In general, conversations around LGBT employment focus on the need for basic nondiscrimination protections: there is no federal law prohibiting the hiring and firing of workers because of their sexual orientation and gender identity and less than half of states have such policies. Even if the protections are implemented, however, the fight for workplace equality will hardly be over. A new report from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation highlights how LGBT workers face numerous obstacles in employment beyond blatant discrimination.
According to the study, 53 percent of LGBT workers nationwide still hide their identities, with 35 percent feeling compelled to lie about their personal lives to maintain the secret. This is true in spite of the fact that 81 percent of non-LGBT respondents feel that their LGBT colleagues “should not have to hide.” It makes more sense in light of the fact that 70 percent of those non-LGBT respondents believe “it is unprofessional” to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.
The survey asked people to share some more detail, and 64 percent of LGBT respondents who hide their identity claimed that the reason they aren’t open is “because it’s nobody’s business.” Respondents who cites this reason were significantly more likely to have reported workplace harassment, anti-LGBT jokes, and other demeaning behavior from their coworkers. Other top reasons included fears of making “people feel uncomfortable,” being stereotyped, or damaging their working relationships. These concerns were not unfounded: 62 percent of LGBT workers report hearing jokes about gay and lesbian people, 43 percent hear jokes about bisexual people, and 40 percent hear jokes about transgender people. When they hear these jokes, 49 percent choose to “just ignore it or let it go.”
The consequences of this chilly climate are not hypothetical. Respondents detailed the different ways their productivity was compromised because they didn’t feel comfortable at work:
- 15 percent stayed home from work.
- 22 percent searched for a different job.
- 30 percent felt distracted at work.
- 9 percent avoided working on a certain project.
- 17 percent avoided working with certain clients or customers.
- 24 percent avoided a social event at work such as lunch, happy hour, or a holiday party.
- 35 percent had to lie about their personal life.
- 20 percent felt exhausted from spending time and energy hiding their sexual orientation.
- 15 percent felt exhausted from spending time and energy hiding their gender identity.
- 30 felt unhappy or depressed at work.
- 27 percent avoided certain people at work.
- 14 percent had to lie about why they were taking off work to care for a partner, child, or other family member.
Previous studies have similarly found that work climate has a significant impact on productivity and mental health. A 2011 study found that employees who can be out and open “flourish at work,” while those who remain closeted “languish or leave.” The effect also extends to their non-LGBT coworkers’ productivity, who benefit in their own cognitive and sensory motor tasks when they’re not left wondering about their colleagues’ identities. Having a welcoming work environment is also just better for businesses’ bottom line: they’ll do better recruiting and keeping talented workers and will save money, attract customers, and improve their public image.
Many stories of workplace discrimination go unheard. As the survey shows, many people do not open up about the mistreatment they experience, and for those who take legal action, settlement deals often prevent them speaking publicly about their cases. Still, many have shared their stories. In 2012, Kylar Broadus shared just such a story with the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, detailing how his coworkers turned on him after they learned he was transgender. Watch it: