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Two-thirds of gay and lesbian people aren't 'out' at work. Why is this and why does it matter?

This month, I want to focus on gay and lesbian issues in the workplace. A client contacted me recently and shared their disappointment that gay and lesbian people who worked for them were 'out' with their families and friends, but not with their work colleagues. Why would this be when the client is a leading company in diversity?

Another medium-sized client we've just started working with estimates that it must have at least 150 gay and lesbian employees and yet they are not aware of a single one that is 'out' at work.

About 7 percent of the population are gay or lesbian, and research shows that their employment is similarly distributed to that of straight people. This means that the two clients referred to earlier would each have hundreds of gay and lesbian people working for them.

Moreover, our research shows that only around one-third of these people are likely to be 'out' at work. This is because there are lots of barriers to being out at work. Our gay and lesbian focus group participants also tell us that not being out is not good and uncomfortable.

The discomfort is typified by the example of a young gay man who had a boyfriend. He told us in a focus group that when he's asked by colleagues if he has a girlfriend, he either says 'yes' or says that he is single. He told us that it is hard work hiding a part of his life which is integral to his well-being from his colleagues.

This cannot be good for him or for his employer, because he has to put energy into hiding his sexuality and this could be channelled more productively into his work. We have found that he, and many of his gay and lesbian colleagues, choose to closet their gay or lesbian lifestyle because:

  • They fear the possibility of bullying and harassment from their colleagues – remember that many of them have experienced this from an early age in the school playground. A recent Channel 4 Gay Lifestyles survey found that 40 percent of gay and lesbian respondents had experienced discrimination as a result of their sexual orientation. Of these, half said they had experienced discrimination in the workplace, and 60 percent reported that they had experienced discrimination in the street. 62 percent said the discrimination had been verbal and 34 percent said they had suffered both verbal and physical abuse.
  • Promotion for high potential people often requires a spell in a customer or client-facing role. Talented gay and lesbian people tell us that they feel that their employers might be less likely to consider them for these critical career enhancing roles if they knew of their sexuality.
  • Networking and gaining sponsorship is important for those who aspire to senior management positions. In many organisations, the existing senior management cadre offers role models with a lifestyle that reflects family status and often sporting interests. High-potential gay and lesbian people tell us that they feel that this is very different to their lifestyle, and that there are seldom senior gay role models (the potential role models are not 'out'). Consequently, many choose to remain closeted so that they do not put at risk the building of relationships with senior sponsors that are so important for their career advancement.

Our research has found that gay and lesbian employees have a tendency to be more loyal than those from other groups and, of course, they are no less talented. Employers who make gay and lesbian employees feel included and valued and enable them to have the confidence to be 'out' at work are likely to gain performance and retention benefits from talented people in their workforce. IDC has considerable experience of helping clients formulate diversity action plans to achieve this.

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