Last spring I spoke on a university career panel for LGBTQ students, who voiced one particular concern over and over: “Should I out myself during the hiring process?”
“This is a tricky question,” Erin Uritus, CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, acknowledges. “On the one hand, our country’s biggest companies are actively recruiting LGBT employees and executives. Fortune 500 companies know that they won’t be able to compete without a diverse workforce. In that case,” she says, “it could be a great benefit to come out pre-offer.”
Yet Fortune 500 companies employ less than 18% of the U.S. workforce, and Uritus notes that it’s still legal for organizations to discriminate against LGBTQ employees and job seekers in 28 states, “so the risk is absolutely there.” Compounding it further, many states that don’t offer explicit protections to LGBTQ workers have passed additional laws countermanding local and municipal ordinances designed to extend them.
Related: What it’s like to come out at work
The case against coming out
As a general rule, any factors that don’t directly impact a candidate’s ability to do the job are supposed to be left out of hiring decisions. Volunteering those details while interviewing for a position needlessly opens you up to potential bias.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act disallows some forms of discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” but they offer only partial cover at best for queer workers. For one thing, these rules apply only at companies with 15 or more employees. For another, the question of whether the prohibition against “sex discrimination” applies to trans and gender-nonconforming people remains a matter of dispute within the very branch of government charged with enforcing it. The Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has declared outright that it doesn’t, countering rulings issued during the Obama Administration by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (the agency established by Title VII) to expand that definition in precisely the opposite direction.
The legal gray area this intra-agency dispute has created doesn’t exactly give LGBTQ employees solid ground to stand on when invoking federal anti-discrimination statutes in court.
The case for coming out
Still, Uritus favors candidates coming out during the hiring process for a simple reason: Why work someplace where your sexuality or gender identity will be a problem? After all, she points out, many “companies are spending a lot of money and time on recruiting, retaining, and promoting a diverse workforce. Coming out in the interview process helps them do this job better and highlights the unique and valuable perspective you’ll bring to the team.” Indeed, employers that aren’t investing in diversity probably won’t be great places for LGBTQ people to work.
What it’s like to be out at work
Not every queer employee may agree, however. Some of the graduate students I spoke with a few months ago were research scientists competing for field-work grants that would take them to some of the most socially conservative parts of the country. For many, advancing their careers meant accepting work opportunities where the expectation of LGBTQ inclusivity simply isn’t on the table, and some considered that a livable compromise.
When Fast Company teamed up with the WNYC Studios podcast Nancy to poll nearly 3,000 LGBTQ workers on their employment experiences, we found many navigating these tradeoffs in idiosyncratic ways. Some queer professionals make career decisions that surprise even themselves (while realizing how unfair it is that they have to make them to begin with). One startup employee recently explained to Fast Company that she’s chosen to stay closeted while working in the South because, as she puts it, “My professional self supersedes my being out at work. It is not a huge part of who I am at work.”
Of course, not everyone even gets an opportunity to weigh these unwelcome compromises; sometimes options are limited, and you just need a job.
How to find a queer-friendly workplace
For LGBTQ employees who do have the wherewithal to choose their employers selectively, though, Uritus suggests making inclusivity a top criteria for deciding where to apply. A good starting point is the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index, which ranks over 600 major employers on their LGBTQ-inclusive policies, from adoption benefits to the charities they give to.
In addition, Uritus says, “I’d encourage job seekers to search ‘inclusion’ on the company’s website pre-interview. There’s a lot you’ll learn there, like does the company have an LGBT ERG [employee resource group]? Do they publish their own non-discrimination policy? Are they engaging with Pride? Do they have a chief diversity officer? These answers will highlight the risk (or benefit) to coming out in the interview process.”
Uritus says that these signals typically aren’t just window-dressing (a common fear among LGBTQ employees, many of whom are familiar with brands’ pandering to them as consumers); in working with such employers, Out & Equal has “found those to be signs of genuine inclusion.”
Finally, Uritus says, there’s no right or wrong way to out yourself to a prospective employer if you choose to do so. “People come out in all kinds of ways in the interview process. We see young people add that they were a leader in their university queer resource center to their resume; we know people casually mention their husband or wife in the interview process; and we’ve heard candidates mention that one of the reasons they are applying with the company is the company’s commitment to LGBT inclusion,” she says.
“If you live in a state where it’s legal to be fired or not hired for being LGBT,” Uritus adds, “I can certainly understand the fear in disclosing, and everyone needs to make their own decision around that security. But if you’re confident that you’re applying at a company that values diversity, your answers here should be a help, not a hindrance.”