Why Gay Workers Decide to Stay in the Closet

It’s called eureka.  The “ah-ha” moment when a co-worker reveals that she has been managing through a serious personal, family or health situation.   Unbeknownst to you, she’s also been grappling with the impact of her potentially life-changing decision for quite some time.  Once you’re over the initial shock, you may question why you didn’t know sooner.  But in the end, you just want to support your co-worker.  After all, when it comes to her job (and backing you up in client meetings,) she’s simply awesome.

What if this surprising “situation” was disclosing that she’s gay?


According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, if you work in corporate America this scenario is not highly probable.  Overwhelmingly, gay professionals are still in the closet at work.

Still In The Closet

Research by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) shows that only 7% of LGBT employees 18 to 24 years old are open at work, compared to 32% of 35- to 44-year-olds.

The article explores the complexities of workplace diversity from the varied perspectives of LGBT individuals in finance, banking and the legal professions who decide to stay in the closet.   In short, employers are more supportive than ever, but some workers still worry about negative perceptions amongst peers and management.

Surveys suggest that individuals who conceal their sexuality are less satisfied with their jobs and more likely to leave.  In turn, their departures create a talent issue for employers.

Some cite the fact that it has no bearing on their role within an organization or ability to perform the duties of the job.  Others prefer to keep their professional and private lives distinct.    Fear of potential backlash by others within the organization for their “lifestyle” choices is also mentioned in the article.

Progress in Public Policy

Employee concern about negative perceptions and the potential for workplace discrimination based on sexual preference is a reality.  In fact, in 29 states it is still legal to fire someone for being gay.   But worth acknowledging are the policies and practices being instituted by many forward-leaning businesses to create an environment that’s hospitable to LGBT employees.  On a positive note, the HRC found that 82% of surveyed employers had LGBT resource groups in 2013.  That’s more than double the rate a decade ago.

The government is pushing for change, too.

At the White House Pride reception last month, President Barack Obama expressed his intent to issue an executive order (EO) that would extend employment protections to federal employees on the basis of gender identity – making it illegal for federal agencies to discriminate against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

Following a 2009 EO that extended these same protections to employees on the basis of sexual orientation, the move is significant.

Sign of the Times

In addition to the increasing emphasis on policies that aim to protect the rights of LGBT employees, pop culture may also offer a promising sign of shifts to public sentiment. Time magazine declared a “tipping point” for transgender individuals earlier this year when they featured Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox landed on the cover.  Although there are unique challenges inherent to being gay in a corporate environment, this also deserves mention.  The cover marked the first time in history both mainstream media and federal policy have given such legitimacy to issues facing the LGBT community.

With the increase of LGBT allies and policies that protect employees from discrimination, progress continues.  We’re hopeful that a major eureka in the workplace happens sooner rather than later – the moment when negative stereotypes and the silence of LGBT professionals are a thing of the past for all.

What are your thoughts?  Have you, or someone in your network, dealt with being out at work?  Share your story below on ProDivNet.  We’re listening!

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