Back in the late ’90s, I started off my career with a lie. It seemed easy enough, at the start anyhow. It was a lie of omission about my true self and identity as a bisexual. Given the climate at the time, hiding that aspect of who I was seemed to present the path of least resistance. I took my job at the big corporate consulting company, donning pantyhose and a skirt, and I flirted with the men like all the other young, single women around me.
I thought it would be easy to pass as straight—but it ended up being far more work pretending to be something I was not. Lying about who I was became a habit—one with a heavy tax on my psyche and ability to approach my work authentically and with my full energy. The lie got old.
Then I met Sheryl, and my world turned upside down. We’re married now—but in that time of early dating, it was crushing to hide this part of myself at work. A few people at work knew the details, but most of my managers were in the dark.
When we got engaged, coworkers and clients immediately assumed I was going to marry a man. And the worst part is . . . I let them believe it. I wanted to celebrate my happiness, but it would have come with a cost. I worried about losing my job, obtaining health insurance for my partner, and providing stability for the kids I knew we’d have in our future.
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While outright discrimination was legal, it was also subtle; if the managers at work didn’t like someone, that person wouldn’t be selected for projects and stretch assignments would evaporate. Even more pointedly, I knew as a consultant that I represented our company in the field, so I was worried my bosses might feel like I was a threat to our brand. Whether it was the forest products company I worked at where most of my clients were men, or the client in central California who just assumed I was straight, I always worried about the truth coming out.
I had to watch my pronouns when I talked about my relationship. I didn’t have pictures at my desk. I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with living that lie and feeling trapped. It started to impact my productivity and focus—I was distracted, guarded, exhausted, and I genuinely felt I was failing at giving my all. I felt ashamed.
I turned to one of my close mentors and she told me what I now know to be true. Employees have a ton to offer companies, but they can only do so if they are given the support and freedom to bring their whole selves to work.
So I ripped the band-aid off and came out at work. And you know what? It was not the big deal that I thought it would be. I’ll admit, I was lucky. At a time when others in my shoes were discriminated against subtly or even fired, I found myself in a relatively supportive place. I promised myself right then and there that I would always lead with my true self—even if it meant being ‘out’ when working with a conservative client in Arkansas. Having the freedom to be myself, to not edit my words and waste energy on maintaining a lie, was liberating.
While this has been my story of coming out, fast forward 20 years and today’s employees face similar hurdles. It was only last year that the United States Supreme Court ruled that LGBTQ employees are protected from discrimination in the workplace—and prior to that ruling 18 states had no similar protections. Discrimination is still a reality. In fact, according to Glassdoor, in 2019 nearly half of the LGBTQ employees surveyed believed that being out at work could hurt their career.
June is Pride month, and I’m sure many organizations have taken the opportunity to restate their commitment to supporting the LGBTQ communities, to change their corporate logos in a show of support, and maybe host work events. But that is not enough.
Building a culture of support and trust
Employers must start with education—across the organization but importantly with senior leaders and people managers. This education should include both contextual training (why is this topic important; how this is part of their values) as well as situational training that prepares managers for those times when employees come to them for support. Programs that help build these behaviors in their people managers and leaders will be critical for building awareness, understanding and ultimately empathy in the workplace.
Related: 5 steps to be more inclusive
Today, as a boss and leader, I know that building a culture of trust and support is critical to helping teams accomplish the impossible together. My approach to creating trust starts with honesty, building personal relationships, and celebrating successes and failures from which we all can learn. I deliberately ask my team members to bring their authentic selves to work knowing that diversity in all our experiences makes for better decisions and outcomes. I watch for the warning signs of someone self-editing so that I can ensure all team members feel they can bring 100% of themselves to the table.
Additionally, organizations need to make it both safe and normative to embrace the role that allies play in the organization. Visible allies create a welcoming and safe environment for people like that 23-year-old I was so long ago. At one client I worked for, they had printed Ally signs hung in their office cubicles; leadership had issued a statement committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion that was on the back of the employee badges; and they hosted Ally trainings twice a year. These visible supporters enable in-office dialogue about the importance of creating safe spaces for those that don’t fully understand LGBTQ issues as well as those who feel afraid to live their authentic selves.
Finally, many organizations create Employee Resource Groups (ERG)—but starting up a committee doesn’t go far enough. Organizations need to fund these groups and invest in other ways to enable employees to engage regularly and safely with one another. In one ERG we launched at a previous company, we established trust within the ERG by working together to develop our community vision statement. We built on that momentum by developing and delivering training for ourselves first—focusing on how to talk with managers about our families; dealing with discrimination and microaggressions in the workplace; and emerging topics like transgender needs.
We also developed and delivered training for employees addressing topics such as how to support LGBTQ employees, how to create safety for those coming out, and building skills to demonstrate commitment as an ally. Creating a space for social connections for our ERG was also important so our company provided budget and leadership support for us to host events in our local offices to broaden our reach.
Today, employers see commitment to diversity in all its forms as table stakes—a requirement. Employers truly can’t afford to not show support for the LGBTQ community. But business leaders must do more to examine their work environments and make sure all people can show up authentically in the workplace. After all, it’s only when employees can bring their whole selves to their jobs that they can do their best work.
Susan Anderson is the VP of services for Mineral, the HR and compliance giant formerly known as ThinkHR and Mammoth.