DE&I   //   June 20, 2023

Why is coming out at work still so tough?

It took Sophie Friedrich a year to feel comfortable enough to come out about her sexuality at work.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. It was simply because the environment and the culture didn’t make her feel safe enough to do so. Friedrich, who is a payroll service manager at a Rochester-based company, said that she only heard coworkers talk about queer people negatively.

“[They would say things] like ‘oh we had someone who used to work here, he was gay.’ It was his main personality trait to them,” she said. “I finally did say ‘girlfriend’, and it was like people didn’t know how to react. They took it as my friend, because people sometimes use ‘girlfriend’ platonically. The first few times I was trying to come out, it’s not like it wasn’t received well, it just wasn’t received at all,” added Friedrich.

Most of her coworkers are from older generations, that Friedrich fears sometimes fosters bias and stigma around the topic. Stigma that is alien to Gen Z.

She said people would ask questions like, “How is your friend that is living with you?” and she didn’t feel comfortable correcting them because of the inevitable awkwardness that would follow.

She eventually confided that she is gay to a coworker of her own age. That coworker then shared that they had queer friends, which put Friedrich at ease. “As much as a workplace wants to be accepting, there are so many people employed that aren’t,” said Friedrich. “How do you know who you’re dealing with? I didn’t feel like I knew anyone well enough for the first year I was there.”

It begs the question of whether companies are building a safe enough environment for their employees to share who they are.

Employers have come a long way to create comfortable workplaces with their diversity, equity and inclusion strategies, over the past few years. Companies have created pride Employee Resource Groups, openly donated to campaigns that support LGBTQ+ individuals, and worked toward creating an overall culture that allows people to be who they are.

But where are things still not connecting? Why, in 2023, are some employees still not able to be themselves at work? According to a Navigate Wellbeing Solutions survey, 40% of LGBTQ+ employees are still closeted at work, and 26% of these individuals wish they could be out at work. And 75% of LGBTQ employees have experienced daily negative workplace interactions related to their LGBTQ identity.

"As much as a workplace wants to be accepting, there are so many people employed that aren’t. How do you know who you’re dealing with?"
Sophie Friedrich, a payroll service manager.

Friedrich’s girlfriend, Isabella Rodriguez, said the people at her last company also didn’t seem to understand the term girlfriend when she used it. She changed jobs, for various reasons, and ensured her next gig was at a progressive company.

Friedrich’s own company has also made too has made more intentional efforts to be inclusive, like walking in the local pride parade. Because of that, she’s learned that more people at the company are a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s something LGBTQ+ workers at every management level need to navigate. Chris Evans is the CEO of Barefoot, a brand experience agency within the Omnicom Precision Marketing Group. He rose to his position as CEO while being married to a woman and having two kids but ultimately came out as gay while leading the agency in 2021.

"Those moments [of sharing experiences] add up. Example, example, example, and then you feel ‘OK, it’s OK to be me.’”
Chris Evans, CEO of Barefoot.

Out of the first five people he told about coming out, four were his coworkers. He knew he had a safety net there, and was encouraged by feedback from his colleagues, including when a coworker suggested that Evans ultimately announce his plans to marry his new partner, as they would for anyone else. “It’s not lost on me that me coming out when leading the organization has a different dynamic than just starting out,” he admitted.

“In a lot of company cultures, you celebrate when people get married or some big thing happens,” said Evans. “I think the more we can do the same for LGBTQ+ folks, whether it’s marriage or adding a child into their family, the better. These are big moments for folks and just to be included in the normal course goes a long way. Those moments add up. And then you feel ‘OK, it’s OK to be me.’”

He’s kicked off work events with his coming out story and has new workers come up to him, thanking him for it.

“A cisgender straight guy came up to me and said ‘I got a lot out of that’ and I was like ‘what did you take from it?’ said Evans. “He said ‘just that this is a safe place and that we care about people.’ I think it made him feel like our company could be his home for a while.”

Evans believes it’s important for employers to create an environment where people come out when they feel ready, but show encouragement along the way, to signal that it is the sort of environment where that can happen and will be accepted. Barefoot gives those signs by encouraging people who are already out to share their story so it builds a culture of inclusivity and belonging.

That requires companies to be intentional about how they create inclusivity and belonging. Otherwise it can seriously impact company culture, employee retention, and even productivity. According to research from experiential rewards platform Blueboard, LGBTQIA+ employees feel less appreciated and less secure in their roles compared to their cisgender heterosexual counterparts. Their research found that 53% of employed LGBTQ+ individuals say their company lacks a culture of appreciation essential for their success, compared to 42% of employed workers overall. And 64% of employed LGBTQ+ employees say they feel less than 100% secure in their job, compared to 57% of employed workers overall. 

Shireen El Maissi, director of people and talent at Blueboard, said that the data didn’t surprise her because of the ongoing challenges and discrimination that the marginalized community continues to face. 

She says that it’s up to companies to cultivate that culture by providing space for people to share their experiences. It’s about asking people how they want to be seen and show up at work and listening to their answers. 

“Our identities don’t stay at home when we go into work,” said El Maissi. “Any time you can offer appreciation or recognition for people as they are at work as humans and in the jobs they do, it will lead directly to security.”