Coming out at work: a senior leader’s story

02 September 2015 -


Many people fear that coming out at work will damage their career. What can managers do to make it okay to be gay in the workplace?

Neil Bentley, guest contributor

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people enjoy more rights and are increasingly visible, but there’s some way to go before we all feel comfortable being out at work. The experience of many LGBT employees is still far from positive.

The canary in the coal mine is research in the US indicating that 62% of those graduates who have been open about their sexual orientation and gender identity at university go back into the closet when they join the workforce. UK research shows that 49% of LGBT people never come out at work.

Why is this happening? Well, if potential recruits aren't sure that their future employer has created an inclusive environment, that it’s safe to just be themselves, then they’ll assume it’s not okay to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many fear that coming out at work will have negative consequences.

Yet it’s estimated that people are 33% more productive when they feel comfortable bringing their full selves to their role. Further, when you compare a group of out LGBT employees with a cohort that are not out, the latter are 70% more likely to leave their job in the next three years. This is a significant talent management, productivity and cost challenge.

Each person’s experience is unique but they share similar themes: at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), where I was deputy director-general and chief operating officer, I was out to my team but I was a few years in role before I fully came out to CBI members.

And then it was a repeated process.

Someone would clock the ring on my finger, ask about my wife, and I’d brace myself, thinking, ‘here we go again’. I’d explain that I was in a civil partnership with my same-sex partner - now my husband. Then I’d allow them a few moments to process the information. The reaction was wholly positive - once some got over the shock.

In business, senior leaders can feel regulated in what they’re allowed to say, and so can end up saying nothing. This creates an environment in which LGBT employees police their pronouns when talking about their other halves, are afraid to talk about what they did at the weekend, censor and compartmentalise their personal lives, and feel distanced from the very organisation that needs them to feel and behave as part of a team.

Leadership matters here. My advice to organisations thinking about what to do is to keep it simple: just start talking. Don’t think that the starting point is crafting some complex policy framework; say that you run an inclusive workplace and encourage people to talk about it, following the lead from the senior team.

This approach applies to other disclosure issues that people need to come out about: faith, disability, whether they’re carers, mental health issues. It really helps to champion visible role models in your organisation.

This is why the role model LGBT and Ally executive lists that we publish with the Financial Times are so important. As Richard Branson said when he accepted our Ally Lifetime Achievement award: “They demonstrate that companies will allow people to thrive, not in-spite of who you are, but because of it.”

Some sectors get this. Professional services, legal, financial services want to recruit and retain the best talent. Others, such as manufacturing and construction, struggle a little more. But even among these harder-to-reach places, there is a growing willingness to engage.

One of the biggest challenges for business leaders is to build trust in their brands.

Embracing equality in your approach to sales and marketing can help. Consumer research show that younger people are more likely to buy from a brand if they run equality-themed adverts. Some companies, such as Barclays and Coca Cola, have run ads featuring gay couples and families.

This sends a strong message about your brand to employees, potential employees, customers and stakeholders all at once. That's a prize worth going for.

Neil Bentley is CEO of OUTstanding, a business network for LGBT leaders and their allies. OUTstanding and the Financial Times publish the Leading LBGT & Ally Executives lists.