Supporting a LGBTQ+ employee to ‘come out’ at work

Phillip Schofield’s brave decision to ‘come out’ as a gay man on national TV recently touched the nation. Phillip has built up a strong following of fans over his many years as a TV presenter and overwhelmingly, the public’s reaction was one of support. However, despite the fact it is now 13 years after workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation first became unlawful, many gay employees find that ‘coming out’ at work can be a very difficult thing to do. Stonewall published a 2018 report which found that 35% of LGBTQ+ staff have hidden that they are LGBTQ+ at work, for fear of discrimination. This begs the question: what can employers do to support staff who decide that they wish to ‘come out’ as LGBTQ+ at work?

What is 'coming out' and why may staff want to ‘come out’ at work?

‘Coming out’ is the process of telling people about your sexual orientation. It is not necessarily a one-off event – many LGBTQ+ people will have faced the challenge of ‘coming out’ many times e.g. to their friends and family, and at work. There is no right and wrong way to ‘come out’. Some people are very comfortable talking to people about their sexual orientation; others are less so. The first time someone ‘comes out’ can be particularly tricky and may take a lot of courage, especially if the individual has kept his or her sexuality or gender identity hidden for a long time. You should never put pressure on a worker to ‘come out’; only they can decide when they feel comfortable doing so.

Why is it in an employer’s best interests to be supportive of staff who choose to ‘come out’?

Sometimes, individuals find that the pressure of hiding their true identity is more stressful than being open about it. In severe cases, this added pressure can even lead to performance concerns and mental health issues. Staff perform at their best when they can be themselves and feel comfortable and protected in the workplace. Therefore, it is in an employer’s best interests to be supportive of a worker who wishes to ‘come out’ at work. Good communication between the employee and their manager is key – the employee should be able to take things at their own pace and openly discuss how they intend to break the news to colleagues.

What does the law say?

The Equality Act 2010 bans discrimination and harassment on the grounds of both sexual orientation and gender reassignment. This includes direct and indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation in employment and vocational training. The Act protects individuals during the recruitment process, during their employment, in relation to any disciplinary action/dismissal and beyond the termination of the employment relationship (e.g. discriminatory references). The Act applies to terms and conditions, pay, promotions, transfers, training and dismissal.

This protection means an employer must not only not discriminate itself in its dealings with the worker; it should also take reasonable steps to protect the worker from the discriminatory acts of colleagues, and third parties e.g. customers/service users. Indeed, in some circumstances, an employer can be liable for the actions of its staff, agents and other third parties.

Being an LGBTQ+ supportive employer

Employers who wish to be supportive of LGBTQ+ staff may consider taking some or all of the following steps:

Review workplace policies and procedures to ensure they take account of the needs of LGBTQ+ staff. Do they make it clear that they will suffer no discrimination on the grounds of their LGBTQ+ status?

Train all staff on equality and diversity issues, and in the importance of dignity at work, and make sure this training is repeated at regular intervals

Do not ignore poor workplace culture e.g. discriminatory or offensive ‘banter’ or jokes

Thoroughly investigate any complaints and robustly deal with any discriminatory conduct

Consider introducing an anonymous complaints process

Appoint a named diversity lead and/or diversity champions – individuals who LGBTQ+ staff can approach for help and support should they wish to ‘come out’ at work and/or if they encounter any discriminatory conduct.