LGBTQ+ employees: Learning from experiences

Challenges that LGBTQ+ employees face, and six ways to help them bring their authentic selves to work

By Peter Bailinson, William Decherd, Diana Ellsworth, and Maital Guttman

What LGBTQ+ employees have to say about their experiences at work. What are the best ways to help them bring their authentic selves to work?

Is your company a welcoming place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+ ) employees? If you are like many other leaders, you might think that it is: your diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives are in place, some employees are out as LGBTQ+, and people seem to respect one another differences.

The US Supreme Court made discrimination against workers based on their gender identity or sexual orientation illegal on June 15; your company has been actively fighting such discrimination for years. As one person we interviewed put it, some leaders at his company seem to have the following perspective: “We’re a really decent place. We don’t have any nightmare people. So we don’t have a problem. Right?”

While diversity and inclusion have climbed corporate agendas over the past decade, many LGBTQ+ employees continue to face discrimination, discomfort, and even danger in the workplace. When it comes to true inclusion, everyday interactions with peers and leaders matter as much as organizational policies or formal processes. In short, your company may not be as inclusive as you think it is.

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What methods did we use to learn how LGBT1+ employees are faring in today’s workplaces?

To learn how LGBTQ+ employees are faring in today’s workplaces, we compiled a broad set of data. Both quantitative and qualitative. First, we surveyed more than 2,000 employees at a variety of organizations worldwide. Respondents ranged from entry-level to CEO and included both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ employees.

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To ensure that LGBTQ+ voices were prominent, we interviewed and conducted focus groups with members of The Alliance, a global network of LGBTQ+ leaders from public-, private-, and social-sector institutions. 3 Finally, we drew on our ongoing Women in the Workplace research, which has shed light on the experiences of LGBTQ+ women.

Our research illuminates the everyday experiences of LGBTQ+ employees, many of whom remain in the closet. In this article, we share what we’ve learned about the challenges these employees face, including firsthand accounts and reflections from LGBTQ+ people about their work lives and environments.

Such voices are essential to any conversation on inclusion. Whether the focus is on ending gender discrimination, racial discrimination, or any other kind of discrimination. Listening and learning about employees’ lived experiences is the first step business leaders must take. That is if they want to create fairer workplaces.

The voices you will hear in this article and the research we have conducted have led us to recommend six key changes to help improve workplaces for LGBTQ+ employees and for employees who have LGBTQ+ family members. Supporting a diverse workforce is easier said than done, we recognize.

Our intent is to inspire integrated action that meets the needs of all employees. Executives who embrace this opportunity can become more effective leaders and boost the empathy, effectiveness, and productivity of their organizations.

LGBTQ+ life at work today

Coming out

Foremost among them is coming out. More than one in four LGBTQ+ respondents are not broadly out at work (Exhibit 1). One interviewee explained that while she had overcome a number of difficulties over the course of her career, 4 one of the biggest challenges she had faced was “coming out in the workplace as genderfluid and nonbinary, because I was one of the first people who had come out as that—certainly in financial services.”

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Exhibit 1

Coming out—and being out—matters! One interviewee described being out as key to forming relationships: “My successful professional relationships are underpinned by really getting to know the people I’m working with. When that’s happening, I want to be open about my identity. Otherwise, it’s hard to deeply relate to people and instill in clients a sense of confidence.” Feeling unable to come out, another interviewee told us, “contributes to lower workplace productivity, because it is stressful and debilitating.”

Often, coming out means more than simply letting people know that one identifies as LGBTQ+. “Coming out is going to the frontier of how authentic and transparent I want to be about who I am. In a way that creates as much freedom and ease at work as is comfortable and possible for me.” Only at his current workplace was he able to come out fully: “Recently, at a senior-executive retreat, I talked about growing up in an evangelical church as a child of immigrants, and then basically being told in college that I was disowned. (My family eventually came around.) I had never come out at work like that.” Still, he added, “Not everyone wants to go all the way to that level. And that’s fine too.”

Our research reveals four complexities of coming out at work:

  • Coming out is especially challenging for junior employees. Only one-third of LGBTQ+ survey respondents below the level of senior manager reported being out with most of their colleagues. 5 As one person explained, “Being authentic once you’ve made it is easier than being authentic when you haven’t.” Yet even among senior leaders, many remain in the closet. Of the LGBTQ+ senior leaders we surveyed, one in five is not broadly out at work.
  • Women are far less likely than men to be out. Only 58 percent of the LGBTQ+ women we surveyed (compared with 80 percent of LGBTQ+ men) said that they are out with most colleagues. One reason: existing gender discrimination. One interviewee reflected that, as a woman, “you always had to be perfect in terms of how you looked and what you did, and your work always had to be better than everybody else’s. So there was almost that thing of, ‘Why add anything else to make it more difficult?’”
  • Coming out is more difficult for people outside Europe and North America. While three-quarters of North American respondents and 78 percent of European respondents were broadly out at work, only 54 percent of respondents from other regions reported being out with most of their colleagues.
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Exhibit 2

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