Workplace Atmosphere Keeps Many In The Closet

Jul 3, 2011
Originally published on July 3, 2011 9:55 am

Despite momentum for same-sex marriage in legislatures, the courts and public opinion, there's one place that seems out of step with this shift: the workplace. A recent study finds that about half of gay and lesbian white-collar workers are not "out" when they're in the office.

The change was abrupt for Todd Sears. He says he had nothing but positive experiences after coming out in high school. In college, he was even the openly gay rush chairman at a conservative Southern fraternity. But all that changed two weeks after Sears landed a job on Wall Street.

"My managing director called the guy beside me a faggot," he says. "I basically went back in the closet."

Sears says it was exhausting having to hide part of his identity.

"I immediately put my guard up. I made sure that I had a quote-unquote girlfriend, I made sure I didn't use the 'he' pronoun. I basically watched whatever I said."

Surveys show large numbers of straight people don't think gays and lesbians should talk about their personal lives in the office. But Sears challenges anyone to try that for even a day; it's virtually impossible, he says. What's more, Sears says, success in business is built on personal relationships forged over the water cooler, and this puts those in the "corporate closet" at a disadvantage with colleagues.

"They perceive that something's being hidden," he says, "that the person's not being fully open and honest. And it really does create a barrier."

Barrier To Success

That barrier has consequences for those hiding their sexual orientation, says Karen Sumberg of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think tank based in New York. "They are more likely to feel that they are stalled," she says. "They're more likely to distrust the organization. And they are more likely to feel isolated."

The center's study finds that as a consequence, such workers are less productive and more likely to leave the company.

"The workplace is really the ultimate melting pot," says Sumberg. "I think that change is very slow because you just have such a mix of people coming in. It really depends on leadership."

Sumberg says corporate leaders — largely from older generations — are among the least likely to be "out" or supportive of those who are. What's more, in 29 states it's still legal to fire someone for being openly gay or lesbian.

"It does happen," says Brad Sears — no relation to Todd — who heads the Williams Institute at UCLA. The institute identified 400 recent cases of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and that was just in the public sector.

Changing Office Culture

Sears says much has improved in private business. A big majority of Fortune 1000 companies have their own anti-discrimination rules. But, he says, policy on the books doesn't always translate to a change in culture.

"It's not just about not being fired," he says. "It's about [whether you] can bring your partner or your same-sex spouse to the corporate summer barbecue."

He and others believe the high-profile legal momentum for same-sex marriage will prompt more openness in the workplace.

And what of Todd Sears, who went back in the closet on Wall Street? He left that job and went on to pioneer financial planning for same-sex couples. He recently launched "Out on the Street," a networking group to promote discussion of gay and lesbian issues on Wall Street.

Sumberg also sees another force for change: Generation Y.

"We see they're coming out at a younger age," she says. "They're coming into the workplace having been out for a while. What they expect the workplace to be and how they expect their co-workers to act is going to hold companies to a higher standard."

Sumberg says it's not just employees who have much to gain. Gay- and lesbian-friendly companies will be able to retain top talent and make sure they're comfortable enough to perform at their peak.

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Even though public support for same-sex marriage is growing, for many the workplace can still seem out of step with the times. A recent study finds about half of gay and lesbian white-collar workers are not out while they are in the office. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Todd Sears had nothing but positive experiences after coming out in high school. In college, he was even the openly gay rush chair at a conservative southern fraternity. But all that changed fast two weeks after he landed a job on Wall Street.

TODD SEARS: My managing director called the guy beside me a faggot, and I basically went back in the closet.

LUDDEN: Sears says it was exhausting having to hide part of his identity.

SEARS: I immediately put my guard up. I made sure that I had a, quote-unquote, "girlfriend." I made sure that I didn't use the he pronoun. I basically watched whatever I said.

LUDDEN: Surveys show large numbers of straight people don't think gays and lesbians should talk about their personal lives at the office. But Sears challenges anyone to try that for even a day - virtually impossible, he says. What's more, Sears says success in business is built on personal relationships forged over the water cooler and this puts those in the corporate closet at a disadvantage with colleagues.

SEARS: They perceive that something's being hidden, that the person's not being fully open and honest, and it really does create a barrier.

LUDDEN: A new study finds that barrier has consequences for those hiding their sexual orientation. Karen Sumberg is with the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think-tank based in New York.

KAREN SUMBERG: They are more likely to feel that they are stalled. They are more likely to distrust the organization and they are more likely to feel isolated.

LUDDEN: As the consequence, such workers are less productive and more likely to leave the company.

SUMBERG: The workplace is really the ultimate melting pot. And I think that change is very slow because you just have such a mix of people coming in. It really depends on leadership.

LUDDEN: And Sumberg says corporate leaders, largely from older generations, are among the least likely to be out or supportive of those who are. What's more, in 29 states, it's still legal to fire someone for being openly gay or lesbian.

BRAD SEARS: It does happen.

LUDDEN: That's Brad Sears - no relation to Todd. He heads the Williams Institute at UCLA, which found 400 recent cases on employment discrimination based on sexual orientation - and that was just in the public sector. Sears says much has improved in private business. A big majority of Fortune 1000 companies have their own anti-discrimination rules. But he says policy on the books doesn't always translate to a change in culture.

SEARS: So, it's not just about not being fired, it's about can you bring your partner or your same-sex spouse to the corporate summer barbeque.

LUDDEN: He and others believe the high-profile legal momentum for same-sex marriage will prompt more openness in the workplace. And what of Todd Sears, who went back in the closet on Wall Street? He left that job and went on to pioneer financial planning for same-sex couples. He has recently launched Out on the Street, a networking group to promote discussion of gay and lesbian issues on Wall Street. Karen Sumberg of the Center for Work-Life Policy also sees another force for change: Generation Y.

SUMBERG: We see that they're coming out at a younger age, that they're coming into the workplace having been out for a while. And what they expect the workplace to be and how they expect their co-workers to act is going to hold companies to a higher standard.

LUDDEN: Sumberg says it's not just employees who have much to gain. Gay - and lesbian - friendly companies will be able to retain top talent and make sure they're comfortable enough to perform at their peak. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.