LGBTQ, coming out at work, rainbow heart

By Kelly Feehan, Services Director at wellbeing charity, CABA

For members of the LGBTQ community, coming out at work can sometimes be a deeply emotional and unnerving experience.

Some may find it’s the fear of being judged, isolated, or discriminated against by your boss and colleagues for your sexual orientation or identity, either openly or covertly. For others, it can be more subtle – a niggling anxiety that you’ll be pigeonholed or tokenised, unable to break down the walls people form around you based on their own misunderstanding of who you are and who you should be.

Whatever the reason, many LGBTQ people in the UK still choose to hide their authentic self in the workplace. A 2018 study by Stonewall found that one in three LGBTQ staff have hidden that they are LGBTQ at work for fear of being discriminated against, while almost one in five said they had been the target of negative comments or conduct from colleagues.

Of course, not everyone will have the same experience when coming out at work. Many LGBTQ people in the UK feel both supported and emboldened by their peers. Most workplaces now pride themselves on providing an inclusive workplace for their employees, and it’s important not to accept anything less.

Depending on your individual circumstances, coming out at work will be a unique experience, with varying outcomes. For those navigating this decision, we’ve outlined a few tips to help guide and support you along the way. Please note, though, that this is just one resource and is not intended to be a definitive guide to coming out at work. Some identities within the LGBTQ community are more widely understood and accepted, while others face additional challenges. The most important thing is that you listen to your own needs and find a solution that works best for you.

Do your homework

If you’re looking to start a new job and are worried about coming out at work, it’s worth doing some desk research into any potential employers. For example, do they have a track record of supporting and advocating for LGBTQ rights? While not always definitive, previous social media posts about Pride or LGBTQ issues could give you an indicator that your workplace actively values and champions openness.

For larger companies, it’s worth checking online resources such as Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index to see if they’re featured.

If you can’t find any information online, consider emailing the HR representative to ask them what policies and support networks they have in place to support LGBTQ employees.

Set boundaries and stick to them

In any place of work, it’s important to establish your boundaries upfront as this will help you to form healthy relationships with your colleagues, managers and clients. For example, don’t feel obliged or under pressure to discuss your private life at work, even if the rest of your colleagues do. This does not mean you’re being secretive or unfriendly; it means you’re acting with integrity and self-compassion. Decide how much you want to disclose – it may be that you only tell people who you know and trust, or maybe you’re comfortable being an open book.

Setting boundaries allows you to show others how you want to be treated and what you feel at ease with. Strong boundaries also enable you to separate your thoughts and feelings from those of others, helping you to stay true to yourself in every situation the working day might throw at you.

Expect people to react differently

Any time you come out to someone new, be it within or outside of work, you can expect a different reaction. Many people will act with kindness and offer their support, while others may act indifferently. If somebody acts indifferently, remember that this does not mean they feel indifferent towards you; it’s likely because they don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable or draw attention to their reaction.

It’s important to make space for awkwardness, too – you might get an imperfect response but that doesn’t mean it’s not well-meaning.

Of course, in some cases, it’s possible that you may receive a negative response. If this happens to you, remember that this is not a reflection of you but rather of them. You can’t control everybody’s reactions to your news, but you can work on feeling confident in your ability to handle whatever comes your way.

Find out what support systems are in place

Knowing who to turn to should you need support is an important part of feeling safe and secure at work. Some larger companies may have special LGBTQ support networks in place, which are designed to protect the needs and wellbeing of LGBTQ staff. For smaller businesses, this might be the HR representative.

If you hear homophobic or transphobic remarks, make sure you report it right away to your line manager or HR representative. Sexual orientation is one of the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, and so anything that goes against that is illegal. If you feel uncomfortable doing this, or are worried that it could have negative consequences, consider speaking to a trusted colleague to see if they might flag it on your behalf.

The importance of bringing your ‘whole self’ to work

Learning how to establish and maintain an identity within the workplace that feels authentic to us is a core tenet of our overall wellbeing. According to research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, bringing your full self to work can lead to greater levels of happiness and productivity. Another study found that the greater employees’ feelings of authenticity are, the greater their job satisfaction, engagement and self-reported performance.

Therefore, it’s important to think about who you want to be in the workplace and what makes you happy. You cannot and will not be able to control everything, but there’s a lot of comfort to be found in the power you do have. Whether you decide to talk about your private life at work is your choice – but always remember that whatever you decide, you deserve equal treatment and respect – and don’t settle for anything less.

For more help and advice, we recommend checking out Stonewall and LGBT Health and Wellbeing, both of which have loads of great online resources. For those looking for support with their mental health, Mind has curated a list of some of the most useful contacts for the LGBTQ community.

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