCoopers is No. 1 on The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list and No. 6 on the Top 10 Companies for LGBT Employees. Peel serves on the company’s GLBT Partner Advisory Board, which consists of 11 leaders in the firm who are LGBT and provides guidance to the management committee to help further advance initiatives and activities.
“I often tell people who ask me about this [that] it’s not just about what you can’t say or shouldn’t say, because sometimes I find that colleagues feel stymied in that they shouldn’t say anything at all. There is a lot of room for the things you can say to give clues to people that you are inclusive and culturally sensitive,” warns Peel.
Watch this video from Out & Equal Workplace Project for more on how coming out can enhance employee engagement:
Here’s what GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), the Out & Equal Workplace Project, and Peel suggest:
No. 1: “I suspected you were gay.”
Although it is a common response, it’s insensitive and plays into stereotypes.
No. 2: “I’m sorry.”
Why should you apologize for a colleague’s orientation? This implies judgment and can make the situation more difficult. Would you apologize for a person’s ethnicity or gender?
No. 3: “Why did you tell me that?”
It’s important for people to bring their “whole selves” to work, and coming out of the closet is certainly a part of who one is. “The notion of leaving a big part of your self at home and walking into work is like walking around with two types of shoes on,” says Selisse Berry, founding executive director of Out & Equal, an advocacy organization that provides services to companies, human-resource professionals, employee-resource groups and individuals.
No. 4: “Which bathroom do you use?”
Transgender people often are asked what gender they are. Such questions are inappropriate, warns Out & Equal. It is important to remember that gender identity is becoming an increasingly sensitive subject.
No. 5: “We are not close enough for you to share that information with me.”
Not all employees are interested in their coworkers’ personal lives. If you feel a colleague may have shared too much information, you can simply say, “Thank you for telling me that,” says Peel.
No. 6: Referring to coworkers as “she-male.”
There has been a lot of uproar these days over this phrase. Transgender employees often are the brunt of culturally insensitive jokes and comments.
No. 7: “What do you like to do in bed?”
Sexual questions and comments are always off-limits. Not only do you run the risk of offending a colleague, you are also teetering the line of sexual harassment. It’s important not to be confused between trying to understand someone’s personal life and inappropriate sexual harassment, warns Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Arcus Foundation and founder of GLSEN.