Why we must make it easier to come out at work

Kate Cooper
Head of Research, Policy and Standards
Institute of Leadership and Management
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The first step towards creating a more inclusive culture is to explain to staff why it’s such a good idea.

We at the Institute are always eager to convey how reassuring it is for people to feel that they can bring their whole selves to work, so that’s one crucial part of the equation.

Another is that organisations will secure an instant advantage if their workforces are as diverse as their customer bases. We know that diversity yields the most creative solutions – whether that’s in terms of how firms are run, or how products and services are developed.

So it’s with no small disappointment that I greeted recent findings from Stonewall indicating that LGBT employees are still struggling to be open about their sexual identities at work.

In joint research with YouGov, the campaign group polled more than 3,200 LGBT workers in the UK, and learned that 35% had hidden their identities at work in the past year to protect themselves from discrimination – a figure Stonewall described as “astonishing”.

That figure rose to 42% for black, Asian and minority-ethnic LGBT workers, and 51% for trans staff.

Blocked ambitions

Almost one in five of the respondents had been targets of negative comments or behaviours from colleagues in the past year.

And almost a quarter of trans respondents said they did not get promotions they were up for, purely because they were trans – compared to 7% of non-trans workers who identified as lesbian, gay or bi.

According to Stonewall chief executive Ruth Hunt, “The fact that more than a third of LGBT staff have hidden their identity at work for fear of discrimination shows that change is still very much needed.”

She notes: “Creating a workplace that accepts everyone isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes good business sense. When staff feel comfortable and happy, they will perform much better than if they’re having to hide who they are.”

I wholeheartedly agree. We should be aspiring to a more tolerant society. We should also be conveying to employees that – from a business standpoint – tolerance is a more streamlined and dynamic choice.

Challenging attitudes

One of the main problems with prejudice is that it often seems to exist in the abstract. But its various constituent parts have concrete, personal effects.

So leaders and managers must stay alert to i) unwelcoming attitudes towards, or ii) disparaging comments about LGBT people – and to challenge those issues head-on as they emerge, rather than avoiding them.

A blanket solution – such as sexual-orientation awareness training for all, for example – will not be enough by itself.

We must also ensure that we’re not tempted into complacency by the notion that the picture will automatically improve over time.

I believe it will improve, simply because young people are more tolerant, and there’s greater recognition not just of non-binary sexual orientation, but gender fluidity, too.

However, it’s not enough to assume that progress will move directly and consistently along an upward curve without our continued hard work and input.

The young LGBT employees of today will be staying in the workforce for longer than staff of previous generations. They will be relying upon our commitment to inclusive values – so we can’t just rely on evolution.

About Kate Cooper

About Kate Cooper

Prior to joining The Institute of Leadership & Management Kate Cooper worked in the university sector. She has appeared on, amongst others, BBC Television, BBC Radio 4 and has a regular column in Dialogue magazine. She is a key note speaker at conferences and provides expert commentary on a range of topics arising from the Institute’s research agenda. 

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