Posted: 26 Aug. 2019 05 min. read

Why is it so difficult for LGBTIQ+ Australians to come out in their workplace?

Practical tips for organisations

In 2018, Diversity Council Australia - an independent not-for-profit workforce diversity advisor for businesses across the nation - published in partnership with RMIT, Deloitte, QBE and the Star Observer the Out at Work: From Prejudice to Pride report. The purpose of this report was to identify why it is difficult for LGBTIQ+ Australians to come out in their workplace. “LGBTIQ+” refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/gender diverse, intersex, and queer – the “+” recognises that LGBTIQ doesn’t include a range of other terms that people identify with, or use to describe themselves. 

The report found that on average 32% of LGBTIQ+ employees were out to their colleagues, with lesbians and gay males being more likely to be out at work compared to their trans or gender diverse colleagues. Of the LGBTIQ+ employees who felt comfortable being out at work with their peers, many still choose not to talk openly about their LGBTIQ+ identity or status with clients and customers.

In addition to putting a number on how many LGBTIQ+ employees are out at work, the report provides insights on why LGBTIQ+ employees feel the need to conceal their true selves at work, and what can organisations do to make their workplace a more inclusive space for LGBTIQ+ employees.

This report summary finishes with a personal note from the Deloitte author about their experiences coming out at work.   


Aim

The research aimed to:

  • Challenge common assumptions about coming out at work
  • Better understand why LGBTIQ+ workers share or conceal their sexual orientation, gender identify or intersex variation at work
  • Demonstrate how employers can create safe and inclusive workplace environments so that employees feel comfortable enough to bring their authentic selves to work.


Method

The report draws from multiple data sources in an attempt to identify why LGBTIQ+ employees feel reluctant to come out at work and the strategies organisations may take to support this process. Specifically, the researchers aimed to answer:

  • Why do LGBTIQ+ individuals share or conceal their LGBTIQ+ identity or status at work?
  • What can Australian organisations do to make their workplace a safe and inclusive place for LGBTIQ+ workers to be themselves?
  • The researchers collected data from three key sources:
  • A review of academic and industry research on common LGBTIQ+ coming out stories, the impact of concealing ones sexual preference, and the degree of existing LGBTIQ+ inclusion in workplaces. 
  • An online survey of over 1600 LGBTIQ+ employees to understand the personal insights and experiences of LGBTIQ+ employees to understand the factors that may facilitate or hinder coming out.
  • Think Tanks with over 60 LGBTIQ+ employees from diverse organisations, industries, levels and backgrounds to understand the barriers and enablers in feeling comfortable to be out at work, if they choose.


Findings

The report’s findings suggest that hiding one’s true self in the workplace can be costly to an employee’s own wellbeing and can contribute to a loss of productivity and innovation.

Concealing identity compromises well-being:

  • LGBTIQ+ employees who are not out to everyone at work are two times more likely to feel downhearted as those not out to everyone at work
  • LGBTIQ+ employees who are not out at work are 45% less likely to be satisfied with their job

“Many of my customers are deeply homophobic which makes being out very hard”

Being out at work helps to drive performance for the individual, and the organisation:

  • LGBTIQ+ employees who are out at work are 50% more likely to innovate than those who are not. 
  • LGBTIQ+ employees who are out at work are 28% more likely to provide excellent customer/client service than those who are not.


“’Are you married?’ is always a difficult question. I say, ‘Well I have a partner’, and they’ll say,
‘What’s her name?’ Then I say ‘It’s a he actually’. And then there’s an award silence.”


LGBTIQ+ inclusive culture also drives individual and organisational performance:

  • LGBTIQ+ employees who work in organisations that are highly LGBTIQ+ inclusive are 7 times for likely to recommend their organisation as an employer of choice.
  • LGBTIQ+ employees who work in organisations that are highly LGBTIQ+ inclusive are 47% more likely to work extra hard than employees in non-LGBTIQ+ inclusive organisations.

“By being in a safe environment, you can be the best possible version of yourself”


There is still work to do to support LGBTIQ+ employees at work
.

Despite many Australian organisations publicly supporting and developing inclusive policies to include LGBTIQ+ employees, the report suggests a sizable proportion of LGBTIQ+ employees are still yet to feel comfortable being out in the workplace.
Of the 1600 surveyed:

  • 32% were out to everyone with whom they work with.  
  • 14% that identify with more than one LGBTIQ+ attribute (e.g. transgender and gay, bisexual with an intersex variation) were out to everyone with whom they work with.
  • 22% of transgender/gender diverse workers openly talk about their identity with colleagues, with only 10% doing so with their clients / customers. 

“I’m trans and lesbian. Transphobia is a lot more complex and embedded
 than homophobia. People hide it, but you can tell”.


Implications

The report identifies the role organisations (and their workforce) can play to create and sustain an environment that is inclusive for LGBTIQ+ professionals to bring their authentic selves to work each day. It identifies six common barriers to an inclusive organisation: Invisibility, Diluted diversity, Harassment, Language that excludes, Assumptions, and a Lack of unity. In calling out the barriers, the researchers provide clear and practical solutions for how individuals and organisations and make a difference to enable a culture of inclusion.

  1. Make People Visible (but not too visible).
  • Organisations and leaders can be visible in policies and signs that seek to include LGBTIQ+ employees, such as extending parental leave policies to recognise LGBTIQ+ employees, supporting employee resource groups, and events that mark days of LGBTIQ+ significance.
  • Individuals can be visible by taking a public stance in support of LGBTIQ+ issues, debates or events, and displaying tangible support artefacts like rainbow flags during pride events.

    2. Understand Diversity Of LGBTIQ+ People.
  • Organisations and leaders can extend existing diversity and inclusion processes to look beyond conventional gender diversity. For the LGBTIQ+ community, gender diversity refers to a range of expressions of gender that exist outside the binary of man and woman. 
  • Individuals can educate themselves on all segments of the LGBTIQ+ community, not just those that are familiar to them (gay, lesbian, bisexual), and recognise that there are often more than one attribute per individual that make up this group (e.g. gay and have an intersex variation).

    3. Have The Courage To Call It.
  • Organisations and leaders can play a key role in developing and embedding guidelines about the use of inappropriate and divisive language in the workplace, and can ensure that complaint processes against similar behaviors are monitored and investigated with sensitivity. 
  • Individuals can ensure the workplace is respectful at all times by calling out bad behavior when they see it, have zero tolerance for divisive language amongst their peers, and shut down conversations that are personal in nature (e.g. sexual practices or medical history).

    4. Use Words That Work.
  • Organisations and leaders can review existing people process forms to ensure they are inclusive, and can start promoting a culture of inclusive language – where employees challenge themselves to new ideas about heteronormative (e.g. assuming all males are married to a woman).
  • Individuals can be cognisant of what pronouns their colleagues prefer by asking them in a private and respectful way, and can refer to their colleagues loved ones as “partners” until they’re defined a wife or husband.

    5. Disrupt Assumptions.
  • Organisations and leaders can disrupt assumptions by providing LGBTIQ+ awareness training, and encourage their workforce to get to know their colleagues as individuals beyond their sexual orientation or gender identify.
  • Individuals can take steps to ensure they don’t ‘out’ their peers without their permission regardless of how comfortable they are in a private setting, and ensure casual dialogue is inclusive at all times and does not exclude minority groups.  

    6. Be In It Together.
  • Organisations and leaders can embed strong ally networks where senior leaders act as champions of the LGBTIQ+ community regardless of their own sexuality.
  • Individuals can represent the ally population “on the ground” by being well-informed and committed strong supporters of the LGBTIQ+ community within workspaces, professional events and client/customer engagements. 

“It’s more than just putting your brand in rainbow colours”

Download a copy of the full report at here.

A personal case study of LGBTIQ+ inclusion at work

In today’s socio-political climate where people are feeling more marginalised than ever, it’s becoming increasingly important to encourage a workplace of openness and inclusion. LGBTIQ+ inclusion is still a relatively new element in the Diversity and Inclusion conversation, and coming out will always be a personal decision made by the individual. For many LGBTIQ+ Australians like myself, coming out (the action of revealing ones preferred gender or sexual preference to others) in the workplace can be a challenge.

The marriage equality debate in Australia 2017 was a tumultuous time for the community, with many of us for the first time in our careers finding our personal lives the subject of conversation amongst our colleagues. I recall during this time overhearing a particular conversation pertaining to the debate whilst at work, with the overwhelming opinion of those contributing leaning towards a no vote. My leader was quick to act against such divisive rhetoric by shutting down the situation and removing everyone from the unsettling situation. 

Thankfully during this time in my career, I was already out to my leadership team and colleagues. Working in an environment where being inclusive and respectful of others is championed by the business (e.g. Deloitte’s Out 50 list, Deloitte Wear it Purple Day, Deloitte Asia Pacific CEO Cindy Hook sponsoring the firms LGBTI+ support network, etc.) means that individuals like me feel comfortable to call out divisive behaviour when it shows itself. In my opinion, it is only when LGBTIQ+ employees feel supported by the organisation and their colleagues that they are able to get on with their work and be productive best possible versions of themselves. 

I often think to myself how that experience may have played out if not for the support of my team. What would the outcome have been if I was not out to my peers, or if we operated in an environment without clear direction and guidelines against inappropriate behaviours? What the Out at Work report highlights, amongst many things, is the role we can all play in empowering our colleagues to feel safe enough to bring their authentic selves to work. 

The above case study is authored by Louis Colella

Meet our author

Louis Colella

Louis Colella

Consultant, Workforce Transformation, CHRO

Louis is a consultant within Deloitte’s Human Capital Workforce Transformation practice. Since joining the firm, he has gained experience on large-scale projects within financial services, telecommunications, public and private health, and the energy and resource sector. Louis is an active member of the Melbourne GLOBE (Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Business and Enterprise) SteerCo and has participated in multiple D&I inspired engagements since joining Deloitte. Louis has a passion for shaping the workforce and preparing them for the future to deliver meaningful business results. His key interests lie in talent strategy, learning and development, large-scale transformation, instructional design, the future of learning, and mergers and acquisitions.