Report: First Year with Employer Critical for LGBTQ+ Employees

Employees who are out at work are ‘more empowered, comfortable’ research finds

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek September 27, 2021
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LGBTQ report

​Newly hired employees who identify as LGBTQ+ typically will come out during their first year at an organization or not at all, according to a new global report.

"For most LGBTQ+ people, the first year in a new job is critical in the coming-out journey," Boston Consulting Group (BCG) researchers noted in Why the First Year Matters for LGBTQ+ Employees.

Across the countries surveyed, an average of 70 percent of LGBTQ+ respondents said they came out during the hiring process or within the first 12 months of starting their job. After the first year with the employer, only 10 percent came out and the other 20 percent never disclosed their identity as an LGBTQ+ individual.

"We observed this broad trend across most of the countries we surveyed, except in India and China, where employees in general took longer to come out or chose to stay closeted: just 36 percent and 56 percent of LGBTQ+ respondents in India and China, respectively, said that they had come out by the end of their first year at work," the researchers wrote.

The findings are based on a global survey of 8,800 people who worked in corporate settings and have high levels of education. Respondents were from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Mexico, The Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S.

Almost two-thirds (61 percent) of respondents identified as LGBTQ+, and the survey was skewed toward those working for companies with relatively advanced LGBTQ+ policies and programs, according to the report. Most respondents (88 percent) were between the ages of 18 and 44.

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Coming out is not a singular event, the researchers noted, but "a journey defined by daily decisions and interactions. It can include coming out to colleagues or clients.

"Even after making the initial leap to share their identity at work, many LGBTQ+ individuals choose to cover up that information at times," they wrote. About one-fourth of respondents who described themselves as mostly out at work "said that they would on occasion lie, omit details, or avoid answering questions about their sexual orientation."

About half of the respondents who were not out at work said they did not plan to come out, with more than 63 percent saying their sexuality and gender identity is a private matter.

Deena Fidas thinks those who cite privacy as a reason for avoiding disclosure do so because they likely experienced negative consequences elsewhere. She is managing director and chief program and partnerships officer at Out & Equal, headquartered in San Francisco. The organization works exclusively on LGBTQ+ workplace equality through its global programs and Fortune 500 partnerships.

"When LGBTQ+ people say it's nobody's business, it's because they faced discrimination," she said. "The vast majority of times a person is open about who they are in the workplace, or not, it is a direct response to their experiences at work. … Why would you ever hide it, unless you think there could be negative implications?"

BCG found that, averaged across all 19 countries surveyed, 58 percent of LGBTQ+ respondents said they had experienced discrimination. The discrimination was highest among those who described themselves as "partially out"—for example, to some colleagues but not to clients.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Ensuring Workplace Inclusion for LGBTQ Employees] 

On average, across all countries surveyed, a slight majority (53 percent) of LGBTQ+ respondents said being out at work was a neutral factor professionally and 24 percent cited it as an advantage; however, 23 percent saw it as a disadvantage.

There is a fear among some that disclosure poses a potential risk to their careers, and that was the top reason cited for not coming out at work. The effect disclosure has on a person's career can depend on a country's culture. In Mexico, 40 percent of LGBTQ+ respondents said coming out at work hurt their careers. In Australia, 50 percent who are partially or fully out in their workplace saw it as an advantage.

An organization's welcoming—or unwelcoming—environment is a factor, especially in its recruiting, onboarding and day-to-day work environment, the BCG researchers noted.

Creating an Inclusive Environment

"Creating an environment in which employees feel comfortable sharing their identity carries significant rewards," the researchers noted in the report. "Our survey found that LGBTQ+ employees who are out at work are more empowered and feel more comfortable about speaking up, being themselves and building close friendships at the office."

The researchers noted that companies should develop a holistic plan "to ensure that all stages of an employee's journey during the first critical year reflect and are shaped by a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture." They identified the following five areas as being especially important:

1. Recruiting from LGBTQ+ groups. Work with schools to build relationships with LGBTQ+ student groups, suggested researcher Gabrielle Novacek. She is managing director and partner in BCG's Chicago office and a fellow of the BCG Henderson Institute focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. 

"It is quite common for employers to provide some sponsorship to these groups and use that sponsorship as a way to facilitate visibility and interaction with potential [job] candidates," she said. 

Student groups such as Lesbians Who Tech and ReachingOut MBA invite employers to engage with job seekers at job fairs and conferences.

"Those student groups are a major source of pipeline talent," Fidas pointed out. "Those are often the first places companies go to reach LGBTQ talent." Leveraging conference networks, such as attendees of Out & Equal's annual Workplace Summit, can also be effective, she said.

2. Clearly communicating inclusive policies and resources. This can include providing mandatory sensitivity training sessions on LGBTQ+ topics for all new employees to emphasize the organization's support and behavior expectations. Make sure your policies and practices comply with state and federal nondiscrimination laws

Communicate to job seekers benefits such as health care coverage for same-sex partners or transgender dependents, Fidas suggested, as well as the existence of any ERGs for LGBTQ+ employees.

Brand ambassadors, such as employee resource group (ERG) leaders, can play a vital role in recruitment, Fidas added.

"If I'm looking at Company X for a potential career move, I want to get the real scoop," she explained. "What is the diversity like at the top? Are there openly lesbian women represented? Are there openly lesbian women of color represented?"

3. Providing ways to connect. Offer to connect new employees who openly identify as LGBTQ+ with mentors who can help them navigate their careers. Also, provide ways they can reach out to other LGBTQ+ employees, such as through ERGs.

"The LGBTQ+ ERG could be tapped to host a get-to-know-you event for candidates" during on-campus recruiting, Novacek said, and ERG members could serve as designated mentors.

"Longer term, these interactions help new employees come into the organization with a sense that they have an existing network of support from day one."

4. Letting employees determine who information is shared with. Have a mechanism in place, Novacek said, where "candidates can choose to either be open about their identity during the recruiting process, to be known on a limited basis only to a subset of the recruiting team and the ERG, or to have their status made strictly confidential" and known only to a key ERG leader.

5. Creating a daily work environment that is inclusive. Examples of ways organizations can create a welcoming culture include making gender-neutral bathrooms available; including nonbinary choices on company forms; and providing diversity, equity and inclusion sensitivity training for all employees. 

Use of pronouns is particularly important, Fidas said. She advised organizations to educate hiring managers to offer their own pronouns when meeting job candidates and ask candidates the pronouns they prefer using.

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