LGBT Identity at Work Still a Challenge
A majority – 51% – of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers continue to hide their identity from most or all co-workers, according to a new report released from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation that examines the real-life experiences of LGBT workers. The report, “Degrees of Equality: A National Study Examining Workplace Climate for LGBT Employees,” found that, despite significant advances in employment policies at major U.S. corporations, a majority of LGBT workers continue to experience a range of negative consequences because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Younger workers are even more likely to hide their LGBT identity – only 5% of LGBT employees ages 18 to 24 say they are totally open at work, compared to more than 20% in older age cohorts.
“Overall attitudes towards LGBT people have come a long way, but we can’t forget that people still struggle at work and that this has a profound impact on LGBT workers’ careers,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “Degrees of Equality helps us bridge the gap between policy and practice to fully understand LGBT workers’ experiences. The more we understand the workplace, the more we can help usher it to a place where all employees can thrive.”
The study examined why workers chose to disclose their LGBT identity or not, how these issues arise in the workplace, the impact they have for businesses and what can be done to improve productivity and retention. In recent years, businesses have engaged in sustained efforts to implement policies aimed at creating safe and productive workplaces for talented LGBT employees. The number of companies that receive top ratings on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation Corporate Equality Index, for example, rose from just 13 in 2002 to 305 in the 2010 report.
Nevertheless, significant numbers of LGBT employees continue to experience a negative workplace climate that affects productivity, retention and professional relationships. At least once in the past year, 42% of LGBT employees report lying about their personal lives, 27% have felt distracted, 21% have job searched and 13% have stayed home from work as a result of working in an environment that is not always accepting of LGBT people.
As reasons for hiding their identities, 39% fear losing connections, 28% fear not being considered for advancement, 17% fear getting fired and more than one in ten (13%) fear for their personal safety. Transgender workers are much more likely than other groups to report fearing for their personal safety – 40% compared to 20% of gay men. And 42% of transgender workers feared getting fired if they revealed their LGBT identity, compare to 22% of gay men.
An employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity are often unavoidable in casual, non-work related conversations. These conversations occur frequently and are an essential component to building productive work relationships. At least once per week, 89% of LGBT employees have conversations about social lives, 80% confront conversations involving spouses, relationships and dating at least once per week and 50% say the topic of sex arises at least once a week. These conversations are the most likely to make LGBT employees feel uncomfortable: fewer than half feel very comfortable talking about any of these topics.
Derogatory comments and jokes still happen at work and are a major indicator that it is unsafe to be open about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity at work. A total of 58% of LGBT workers say someone at work makes a joke or derogatory comment about LGBT people at least once in a while. Similarly, jokes and derogatory comments about other minority groups are equally indicative of a negative climate. About two-thirds (62%) of LGBT employees say negative comments about minority groups are made at least once in a while at work.
Even with inclusive employment policies, significant numbers of employees report negative consequences of an unwelcoming environment for LGBT employees. Moreover, the vast majority of LGBT workers do not report instances when they hear an anti-LGBT remark to HR or management. On average, 67% ignore it or let it go, 9% raise the issue with a supervisor and only 5% go to HR.
“We’ve found that inclusive non-discrimination policies and equal benefits are the essential first step toward cultivating a productive and engaged LGBT employee, but they are not the last step,” said Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Workplace Project. “By understanding how LGBT identity surfaces and unfolds in the workplace, we will be better able to turn policy into practice and address opportunities to improve productivity and retention of LGBT employees.”
The study is the cornerstone of a new project that will provide employers with a climate assessment tool and toolkits for improving their workplaces. The HRC Foundation conducted 14 focus groups to examine current LGBT workplace experiences and identify key elements of workplace climate. Since there is no uniform LGBT experience, the diversity of the working LGBT community was accounted for by conducting focus groups around race, ethnicity and gender, among other sub-groupings. In addition, the HRC Foundation commissioned the largest national survey of LGBT workplace experiences to date, administered to 761 LGBT workers from across the country. Finally, in-depth interviews supplemented the research.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all.